Wednesday November 7th, 2007

Last summer a friend of mine did what he annually does: He went to Las Vegas and put $200 on the Celtics to reach the NBA Finals. That bet looks more promising now that they've teamed Paul Pierce with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, because the Celtics today are 5-2 favorites to win the East.

But my guy still has his ticket, and if the Celtics are playing in mid-June, he'll win $7,000 on his 35-1 longshot. That's how much things have changed.

The team's opener here last Friday against the Washington Wizards felt like the early minutes of a Game 7. The Celtics could not have done anything more to awaken their fans after years of dormancy. They invited members of the Red Sox wearing green Celtics shirts to each hold up the World Series trophy from center court. They next unveiled the signature of their godfather painted onto the court that will hereby be known as the "Red Auerbach parquet.'' Pierce then addressed the fans as if being interviewed by Barbara Walters; I swear he almost broke up as he reminded them of all the hard times before declaring, "It's time to turn those times around.'' This was followed by an introductory video climaxed by Garnett staring into the camera and screaming.

When the lights came on, the ceiling was layered with smoke, which in a Greek tragedy would have been credited to the sweet perfume of Red's heavenly cigar. The hoarse-throated frenzy recalled the do-or-die appointments the Celtics used to keep with the 76ers two or four decades ago.

The most stunning reversal is that the Celtics have limited the Wizards and Raptors -- two of the league's most prolific scorers -- to 35.9 percent shooting from the field, ranking Boston No. 1 in defense. Of course, it's only two games (the Celtics were to face Denver on Wednesday), but in years past this would have been a stunner two possessions into the season. Part of it has to do with coach Doc Rivers entrusting that side of the floor to new assistant Tom Thibodeau, who is defense cum laude from the Jeff Van Gundy school. But the main influence is Garnett, who has cultishly won over everybody.

"I'm focusing on my defense now,'' Pierce said. "Maybe I can make the All-Defensive team. That's always been my goal.''

It has?

"I think before people were like, 'He's a good scorer, he can do things offensively,' and I put all my energy into that just to help us win games,'' Pierce said. "But other parts of my game got overlooked. So now I think with these guys taking the [offensive] pressure off me, I can focus in on defense a little more, I can focus in on rebounding and doing all the little things to help this ball club instead of putting all this pressure on myself that I have to score just to be in the game.''

The strong start comes as no surprise because Pierce, Garnett and Allen had been practicing with their Celtics teammates each morning since early September. While other teams tend to ease into the regular season, mindful of saving themselves for April and May, the Celtics couldn't wait to start playing.

But when the honeymoon expires and they must thrive together in a state of exhaustion, three defining issues will emerge:

• Can these Celtics reinvent themselves?

Pierce was trying to answer that question by vowing to defend. Their critics have discounted Pierce and Allen as scorers who haven't won, and Garnett as an elite talent who hasn't dominated in the crunch. The obvious response is that none of the three has ever played with the right mix of talent to reach the NBA Finals. Now together they can seize control of their identities, and brand themselves as winners.

But when they approach midseason or beyond, when the team is injured and tired and cranky, that's when the test will come. In those situations, each star is accustomed to doing it by himself. Now each will have to react to pressure in a new way, by leaning on each other and creating opportunities for the others. It's not as easy as Tim Duncan makes it look.

In one sense, Garnett will have the simplest transition because he is innately a creator, while Pierce and Allen are bloodthirsty finishers. But the burden is greater on KG to be sensitive to the needs of his teammates. At a gala dinner Monday to honor the team on behalf of the Boston Celtics Shamrock Foundation, a charity that provides services to children in need, former Celtic Bill Walton spoke to the $1,000-per-seat audience about how Garnett was a special talent capable of elevating the franchise to its championship past. As Walton went on and on, as he tends to do, KG could be seen shaking his head and muttering to Pierce and Allen to the effect that he knows this isn't just about him. Garnett knows that jealousy and envy tore Shaq apart from Kobe, and so he's doing all he can to learn from the Lakers' mistake.

The last thing Garnett wants is to accept credit at the expense of his fellow All-Stars. I'm guessing that his scoring will go down slightly this season as he attempts to build up his teammates, especially Pierce.

• Will the role players play their roles?

This question will be unanswerable until the fourth quarter of a playoff game, when the ball is in the hands of second-year point guard Rajon Rondo and the crucial decision is his to make. Will he have developed leadership skills over the course of the regular season that will enable him to shout orders to Garnett, Pierce and Allen? Will center Kendrick Perkins develop a niche in KG's shadow?

James Posey will be a versatile sixth man at both ends, and Eddie House is looking like his old microwaveable self. By February, the complementary needs of this team will be obvious, and director of basketball operations Danny Ainge has no fear of making a trade at the deadline.

• Are they too old?

No team has ever won the NBA championship with three leading scorers on the wrong side of 30. My original thought was that the Celtics would use this season to coalesce and decide what they need next summer to fill out their team, but the birth dates of their stars -- Pierce is 30, Garnett is 31 and Allen is 32 -- suggests that they need to enter the spring with a now-or-never approach.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.