WALTHAM, Mass. -- Underdogs?
Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers seemed amused by the suggestion when asked how his seventh-seeded squad views an under-the-radar role as it preps for a first-round matchup with the second-seeded New York Knicks.
"I don't feel any different," Rivers said. "We don't call ourselves the underdog. You guys call us the underdog. We don't feel any different."
Beset by injuries and inconsistent play, the Celtics have staggered their way through a regular season that will see them finish just slightly above .500. (Boston is 41-39 heading into Wednesday's finale in Toronto; Tuesday's home game against Indiana was canceled.)
Rivers is the first to admit this is a team that cannot rely on past success, especially since -- of the players available this postseason -- only Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were part of the 2008 title team. In fact, only a handful of others were with the team during last year's run to the cusp of the NBA Finals.
But underdogs? That suggests Boston is some sort of David to New York's Goliath, that the Celtics have little or no chance to win this fight. And despite all their woes this season, there's not a single player in the Celtics locker room that doesn't believe they should win this series.
"We didn't finish up particularly well and I believe us being healthy is a key factor," said Jason Terry, a former NBA champ who has indulged in some rare late-season rest with the goal of being in top form for the playoffs. "Us going into New York, a place where we've won one time this year, we're confident but we're not overconfident. We must go out and execute the game plan. I'm looking forward to seeing what the game plan is, so we can go into the film room and study up."
Don't misinterpret: The Celtics showered the Knicks with praise before Monday's off-day practice session. They acknowledged that Carmelo Anthony deserves MVP consideration; that J.R. Smith is the league's most impactful bench player; that New York is a lethal 3-point shooting team; that Mike Woodson has done a remarkable job managing all his veterans and their injuries, leading the Knicks to the Atlantic Division title and ending Boston's five-year reign atop the division.
But a defiant Rivers has made it a point to stress that regular-season play will have little bearing on how his team's postseason plays out. The Celtics decided nearly a month ago to prioritize health over seeding, resting Garnett and his inflamed left ankle for two weeks while content to simply avoid dropping to the eighth seed and a first-round matchup with the Miami Heat.
Rivers said it's no slight that the Celtics wanted the Knicks over the Heat. "It's smart not to play the No. 1 team in the NBA in the first round," he noted.
The Celtics knew they were going to be facing a good team out of the gates regardless of where they landed, but they truly believe they can hang with anyone in the East.
Rivers pointed out that the Celtics could have been considered underdogs last season. Despite being the 4-seed, Boston opened on the road against the fifth-seeded Hawks. Philadelphia's upset of Chicago in the first round helped give the Celtics a surprising home-court advantage in the conference semifinals before they took Miami to seven games in the East finals.
"For us, we just keep rolling and show up," Rivers said.
So go ahead and label the Celtics the underdogs if you'd like. It won't ease any of the sting if the team experiences the sort of early playoff exit that underdogs typically endure. No, their seeding has done little to change their expectations.
"You can be the underdog in any position," Jeff Green said. "The objective still is to win. I think that's all we care about. We don't care what people think about how we're going to come out or how many games they have us losing. We know what we've got to do and we know we can beat this team. And we believe we have a great opportunity to win a championship."
Championship!? You rarely hear that from an honest-to-goodness underdog. Just don't expect too much bulletin board-caliber chatter from these Celtics. Even after labeling the Magic as "terrible" before Saturday's meeting in Orlando, Terry wasn't about to say anything too inflammatory (or something that might out an undercover underdog).
"I think I'm already up on their [bulletin] board plenty," Terry joked. "I'm going to stay quiet and hopefully my play will do the talking this year in the playoffs."