Aging Celtics enter season with same mindset: NBA title or bust
Tell the Celtics that they're old, prone to injury and especially vulnerable to the pressures and strains of the compacted 66-game season, and you may be surprised by their answer. They may have nothing to say in response.
"I told our guys enough of the talk," said coach Doc Rivers. "The other teams should be chosen in front of us. Miami went to the Finals last year, and Chicago played them in the Eastern finals. So they should pick those guys in front of us. It doesn't matter, but it's fine by me."
The opinions don't matter because the same kind of talk has been heard before. "I think our guys still feel they can win, and we'll just have to see," said Celtics president Danny Ainge. "It's hard to know when guys are getting older, how much they have left. They've surprised me the last couple of years. I remember two years ago when it wasn't looking very good the second half of the year and they got to Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the road."
In that 2009-10 season they won no more than half of their final 54 games going into the postseason, and then went 12-5 in the Eastern playoffs while upsetting the higher-seeded Cavaliers and Magic. But time has passed. Ray Allen is 36 now, Kevin Garnett is 35 and Paul Pierce is 34.
"I think that we'll know more a month or so into the season," conceded Ainge.
The Celtics era that was launched in 2007 by the trades for Allen and Garnett may be ending in the spring, when the contracts of those two stars will expire and potentially free up cap space for a max free agent to join holdovers Pierce and Rajon Rondo in 2012. The era delivered a championship in 2008, and the Celtics might have won at least one more if not for the knee injury suffered by Garnett the following season.
Last postseason, a debilitating elbow injury to Rondo finished their hopes against Miami, which was the fresher team down the stretch of every tight game. The obvious assumption drawn from that outcome was that the Celtics had run out of time.
Rivers' approach suggests a different point of view. Instead of aiming to pace the team through the difficulties of this lockout season, Rivers is promising to raise his demands. He will be seeking more production from Pierce after watching him shoot a career-best 49.7 percent from the floor and averaging 18.9 points in 80 games last season.
"We want Paul to be more aggressive for sure," he said. "That's on us. I thought we went away from Paul too much, and I didn't think we treated Paul as our best offensive player at times. The ball movement was great, but sometimes the ball movement never touched Paul's hands. So, to me, that's on our staff."
Garnett has averaged fewer than 15 points per game each of the last two seasons -- his worst since he was a 19-year-old rookie in 1995-96 -- but Rivers expects him to be more aggressive as well. That doesn't mean he wants Garnett to necessarily play near the basket.
"I've never gotten into this whole post thing," Rivers said. "If he hasn't done it in 15 years, what makes us think he's going to start being a guy that's going to post 30 times [per game] this year? I want him to score points. To me, a two is a two -- whether it's from the post or the elbow. I'll take either one."
The Celtics appear to be operating on dual agendas: to make the most of this potentially farewell season for the Big Three while also preparing for a rebuild next summer. Those preparations began last February with the surprising trade of Kendrick Perkins, who declined to sign an extension and was moved to Oklahoma City for forward Jeff Green. When they were unable to consummate recent attempts to trade for Chris Paul or David West this offseason, they focused on filling out the roster mainly with one-year contracts that will preserve the cap space to come.
But those attempted deals for Paul and West also showed that the Celtics are trying to win now and aren't willing to sacrifice this season. "We're going to try to put everything into this year," said Rivers. "And if that means at some point we may have to use the cap space for a good young player, we'll do it. But we're going to do everything we can to win."
Although Green will now miss the entire season after undergoing heart surgery, the bench is surprisingly deep with 6-foot-10 Chris Wilcox, 6-8 Brandon Bass, 6-6 Marquis Daniels, 6-3 Keyon Dooling and 6-2 Avery Bradley. Rivers expects to play a rotation of 10 or 11 players to help pursue a high seed during the regular season. "Seeding is important -- for everybody," he said. "Because if the season is going to be as hard as everyone says it is, then the playoffs will be harder because fatigue will be with every team. So if you have home court, it may be the difference.
"I think this season for every team will come down to mental toughness. Young, old, it doesn't matter. Someone's going to go through a stretch where it's going to be so hard, and all they're going to hear from all the media is you've got eight games in 15 days, and somebody's going to take the bait and they're go to get their ass kicked. And then someone [else] is going to be strong enough to say we've got to win all 10 games.
"I told our guys, whenever the [back-to-back-to-back] comes, our thought has to be we're winning all three."