It’s become an NBA tradition as time-honored as questionable draft night fashion choices or coach Gregg Popovich stonewalling sideline interviewers. Every year since that memorable championship season in 2008, the Boston Celtics have swayed and swooned their way through the regular season in relatively unimpressive fashion, and every year injuries or other controversies have seemed to spell the end for this latest era of success in Boston.
In 2009, the offending issue was an injury to superstar Kevin Garnett. The next year, it was the consistently under-performing Rasheed Wallace. Two years ago, it was the departure of Kendrick Perkins and injuries to Shaquille O’Neal. Last year, Boston limped into All-Star Weekend with a sub-.500 record and rumors of a feud between guards Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen seemed to threaten the longevity of the team once again.
Each time though, the Celtics have weathered the storm and excelled. They’ve managed to finish first in their division and win at least one series in the playoffs every year since ‘08. Not bad for a team that assumed when they traded for the aging Garnett and Allen in the summer of 2007 that they were looking at a 3-4 year window to compete for an NBA title. Of course, that window was significantly altered by the incredible development of point guard Rondo, who has taken over the team in recent years to the extent that some (even Celtics GM Danny Ainge) now consider him the team’s best player. Regardless of whether you agree with that sentiment or not, there’s no doubt that the Celtics have come to rely on the 26-year-old Rondo a lot in order to succeed, especially with the remaining members of the original Big 3, Garnett and Pierce, now 36 and 35 years old, respectively.
That’s why the latest blow to the perpetually hard-luck Celtics seemed like potentially the most momentous one yet. The C’s had already been struggling mightily in 2012-2013, barely hanging onto playoff hopes with a 20-23 record, when Rondo tore his ACL in a game against the Miami Heat on Jan. 27. The Celtics managed to gut out the win in double-overtime (with Pierce and Garnett logging 48 and 44 minutes, respectively), but with the news that Rondo would miss the remainder of the season, many “experts” were once again predicting Boston’s demise. I was one of them.
I’ve long disliked Kevin Garnett for his ridiculous antics, and, for me, that dislike towards KG individually has often manifested itself in a desire to see the Celtics as a team fail. For that reason, I’ve been quick to, in past years, bury the Celtics when they show the slightest sign of weakness. Well, they say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. And thus, many NBA commentators, me included, may have a serious case of insanity where this Boston team is concerned. In spite of ourselves, we counted them out again. Unfortunately for us, for a team as stubborn and resilient as the Boston Celtics, being counted out may be exactly what they rely on each year to get them going.
In defiance of critics like me, the Celtics have responded to the Rondo injury with typical poise, just as with other obstacles in previous years. They are, in fact, playing their best basketball of the season. With only two very winnable games (against Charlotte and Chicago) remaining before the All-Star break, the team has captured seven straight victories, including big wins over the aforementioned Heat, as well as the Clippers and Lakers. And excluding the overtimes games during the streak, they’ve won by an impressive average margin of 12 points. Their latest win, a 118-114 triple-overtime squeaker over the Nuggets, may have been the most impressive.
The deep, athletic Nuggets are the second-fastest team in the league. The average age of their starting lineup is 24 years old. The ailing Celtics were on the first leg of a back-to-back and had every reason to give up on that game as it continued to stretch on. But as we all know, that just isn’t the Celtics’ style. Instead, it was veteran Pierce hitting a huge shot to send the game into the third and final overtime and Garnett hitting a pair of clutch jump-shots later on to seal the deal. Pierce (27 points, 14 assists, and 14 rebounds) battled through 54 minutes that night, while Garnett (20 points, 18 rebounds) played 47. That win against the Nuggets typified the spirit of the Garnett-Pierce era in Boston as much as any one game ever has.
If you aren’t a fan of either team, it’s easy to hate the Celtics and their cross-country rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers. After all, the two franchises have accounted for nearly half of all the NBA championships that have ever been won. But personally, I find it just a little easier to hate the Lakers, especially in light of recent events. In the offseason, the Lakers spent tens of millions dollars to bring in famous stars like Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison. And that isn’t a recent phenomenon: spending money to make flashy headlines has been the trend in Los Angeles for some time. Despite that though, the Lakers’ season has been undone by, among other things, clashing egos, bickering, and in-fighting.
Meanwhile, since Garnett arrived in 2008, the Celtics have been defined, of course, by great defense on the court, but also by a blue collar attitude and an inspiring spirit of brotherhood. Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and others have constantly played hurt. They’ve also had each other’s backs in skirmishes both on and off court. And, most importantly, regardless of the circumstances, they have refused to give up on the team or on each other. That type of camaraderie is what inspired Kevin Garnett to say a few days ago to the media in the wake of the Rondo injury, “I bleed green, I die green”, refusing trade rumors even when it looked like his team was headed to the lottery.
For those qualities, even fans that dislike the Celtics should respect them. And they certainly shouldn’t underestimate them. Yes, the Celtics will likely come down to earth at some point. And age and exhaustion may catch up to Garnett and Pierce. But the atmosphere of never-say-die that they have fostered in Boston will no doubt inspire youngsters like Avery Bradley and Jeff Green to pick up the slack when they do.
Even if by some miracle the Celtics do falter, go on a losing streak and fall back out of the playoffs, you can bet it won’t be for lack of trying. No matter how bad it gets, you will never see Pierce or Garnett going through the motions, or praying for the season to end. They will continue to compete until the bitter end. For them, there is no other option. That’s why even a “Celtic hater” has to respect them. And that’s why you and I shouldn’t be quite so eager to count them out, either.