At this time last year, the Celtics probably thought they were on top of the basketball world. With good reason, too — they started the season strong, they cruised into Orlando on Christmas Day and they earned a showcase win to improve to 23-5 on the year.
They should probably feel pretty confident now, too — they started the 2010-11 season strong, they won 14 straight going into Orlando on Saturday, and despite a shocking fourth-quarter collapse for a loss, they still sit at that same sparkling record of 23-5.
True, this year brought more of a blue Christmas than last. Instead of celebrating a big victory, the C's are now licking their wounds after surrendering a 15-1 run to blow a pivotal game. So naturally, this will be a holiday season of pessimism in Boston.
The Celtics might be 14-1 in their last 15 games, but the seed has still been planted for a post-holiday downturn for the conference-leading C's. We all remember last year, when the C's followed up St. Nicholas' visit with a three-game losing streak against the Clippers, Warriors and Suns, and after this year's Christmas loss, there are plenty of reasons to suspect the worst again.
Last year's C's started the season 23-5 and finished it 27-27. For more than half the season, they were literally, exactly a .500 team.
This year's team will be better.
No matter how worrisome Saturday afternoon in Orlando might have been, there is no way the Celtics are settling for a mediocre winter and a 50-win season again in 2011. The reasons are endless, but it ultimately boils down to these three:
These Celtics have had their share of injuries, but they're still better off than last year's team. As long as their veteran Big Three remains healthy, they look relatively bulletproof. It's been a backward season — all the Celtics' young guys are banged up, and the only three C's to play all 28 games have been Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Those are exactly the three guys you want. If the team's leaders are healthy, all else is secondary. A healthy, explosive Big Three has helped the team compete with everyone, from the young, athletic teams to the ones with the savvy vets.
This team is better prepared for any adversity that comes their way. They've replaced Eddie House with a skilled guard duo of Nate Robinson and Delonte West. They've ditched Rasheed Wallace in favor of a pair of O'Neals. They've got a trio of rookies — Semih Erden, Avery Bradley, Luke Harangody — that can contribute when needed. Injuries have been a problem here and there, but the C's have always had enough bodies to gut it out. They're prepared for everything that comes their way.
Losing Game 7 of the NBA Finals last year has given the Celtics all the motivation in the world. They want more than anything to get back to the promised land, especially the veterans who don't know if they'll have another chance. That motivation has stayed with the Celtics every day for months now — you'd be surprised how much a defeat in June can impact a team in January.
Last year's Celtics got complacent and began playing like they had nothing to lose. That won't happen anymore. These C's have everything to lose, and everything to prove. They'll spend all year trying to prove it.
Is this year's Celtics team better than last year's? Share your thoughts below.