Celtics Should Be In Great Shape for Playoffs
by Trevor Whenham - 04/09/2008
The Boston Celtics clinched the top spot in the East heading into the playoffs last week. Given their recent play, and their play all season for that matter, it was inevitable far before that. They have won eight out of every 10 games they have played, and they have fared about as well against top teams as they have against the weaklings in the league. Given that they have their position sewn up, and that their opponent is likely set as the Hawks, and given that there isn't much else to think about regarding this team at this point, one has to wonder whether this long, anticlimactic wait for the playoffs will adversely affect their focus and preparation. There will be three weeks between the official clinching of first place and the start of the playoffs, so a team that was inclined to could become lethargic and undisciplined in that time. Will the Celtics?
As I see it, there are three different scenarios that Boston could fit into down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs. Here's a look at each one as we head into the team's last week of action:
1. Trip up and under-perform. This one doesn't take too much imagination to figure out. A team could easily start looking ahead to the later rounds of the playoffs, rest its stars and play poorly, and find itself in a rut that it can't dig itself out of in time. The Detroit Red Wings have found themselves falling into the same trap in recent times on the ice. I don't see this one happening to the Celtics, though. The team clinched the top spot on Saturday against Charlotte. In that game they rested Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce was at home for the birth of his child. Given that, and given that they were playing a lousy team on the road in a game that didn't really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, it would have been understandable, and even acceptable, for the team to mail in their effort in the game. They did no such thing. Led by 22 points from Leon Powe and 19 from James Posey - two guys who don't normally start - the team won by 23. That tells me a couple of things - the bench is deeper than it is sometimes given credit for, and more importantly they are just as committed to the team's goals as the big three are. That means that they will step up when given the opportunity, and will keep this team on track. Powe and Posey stepped up again on Tuesday when their team struggled against Milwaukee and needed overtime to get the win.
2. Cruise along as if nothing has changed. If I had to pick what would happen, this would be it. I would suspect that they would play like nothing has changed because they have been playing like this for much of the season. Other than a bit of a blip from the beginning of January to the end of February, the team has been uniformly exceptional. They won 29 of their first 32 games and 21 of their last 24. Even their relative downturn ended up at 12-9, which is a perfectly acceptable 57 percent winning rate. In other words, they have had every opportunity to take their foot off the gas before this point and they haven't, so it seems unreasonable to think that they will now. The success of this team has been driven by the balance of three superstar-caliber players - if one has an off night there is someone else who can step up. That balance has worked beyond reasonable expectations so far, and there is no reason that it won't continue. After all, opponents haven't figured out how to stop it in more than five months, so why would it change now.
3. Step it up to a new level before the playoffs. I'm a huge horse racing fan. When I am handicapping at the track, my very favorite scenario is a double-mover - a horse that makes a big move early on, maintains or settles in, and has a second move to unleash down the stretch. In my mind that is a characteristic of a great horse, and a horse that did it in its last race is ready for a big run. Or that's the theory, anyway. I bring this up because that is exactly what Boston has done. As we talked about in the last point, the team was incredibly hot to start, slowed down notably, and then has been able to step it up to an elite level again now. That's in direct contrast to a team like Portland that had just one big run in them. That tells me what was already obvious - this is a very good team. They already have established the record for the best turnaround by a team from one season to the next. With five more games left they could put that record totally out of reach, and they could go into the playoffs on a course of mass destruction. They are good enough to do that, and their consistency and excellence shows that they are hungry and determined, so it is totally reasonable that this team could play even better down the stretch than they already have. That would be very bad news for their opponents.