The Celtics, a disjointed collection of decrepit former All-Stars, unproven youngsters and flawed role players, charged back from 27 points down on Thursday to beat the Orlando Magic 91-83. With murmurs growing to shouts in recent weeks that it's time to ship Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen out of town, the Celtics did what few teams have in this lockout-shortened campaign: Facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit in the first of three games in four nights, the Celtics didn't decide to pack it in and rest for the next show. They chose to fight.
So what's really important to you, Celtics fans? Do you want the team with the most superstars or do you want an imperfect collection of talent that won't give in when they appear to be on their way to blowout losses to championship-caliber opponents like Dallas, Chicago and Orlando? The Heat look good on a poster, but it often falls to the Norris Coles and Udonis Haslems of the world to give the team a pulse. The Wizards might have more promising young talent than any team in the NBA, but there's not a more clueless troupe of clowns in gym shorts.
"Anything can happen when you keep grinding," Pierce said, summing up the the team's philosophy for as long as he's been a leader in the locker room. "This team has a lot of heart, and we showed it [Thursday]."
Garnett doesn't have many more alley-oop dunks left his his 35-year-old legs, but few younger players would have taken it as a personal challenge to shut down the imposing Dwight Howard in a near-certain defeat. Whereas Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony see fit to take on three defenders while attempting 20 low-quality shots per game, Pierce can score 24 points while handing out 10 assists and trusting a rookie like E'Twaun Moore to shoot four 3-pointers.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has a job to do, and his job is to find the best players possible for head coach Doc Rivers to mold into a team. If Ainge can deal any of the so-called Big Three for a player or collection of players who are better than what the Celtics have, he'll do it because it's his responsibility.
The fans' responsibility is much simpler. You can tune in or buy tickets, then cheer or boo as you see fit. It's your money. It's your vocal chords.
The Celtics are 8-9 and will have to work like fiends if they hope to get back to playing at a championship level, but if you had to bet on any group to figure out its problems and exceed expectations, wouldn't it be this one? Wouldn't you rather have the team that doesn't blink at a 27-point deficit, not the one that rides high when things are going well but checks out when they encounter a challenge?
"We don't ever give in," Pierce said. "We just kept fighting. We just kept fighting."
Fans ask a lot of their teams, but they can't ask players to magically jump higher or learn to run faster or suddenly to become younger. All fans can reasonably ask is that the players play hard — and some teams, like these Celtics, don't need to be asked.