The expensive goal of winning an 18th championship is on track for the Celtics. They've absorbed absences by Kendrick Perkins (all season), Delonte West (38 games), Rajon Rondo (11), Shaquille O'Neal (10), Kevin Garnett (9), as well as Jermaine O'Neal (26), who was viewed as Boston's starting center entering the season, to somehow launch into the second half of the season with a 33-10 record that is second only to the Spurs.
"A lot of the credit goes to Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen], who have played in every game and played great," said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. "So hopefully we can hang on for the next few weeks and get everybody back."
Twelve months ago, the elderly Celtics appeared to be in irreversible decline. They were on their way to a hopeless 27-27 finish and were expected to be drummed out in the second round by the top-seeded Cavaliers. Instead, they helped run LeBron James out of Cleveland and came within a fourth quarter of upsetting the champion Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Ainge traces their resolve this season to the postseason success -- and ultimate failure -- they experienced last year.
"When you get that close, it is a motivating factor for guys in the offseason and the next year," he said of their need to make up for Game 7. "Then there was all of the attention that Miami got [after its success in free agency] -- our veteran guys have a lot of pride, and I think that's another small motivation to prove they're not done yet. They still have a lot left in the tank."
Instead of choosing to break up the roster and rebuild around Rondo, Ainge said he faced a straightforward decision to re-sign Allen for two years at $20 million and supplement the Celtics with the signings of the O'Neals and West.
"They played better last year in the Cleveland and Orlando series than they played on our [2008 postseason] run to the NBA championship," said Ainge. "I felt we needed to keep them together and let them have some more cracks at it, regardless of what Doc's choice was going to be."
So Ainge was going to keep the team intact even if coach Doc Rivers hadn't returned? "Obviously, these guys want to play for Doc and we wanted Doc back," he said. "But that was out of our control. So we were going to move forward with this group of guys."
Three seasons ago, Ainge told me of how he -- as a guard for the Celtics -- tried to convince team president Red Auerbach to unload Larry Bird and Kevin McHale during the 1988-89 season. I reminded him of that story while asking him why he had decided to make his old team even older by signing Shaq.
"It's not even close to the same," said Ainge. "I was playing at that time, and no way were we a championship-caliber team in '88 -- not after Larry had had surgery on both Achilles and his back, and Kevin had had a screw put in his foot. They were never the same after that.
"Our guys had injuries," said Ainge of Garnett and Pierce. "But they were playing at a very high level. It's a different world now -- the [financial] rules are different. I happen to know what was being offered for Larry and Kevin at that time, and it was pretty awesome."
Ainge said the Pacers wanted to acquire Bird in 1988 for a package that included Chuck Person, Herb Williams and Steve Stipanovich. Boston also could have moved McHale to the Mavericks for Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins, according to Ainge.
"I'll never forget being at that Christmas party and we discussed them," he said of the offers Auerbach had received for Bird and McHale. "He told us all at that time he wasn't going to trade any of us, that he wanted us to finish our careers as Celtics. And a few months later, they traded me for Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney."
Ainge said he understood Auerbach's logic in moving him for a couple of big men who could fill in for Bird and McHale as they aged.
"But you could get Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins in their early 20s for Kevin McHale on a downward-slide team that was not going to win a championship," said Ainge. "Stipanovich would be hurt and wouldn't play, but Chuck had a good career. Those guys were still young, and instead you were getting two or three more years of Larry, but you were only getting 75-80 percent of Larry. We didn't have a chance to win the championship in '88-89 because Larry wasn't playing -- he was in those ankle casts. I don't think anybody really believed we were a championship team during the 1988-89 season or after that. We were just hanging on."
He laughed and added, "If I'd had those kinds of offers for K.G. or Pierce or Ray last year, I might have done it, too, given the way things were going last season."
Then the Celtics reversed course in the playoffs and almost survived the Game 6 knee injury to Perkins. Ainge believes if Garnett had been as healthy for Game 7, as he is today, the Celtics might have won that championship. "No question," he said. "But there's nothing you can do about it. It is what it is.
"We're leading the Eastern Conference halfway through this year: It's proof that there's something left for us. It's good to have a chance, and I have a lot of respect for the half-dozen teams in the league that have a legitimate chance of winning a championship this year."
Timberwolves forward Kevin Love is averaging a phenomenal 15.6 rebounds per game, which gives him a 2.3-rebound lead over Dwight Howard. No one has produced as many rebounds per game since Dennis Rodman's 16.1 with the Bulls in 1996-97.
"Love is one of the few players I've seen this year that positions himself every time the ball goes up in the air," said Blazers assistant Buck Williams, the No. 13 all-time NBA rebounder with 13,017. "It's really rare. A lot of guys use their athletic ability to rebound, or they position-rebound maybe 60 percent of the time. But he's positioning himself to rebound every time the ball is shot. He's always trying to get rebounds."
Williams has been working with Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge on those techniques. The current Western Conference player of the week, Aldridge has turned himself into an All-Star candidate by thriving in the paint while keeping the injured Blazers in playoff contention. But Love has separated himself by taking rebounding to an old-school level.
"He understands how rebounds are going to go off the rim, and he understands how to get position," said Celtics Hall of Famer Dave Cowens, who rebounded in double-figures for five seasons as a 6-9 center. "He's like a lot of the good position rebounders, guys like Truck Robinson, Swen Nater, Wes Unseld. He has a big rear end and good sized legs, but it's harder now to rebound around the basket because there are so many three-point shots and the rebounds tend to go out further from the rim."
"It's a lost art," said Williams, who has been impressed to see Love turn and release an outlet pass before he's touched ground. "That's something all the very good rebounders in the league can do. Moses [Malone] and Rodman could do it and, yes, I did that. Wes Unseld, he would get up to the board like that and turn in the air and throw it up court before his feet hit the floor."
Ainge has been watching Love for years. "I thought he was a very good rebounder, but it's unfair to say I thought he was this kind of a rebounder," said Ainge. "I've been following him since he played with my nephew in Oregon, all of the way through the high school state championship -- my nephew was the starting point guard on the team, so I followed Kevin very closely.
"I think it's an instinct. You can work on those things, and it's not that he hasn't worked on it and focused on it and learned some techniques, but he has an instinct for rebounding, and you could see it in him as a young child that he was pretty special."
The 2010 draft class has been a disappointment, apart from Wizards point guard John Wall, the topsy-turvy performances of Kings center DeMarcus Cousins and the consistency of surprising second-round pick Landry Fields of the Knicks. But lately, the Pistons have been realizing improvement from former Georgetown big man Greg Monroe, the No. 7 pick who recently produced double-doubles in four consecutive games.
In 11 games as a starter, the 6-foot-11 Monroe is averaging 9.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting 60.6 percent. He was known as a passer in Georgetown's version of the Princeton offense, but he has been willing to take on more of a blue-collar role in Detroit as the Pistons have needed help in the pivot.
"In college, you're the focal point, you're the best player on the team. And then you come in here -- it's a veteran team and you're not going to have to do as much," he said. "So I just try to come in and play my role and make the right plays. Not necessarily try to make every play, but just make the right play right now."
The Pistons have won five of their last seven games to come within a game and a half of the final playoff spot in the East, despite their dreadful 17-28 record overall. They must decide what to do with former All-Star guard Rip Hamilton, who has been benched for all of those games. But they also need to continue developing Monroe, who doesn't view himself as a center even though he is filling that spot.
"I always liked Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, and I watched Karl Malone when I was growing up," he said. "The ball is not in my hands that much, I'm not getting any plays called for me and I understand that. I'm just trying to find ways to produce in any way that I can."