If any of the following fail to perform, they run the risk of being torn to pieces by the soon-to-be merciless 24-hour hype machine.
1. Lebron James – Has there ever been a harsher NBA spotlight than the one that will be beaming down on James? Having been ousted from the playoffs twice by the Celtics, humiliated by his curious disinterest in last year’s Eastern Conference semi-finals, carrying the weight of The Decision, the preposterous unveiling of the Miami three, the proclamations about multiple championships… short of averaging 30-20-10 for the series, is there anything he can do to meet expectations?
Nothing short of a series victory will be considered palatable, and that respite will last only as long as it takes for the Conference finals discussion to ramp up. And should the Celtics win this series, any reasonable discussions of why will surely be the signal lost in the deafening noise of anti-Lebron hate. James would need an almost superhuman ego to withstand that kind of criticism.
Which is the silver lining, I guess.
2. Chris Bosh – Pity the former CB4. If he’s not traded before his contract expires, Bosh may spend the next five years trying to prove he belongs at the big kids table with James and Dwayne Wade. Bosh has spent the season being unfairly mocked for his candor but he’s less reducible than either James or Wade to Miami’s title hopes. Imagine the Heat without Bosh. The Celtics kill that team. But a Bosh-Wade combo or a Bosh-James combo stands at least a fighting chance. Still, the story likely to play out will be, if not Bosh’s fitness to be seen in the company of his elite teammates, his relative softness compared to Kevin Garnett. Whatever that means.
3. Rajon Rondo – This won’t be a popular view around these parts, but I think this entire playoff season is a referendum on whether Rondo can be the best player on a championship team. Remember a couple of years ago, when Doc Rivers assessed Rondo by noting that he could still be left uncovered down the stretch of big games and that doesn’t happen to elite players? Has anything changed? Or do we still fear what will happen if James switches onto him and plays centerfield and Rondo proves ineffective in those situations? After a regular season that started brilliantly and then mirrored his previous up-and-down campaigns, Rondo needs to be an every game superstar this spring. He can miss shots, like Derrick Rose (check Rose’s unimpressive first round shooting percentages) but he can’t float. Rondo needs to put his imprint on this series.
4. Jeff Green – What can we possibly say about Green that hasn’t already been said? It feels like he’s at a tipping point, where he could lay down, in ink, the narrative that will be used to define him the next few years. He could be the legitimate starter who was simply miscast in Oklahoma City as a 3/4, and then performed strongly on the big stage once he’d assimilated in Boston. Or he could cost himself millions on the free agent market and brand himself an indifferent bench piece.
One thing’s for sure: there are no more excuses. He’s had two full months to get comfortable coming off the bench and to learn the playbook. As Kevin Costner noted in the underrated golf opus Tin Cup, “you define the moment or the moment defines you.” Grab your 9-iron, Jeff.
5. Erik Spoelstra – Apparently, Doc Rivers completely outcoached Mike D’Antoni in round one. We know this because he drew up a couple of plays out of timeouts, one of which was a rather obvious Garnett post-up and the other a risky alley-oop. As far as perception goes, it’s almost impossible to get the best of Doc right now. That’s problematic for Spoelstra because while the early-season calls for his head have faded, a few ugly late-game possessions and/or a couple of early-series Miami losses could get the natives restless. As though Pat Riley could make the likes of Mike Bibby more effective.
6. The Referees – I sort of hate this topic because of the incoherent conspiracies surrounding it, but this series is a license for the NBA to print money. So, we’ll just have to deal with the talk about the referees doing what they have to do to extend it. What I hope we don’t have to deal with is a lot of talk about star calls, because those are demonstrably real. CH’s own Brian Robb covered a presentation on referee bias at the 2010 Sloan conference. Excerpting from that:
The study compared how likely officials were to call loose ball fouls on stars compared to non-star NBA players they were contesting in loose ball foul situations. The results were found over a three-year study in which 1.5 million plays were examined in 3,500 plus games. “Star” criteria was based on players’ MVP votes. The results:
Right down the line, zebras. Don’t make yourselves the story.
7. The Benches – Both teams’ benches have been terrible this year, right up through the end of the first round. You thought Jeff Green (4.08 PER) and Delonte West (3.52) were bad? Check out Bibby, whose -1.29 playoff PER is the worst in the entire league.
Both bench mobs are under pressure not to sabotage their elite starter brethren. Will either come through?
All in all, it makes for a compelling case of who will suck less.
8. Danny Ainge – Fan talk of firing Ainge for the Green trade is ridiculous. You want a GM that makes bold moves and Ainge has a title under his belt and four consecutive years of contention as a result of his biggest one. Still, gunslinger Danny (he actually called himself that on WEEI a couple weeks ago) took a huge risk remaking this Boston roster. If the big four lose this series, the trade as scapegoat becomes a moot topic. But if the big four play well and the Celtics lose as a result of poor performance from the center position, or a vanishing act from Green, Ainge will be in for a wearying offseason of second guessing.
We’ll make sure of it.
9. The O’Neals – Jermaine and Shaquille both lost weight through the middle of the season to reduce stress on their balky legs. Isn’t that more maddening than encouraging? Why didn’t they lose that weight last summer? Why weren’t they ready from game one?
To be fair – Shaq was stellar while he was healthy and J.O. had a good first round series against New York. But the ghost of Kendrick Perkins will not be banished from the TD Garden unless the Celtics get three more rounds of capable play out of their centers.
10. Pat Riley – Riley’s NBA2K11 team-building methodology will be under the microscope over the next three rounds. The margin of error is thinner than it appears. Riley needs his big three to play long minutes and strong minutes. He needs Wade to get up every time he crashes to the floor. He needs the Mikes (Bibby and Miller) to hit some big shots. And he needs some semblance of competence from Joel Anthony and co. on the front line.
Honorable Mention – Allen, Pierce & Garnett. One title answers major questions about your career. But one title carries with it questions about luck, and fluke. Two titles come with no such caveats.