NEW YORK -- How good are the Celtics?
The rest of the league has not been impressed of late, and it was hard to draw conclusions from their sweep of the short-handed Knicks that ended Sunday with a 101-89 win. Boston still lacks intimidating size around the basket, and its bench has been unreliable.
On Sunday one member of the Knicks' rotation called Miami the best team in the conference "by far." There's no need trying to figure out who said it, because it appears to be the majority opinion.
Two weeks ago at the Nike Hoop Summit -- an international teenage All-Star game attended by scouts from every NBA franchise -- an Eastern Conference team executive took an informal poll of rivals about the developing postseason matchups. He said it was almost universally agreed that Boston was the top-three team that every underdog wanted to meet in the first round. "They don't have a big man," explained the executive, "and they aren't playing that well."
The Celtics finished out the regular season 10-11 while enduring inexplicable droughts of offense, despite having traded defensive center Kendrick Perkins at the deadline for scorers Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. They were fortunate to win the first two playoff home games, even though Knicks point guard Chauncey Billups suffered a postseason-ending knee strain at the end of Game 1 and Amar'e Stoudemire's production plummeted following the back spasms he suffered before Game 2. Thereafter, the Knicks were surrounding Carmelo Anthony with a number of players who could not have earned minutes if they were wearing the opposing colors.
Celtics captain Paul Pierce hasn't been satisfied by Boston's interior defense, which dominated the postseason run to the 2008 championship by keeping opponents out of the paint. "You got to send somebody a message sometimes," he said at practice Saturday.
When I asked whether the Celtics have been lacking that presence in the absence of Perkins and injured Shaquille O'Neal, Pierce nodded. "I think we are lacking that," he said. "I'm for real now. 'Melo had 42 [in Game 2] and kept going to the hole and he didn't go to the ground."
The ability to knock down a star like Anthony -- or LeBron James or Dwyane Wade in the round ahead -- is necessary to winning a championship. "That ain't trying to hurt nobody," said Pierce. "It's an unspoken rule."
So the Celtics need Shaq back in the lineup?
"It would be big" said Pierce. "It would be big, definitely." But he had no idea when or if Shaq would return.
Coach Doc Rivers could sense the skepticism in a postgame question about his Celtics on Sunday. "Let's pick all those other teams, we prefer that," he said. "I love our team. We do some things that drive us all nuts, but at the end of the day they have a way to play together, to trust each other, and as a coach that's all you can ask for."
One persistent question was confidently answered in this series as point guard Rajon Rondo reasserted himself. Rivers relied on Rondo like a football coach relies on the quarterback to approach the line, read the defense and get the ball to the open man. In key stretches, the Celtics have run the same one or two sets over and over, liberating him to decide whether the ball should go to Kevin Garnett (team-highs of 26 points and 10 rebounds Sunday), Ray Allen (14 points) or Pierce (13 points on 18 shots). Rondo himself was 8-of-12 from the field for 21 points and 12 assists.
The Celtics looked more vulnerable than they did this time last year, when LeBron's top-seeded Cavaliers were viewed as overwhelming favorites in the second round. But Rondo commanded that series from the opening game, and who's to say he can't have the same impact against LeBron's Heat next week?
One reason Celtics president Danny Ainge felt confident about trading Perkins and gambling on the health of Shaq as well as Jermaine O'Neal (who has looked surprising nimble as the newfound starting center) was the competitiveness of his four stars. Before their season-ending 10-11 slump, the Celtics had gone 8-2 against the Spurs, Bulls, Heat and Lakers.
Now they'll spend the week preparing for the Heat, which -- despite their narrow loss Sunday in Philadelphia -- has been the most consistent contender in the playoffs as well as the final month of the regular season. Since early March they've gone 18-4 with 11 wins against playoff teams, including impressive displays against the Lakers, Spurs and Celtics. Their three stars are blending together, and their bench has improved around point guard Mario Chalmers and energizing center Joel Anthony.
The Celtics benefited from the revival Sunday of sixth man Glen Davis (6-of-8 for 14 points as well as five rebounds), and Green gave them a strong first half. But they need Green to continue to improve at both ends, now that he'll be coming off the bench to defend LeBron. Delonte West and Krstic will also be needed in the next round.
Issues like this are always being raised around the Celtics at this time of year. Before they won the 2008 championship, they looked ineffective in a seven-game win over the young Hawks. Without Kevin Garnett, they barely survived a first-round series against the Bulls, and after a 27-27 finish last year they looked vulnerable entering their initial playoff matchup against Miami. The lesson? Respect the questions that are raised about this team, but acknowledge that they're likely to come up with the answers. The Celtics have earned the benefit of the doubt.