When I first got this assignment, my initial thought was, can Rajon Rondo be reasons 1-9? That's because the word "exciting" doesn't seem to fit the defense-first-and-foremost Boston Celtics. They do have some strong personalities, starting with the head coach and continuing with Kevin Garnett, whose occasional stream-of-consciousness ramblings provide entertainment. Mickael Pietrus fills a reporter's notebook (for those of us who still use one) and Keyon Dooling offers articulate and thoughtful commentaries. But exciting? The Celtics? Well, they may not be exciting but there are at least 10 reasons why their fans can be excited as they head into the 2012 playoffs to meet the Atlanta Hawks.
1. The Big Finish
Remember the old adage, it's not how you start, but how you finish? That describes the 2011-12 Celtics to a tee and is arguably the top reason to be excited about this team. Doc Rivers' midseason decision to put Garnett at center, exhume Avery Bradley and utilize Greg Stiemsma turned the Celtics into a completely different team. Since the All-Star Game, they have been one of the best teams in the NBA. They beat the Miami Heat three times in April, even if the third victory was a case of "My subs are better than yours." Had the reverse happened, had the Celtics started out strong and fizzled (like 2010, for instance), the hope would have been to get out of the first round and provide an entertaining second-round series. Now, there not only is an expectation that the Celtics will beat Atlanta, but that they could give the Bulls a real battle, especially if Derrick Rose is not 100 percent.
2. A Healthy Rajon Rondo (We Think)
The Celtics' sparkplug spent the last 10 days of the regular season recovering from various bumps and bruises. But he is light years ahead of where he finished last season, with one arm dangling to the side as he tried to play against the Heat with a dislocated elbow. A close-to-100 percent Rondo is must-see viewing, especially during the playoffs. As Garnett likes to say, those games have enough "juice" to get Rondo into triple-double mode. He has just completed a remarkable season and Miami broadcaster Tony Fiorentino told me that he put Rondo on his All-NBA ballot as a first-team selection. I wouldn't go that far, but the second team is not out of the question. He's been that good this season. And, of course, he still does something in almost every game which makes you turn to the person next to you and say, "Did he just do that?"
3. Uncertainty in the East
At one point, Doc Rivers could have written three words on the blackboard -- "why not us?" -- and you would have needed a laugh track. Not anymore. For as much as the Celtics have vaulted into the conversation in the East, there's also a newfound sense that the presumptive conference final -- Miami versus Chicago -- no longer seems to be a deadbolt lock. Miami stumbled through the month of April, and we don't know if it was because the players were bored or because they are truly a flawed team after you get past their top three players. A healthy Rose would make the Bulls prohibitive favorites, but he hasn't been healthy all year and doesn't appear to be now. So, yes, the Bulls have issues as well, though they still look to be the team to beat. Remember the last lockout? Strange things happen. The No. 8 Knicks knocked off the No. 1 Heat in the first round and went all the way to the NBA Finals. Those two teams will meet again in the first round, and while the Heat will be favored, New York enters the postseason as The Team No One Wants To Play. And no one, and I mean NO ONE, is talking about the Indiana Pacers, who only finished with the third-best record in the conference.
4. The Last Waltz
I know, I know, we've been talking about this for the last three years. But with Garnett and Ray Allen both entering free agency, and Allen nearly leaving Boston for Memphis in March, we have to assume that this could well be the last go-around for the new Big Three. Of course, both players could re-sign with the Celtics this summer and we will have to write another Last Waltz piece again next year -- for the fourth straight year. But, for now, even Rivers has said that this might be the last time we see all three of them in Celtics uniforms. Garnett has given us a "My Back Pages" second half ("I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.") Paul Pierce has given us another All-NBA type year. The only question mark among them now is the status of Allen, whose troublesome right ankle refuses to heal. But this really, truly could be their last playoff together. Really! Honest! (Or not.)
5. Offense Wins Games But Defense Wins Championships
Is any team playing better defense than the Celtics right now? OK, they've had a little of what Rivers called "slippage" in the past few days. But they haven't had their full team on the floor since, it seems, St. Patrick's Day. Garnett has put himself (again) into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, although it looks like Tyson Chandler will win it. But the fact that KG is being talked about in those terms indicates what he and the Celtics have done over the second half of the season. They have played defense as well they did in 2008 and they have two players in Stiemsma and Bradley who have been key contributors. And don't forget Pietrus. He can defend as well and he'll get the chance if he's healthy. Heading into their last regular-season game, the Celtics ranked No. 1 in defensive field goal percentage, No. 1 in defensive 3-point field goal percentage and No. 2 in points allowed. All great signs -- 2008 numbers, in fact. And almost enough to overlook that only Charlotte and Golden State had worse rebounding differentials.
