“I love where we are at. I told them after the game, ‘This is exactly where we thought we would be, and we’re going to Miami.’”
Doc Rivers after Game 7
We’ve had more than 24 hours now to settle in and digest the reality that the Boston Celtics hung in there and survived the road to the Eastern Conference Finals. It wasn’t a pretty ride, but they don’t award points based on whom you beat or how you beat them. The fact you get there is the only thing that matters.
And now we are left with another showdown in South Beach. The Celtics are bruised and battered and missing four rotation players. Yet here they are facing a Heat team they’ve been incredibly competitive with over the past couple seasons that will be without Chris Bosh for much, if not all of this series.
Despite this reality, literally no one outside the greater New England area gives Boston a legitimate chance to win this series. I’ve seen the countless predictions and as I’ve looked through them all, I can’t help but reflect on a few key pieces of information.
Let’s start with the series last year. I know, last year is last year and both teams are different but hear me out. Outside of The Big Four, (and Delonte West) the Celtics got nothing out of their supporting cast against Miami last year. Literally nothing. Jeff Green was struggling to get his training wheels off, Glen Davis was mirred in a deep funk, Jermaine O’Neal was well Jermaine O’Neal (and also was playing with a broken wrist), and Nenad Krstic was glued to the bench for the first four games.
Despite all of this, the Celtics were still on the verge of tying this series at 2-2 in 2011, despite having a point guard playing with one arm, and despite the fact the C’s were playing with a small lineup for one the first times all season in the crunch time on Game 4, because Davis and Green couldn’t be trusted out there.
Oh yes, the elbow injury though. Remember that?
Listen, let’s be real here. Despite this gruesome injury last year’s team wasn’t going anywhere. After the Perkins deal, and the numerous buyout signings late in the season, the Celtics were a shell of themselves, limping to the finish line down the stretch before sweeping an overmatched Knicks team in the first round.
Glen Davis fell off the map, Rajon Rondo was moping and hurt and the Celtics had lost their interior presence and enforcer in Perk. Despite that trainwreck, the C’s still gave the Heat a pretty competitive five-game series, that almost certainly would have gone longer had Rondo been at full strength.
That’s enough about last year though. Rondo doesn’t want to hear it.
“Last year is in the past. This year we are a totally different team. We feel we can beat Miami. Obviously we got to this point. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can, so we got to go down there and take care of business.”
And you know what? He’s absolutely right. This isn’t last year. Last year they were a mess. Now? Despite all of the injuries, they’re still collectively better than the group that lost to Miami last year.
Now, the C’s have guys they can count on in supporting roles. They have a wingman in Mickael Pietrus who can match up with either LeBron James or Dwayne Wade. They have a power forward in Brandon Bass capable of big scoring nights when the bright lights are on. They have a gritty bench who have responded to the challenge when Doc has called upon them to this postseason (see Game 2: Atlanta). The team collectively has the experience of playing with a small lineup for much of the postseason, instead of just being thrust into it in the heat of the moment.
Perhaps most importantly, the Celtics have guys they can trust. This unit (save for Ryan Hollins) has been together through thick and thin this season. They know each other, they’ll fight for each other and play for each other. They don’t make it easy or pretty necessarily but when push comes to shove, they have found a way to get it done when it counts.
You also have a Big Three along with their captain Rondo who have great continuity and are hungrier than ever right now. They know the proverbial clock is ticking and realize they won’t see another year in the Eastern Conference anytime soon in all likelihood where they will be able to avoid having to get through Chicago and Miami on their way to an NBA Finals. This is house money for them, and they won’t take it for granted. Playing against a team that won’t have a guy that averaged a double-double against the C’s last year in Bosh.
The biggest point though is this year the Celtics know who they are. The “cool” Celtics have left the building, and instead this one has been built on grit.
“This season, with a lot of injuries, people counted us out. Doc just came into the locker room one day and said that we just have to be a grind team,” Brandon Bass said after Game 7 Saturday. “We might not blow teams out, teams might go on big runs but he just wants us to have resolve as a team and fight. That is what we’ve been able to do.”
This team has been grinding it out for three-plus months now and it’s got them ready for their ultimate test.
“It is what it is. We’re up for the challenge,” Paul Pierce acknowledged. “We know how tough it is to win in this league, especially in the playoffs. We know how hard it is to win a championship. So we expect this to be tough.”
Kevin Garnett has appeared to be watching some highlights of Bill Belichick press conferences as well.
“It’s what it is, man. (The Heat are) playing well right now,” Garnett explained. “They beat a very tough Indiana team. I think LeBron and Wade are playing at high levels right now. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves, so it should be an interesting series.”
I agree Kevin, even if the rest of the basketball world doesn’t.
“This is the cream of the cream,” Garnett continued. “This is what it’s all about, conference finals. We definitely don’t like the way we left last year, so we’ll see what happens, man. We’ll see what happens. Let’s get it on.”
Back in the underdog role this team relishes it, I expect nothing less than a seven-game series and an ending that may shock almost everyone who watches it.