WALTHAM, Mass. — Like it or not, the Celtics are facing a new role as they enter the second round of the NBA postseason: underdog.
This is the Celtics' eighth playoff series in the era of the new Big Three, and it's their first time going in as the lower seed. They've always had the better record, they've always had home court, they've always had momentum on their side. Not this time.
This is a confident bunch of guys, players and coaches alike. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Celtic willing to admit that the opposing team, even if it's the almighty Cleveland Cavaliers, has the upper hand.
But leave it to resident straight-shooter Kendrick Perkins to tell it like it really is.
Are the Celtics really underdogs?
"Yup," Perkins said Thursday at the Celtics' practice facility in Waltham. "You know, [the Cavs] were the best team in the NBA in the regular season, they're the best team in the league. So you know, they're the No. 1 seed and we're the No. 4 seed. We're supposed to be the underdog."
But that sentiment definitely isn't universal. For some, it's a matter of perception versus reality.
"I don't know if we feel like [underdogs]," head coach Doc Rivers said. "I just think everyone else feels like we are. I think that's a better way to word that. But we've been there before. Going into the [2008 NBA Finals], no one picked us. Only people in Boston, for the most part. So we've been there before. I don't think we really care one way or the other. We have to go out and earn it."
This is a Celtics team that's always thrived with the opportunity to silence the critics. In 2007, the C's landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but some still said they weren't deep enough to be a real contender. They went out and won 66 games, shutting up everyone in a hurry.
No one thought they'd beat the Lakers in '08, even though they had the better record and home court. We all know how that turned out.
No one thought they'd be a factor in the playoffs last season without Garnett, but they pushed Orlando's back to the wall in Round 2, nearly pulling it out before the Magic won a dramatic Game 7 at the TD Garden.
And no one thinks the Celtics are a title contender this year. But this team knows how to prove the world wrong.
"Honestly, I think we like it," Perkins said. "I think we like people counting us out, telling us we don't have a chance against them. You know, you can just tell guys are going to be motivated. It's going to be a tough series."
With these two teams, how could it not be?
They played an epic seven-game series two years ago, building to a thrilling Game 7 at the TD Garden in which Paul Pierce outdueled LeBron James and the Celtics moved on. They split four games in the regular season last year. They split four again this year, the last being an Easter Sunday slugfest that provoked LeBron to drop the bomb, "We don't like them, they don't like us," to the media after the game.
The stakes between these two teams have never been higher.
"I think this has turned into something of a rivalry," Pierce said. "We've played them already one time in the playoffs, and it seems like every game we play against them, whether it be at home or on the road, it gets kind of heated. So this is a big series for us. You've got to expect some tempers to flare. A physical series, just two heavyweights going at it."
Both are great teams, but only one can move on. And both teams really, really don't want to go home.
"The competition should be great," Garnett said. "Both teams are very solid. Cleveland's the beast of the East. They're the No. 1 team, we respect that. But both teams have a lot of different weapons. It's going to come down to execution and making shots. It's going to be a really, really good, competitive series."
The Celtics might be the underdogs, but they're ready to play their hearts out. Here goes nothing.