Honestly? I never expected this. I predicted the Cavaliers would eliminate Boston, 4-1, before the post-season started, and I repeated that prediction before the second round.
I can take some solace in the fact that few people expected it. As you surely know by heart, all 10 of ESPN’s experts picked the Cavaliers over the Celtics, and, even after Boston dismantled the Cavs, eight of those 10 experts picked Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That made some Boston fans mad. Not me. I had watched the Celtics play 82 games in the regular season, and I believe the regular season has a lot to tell us about the quality of a team.
There were those who said all along that the Celtics would be a different team in the post-season. They mentioned, on almost a daily basis, the 1969 Celtics team that squeaked into the playoffs as the 4th (and, at that time, last) seed in the Eastern Conference before winning the final title of the Russell era.
And I dismissed those arguments every time. In a mid-February roundtable discussion at Red’s Army about the C’s struggles, I was the writer who said over and over that the most likely reason for Boston’s funk was that the team just wasn’t that good anymore. I pointed out all the differences between the 1969 Celtics (and the 1969 NBA) and the current team (and the current league). In Mid-March, I asked whether it was time to scale back our hopes for this team—and almost every commenter agreed that it was. Seriously—go back and read the comments on that post. We were, with very few exceptions (hello, DRJ1), a beaten fan base.
And we were all wrong.
I am still processing what has happened over the last two weeks or so. I am still going over in my head what, if anything, this Celtics run means for the NBA and its fans. Was the regular season just an exercise in getting into shape (hi, Sheed) and staying healthy? Is the only difference between the May 2010 Celtics and the February 2010 Celtics the fact that May version is trying harder?
Were you a total sucker if you bought a ticket to a regular-season Celtics game this year?
The easy answer is that, yes, you were, and that, no, the regular season doesn’t mean anything. Or that if there was any value in its 82-game length, it was that, by pure coincidence for these Boston Celtics, the November through April slog was long enough for Kevin Garnett to find his base again and for Rasheed Wallace to work off the rolls of fat that hung over his waistline in the fall; for Glen Davis to rediscover his game after punching his friend in the head and breaking his hand before the season started; and for Paul Pierce to get injured, recover, get injured again, and recover again in time for the playoffs and a monstrous Game 6 performance last night. (Seriously: What do all the Celtics fans who hate Pierce have to say today?)
That stuff alone does not give the regular season value. Those are coincidences of timing that happened to benefit Boston.
As a fan of the game, you hope there is deeper value to the journey, and it is easy to imagine where that value may lie. Perhaps the veterans on this team needed to hear those boos in February and March to realize how much they cared about their legacy. Maybe it took losing to the Nets for the proud old guard to realize this had to be Rajon Rondo’s team.
And maybe Rajon Rondo needed to play a full season as the team’s best player in order to be ready to be the team’s best player in May and June. Doc Rivers needed time to figure out his rotation, Tony Allen needed time to rebuild his confidence and Ray Allen needed time to work the early-season kinks out of his shot. (Remember when we were all worried about Ray Allen’s shot?)
Or maybe the team discovered how good it could be when it opened the season 23-5 and decided right then and there to coast the rest of the way. After all, Rajon Rondo’s playoff usage rate is down from last season and barely up from what it was during the ’08 playoffs. In other words, this team isn’t that much different, both in terms of numbers and style, than it was from almost the moment KG and Ray Allen got to Boston.
So which is it: Did the Celtics need an 82-game journey to find themselves? Or is this run that seemed so improbable just two weeks ago the product of effort and nothing more?
I know what most casual fans think. They think the regular season is an overlong farce, that there is no reason to watch the NBA (unless you love it) until the playoffs start.
I desperately want those people to be wrong.
Either way, though, I know this: The 2010 Boston Celtics are going to the NBA Finals. Be cynical about if it you want. Just don’t try and pretend you saw this coming.
Unless you did.