6. Avery Bradley
Full disclosure here: I wanted Danny Ainge to trade this guy last December because he showed absolutely no sign of being able to play in the NBA. I even lamented that the Celtics took him over Jimmer Fredette (who they could have had in 2011 had they given Jimmer a first-round guarantee.) Now, as Roberto de Vicenzo said after signing an incorrect scorecard to lose the 1968 Masters, "What a stupid I am!" If there is one significant difference in the Celtics this year over last year, it is the emergence of Bradley as an effective, everyday player. He still can't run an offense, but so what? His defense has been stifling and it will be fun to watch him go against Jeff Teague or Joe Johnson. He's absolutely fearless on the defensive end. And to put the proverbial cherry on the sundae, he now has a shot to go along with his defense. Teams will still leave him alone, as they do Rondo, but Bradley now has the ability and the confidence to make them pay. He can make 3-pointers and he's terrific at moving without the ball to get back-door layups. He's played so well that the absence of Allen does not constitute a crisis anymore. He has given Rivers another player and the Celtics another dimension. But where's Johnny Most when you need him? The kid needs a nickname.
7. No Al Horford and Josh Smith's Deer in the Headlights Look
This item, as you can tell, applies only to the Celtics' first-round opponent. But you have to like their chances against the Horford-less Hawks a lot better than if Big Al was healthy. He can be a difference-maker. So now Zaza Pachulia could be paired against Garnett -- and you have to love that matchup at both ends if you're a Celtics fan. But Rivers might put Brandon Bass on Pachulia if for no other reason than to have KG spook the eminently spookable Smith. Smith tends to turn into Ryan Hollins when he sees TD Garden, especially in the playoffs. I know 2008 is five playoffs ago, but Smith still seems to have his, er, moments in Boston. In Atlanta's only appearance in TD Garden this season, Smith squeezed off 19 shots to get 20 points. That qualifies as a good game for him in Boston. The year before he went 0-of-8 from the field in 34 aimless minutes in his only Boston appearance. In the 2008 playoffs, he went 13-of-47 from the field in four horrible games in Boston.
8. Ray Allen, Sixth Man?
If Allen ever sheds that walking boot and puts on his game sneakers, he gives Rivers something he hasn't had in a long time: a reliable, legitimate, productive scorer coming off the bench. Allen came off the bench for four games before his latest ankle flare-up and averaged nearly 32 minutes a game. The Celtics won three of those games, including biggies in Indiana and Miami. He's a weapon with a Capital W if he is back to full strength -- and Rivers has said Allen won't return until he is healthy. That makes total sense. Allen and Pietrus can spread the floor as shooters and Allen can take comfort in that he won't start out the game guarding the other team's top scorer. The only unknown is when Allen will get back. He ended up missing the last nine games of the season and has not played since April 10.
9. The Steamboat!
Implausible as it seemed a few months ago, Stiemsma is now as much a part of the Celtics' rotation and day-to-day planning as Pierce or Rondo. How did this happen? Injuries, to be sure, forced Rivers' hand in this one. It would have been fun to see Chris Wilcox experience the thrill of a playoff game for the first time -- and he had been playing reasonably well before his heart issue. Jermaine O'Neal was hurt and never came back -- shocker! The Steamboat stepped into the breach and has been an important player ever since. He uses up his fouls, a lot of which are utterly bogus calls simply because he's in the vicinity. He has proven to be a reasonably competent team defender and he can block shots. He's No. 2 in the league in blocked shots per 48 minutes. He's also got a decent medium-range shot. How improbable has all this been? Stiemsma was so inconsequential that the NBA didn't even put him in the 2011-12 Register in their section on promising newcomers. Maybe that's because he's 26 and never averaged more than 3.5 points or 11.5 minutes a game in four years at Wisconsin.
10. The E'Twaun Moore Moment?
Before the game against Miami last Tuesday, Rivers was talking about the possibility of getting help from an unlikely source in the playoffs. Hey, it's happened before. Remember Nate Robinson in the great "Shrek and Donkey" game in the 2010 Finals? Or Eddie House in Game 4 of the 2008 Finals? We could even throw Leon Powe in Game 2 of the NBA Finals in 2008, when Phil Jackson famously (or deliberately) mispronounced his name. The list of candidates for such a game in the 2012 playoffs might include Marquis Daniels, Dooling or Sasha Pavlovic but Rivers specifically mentioned Moore in his chat before the Miami game. "E'Twaun, who no one talks about, he's going to play in the playoffs somewhere and help us in a game," Rivers said. We had an ever-so-brief glimpse of what Moore is capable of doing when he had 16 points in 18 minutes in helping the Celtics rally from a 27-point deficit in Orlando to beat the Magic on Jan. 26. At that point in the season, he looked eminently more capable than Bradley. He hasn't played much since, but unless he's on the inactive list, there's always the chance he might do something.