The C's led the Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, on the road no less, by 13 points in the second half. It looked like a sure thing that Banner 18 was coming back to Boston — but that was when Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol took over, propelling the Lakers to the comeback victory.
How will the Celtics change their fortunes this season? A lot of things have to go right. These 25 would be a nice start:
1. The Celtics play with urgency.
They're running out of time to win another championship with the veteran nucleus they have in place. But Danny Ainge shelled out $81 million this summer to retain Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, so it's clear that now's the time to make another run. The C's should treat this season like it's their last chance — because who knows? It might be.
2. Doc Rivers manages the personalities.
From Pierce, to Kevin Garnett, to Shaquille O'Neal, to Glen Davis, to Nate Robinson, to Delonte West, there are a whole lot of characters for the Celtics' coach to juggle. There are egos, there are goofballs, and there are a whole lot of talented basketball players that will all want to do their part. It's up to Doc to make sure everyone works together.
3. Rajon Rondo makes the leap.
Rondo made a case last spring that he's one of the top three or four point guards in the NBA. In his fifth season, though, he has a chance to vault even higher. Can he join Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the "best point guard alive" conversation this season? It'll take leadership, it'll take a consistent effort every night, and it'll take a diverse offensive game. Rondo needs to make the big play and also hit the big shot when the moment's right.
4. Paul Pierce remains dangerous as ever.
Vintage Pierce could beat you in a lot of ways — he could drive to the hole, he could play a nasty midrange game and he could knock down shots from outside. If the C's are going to win a title in 2011, they need that Paul Pierce. The Celtics' captain is 33, but he still needs to be the killer he was in 2008, when he took home Finals MVP honors.
5. Kevin Garnett stays healthy.
It's been a year and a half since a knee injury derailed KG's postseason in 2009. He's had plenty of time to recover. The C's would love to see him return to peak form — when he's got his legs under him, he can be the backbone of the NBA's best defensive team. That's how these Celtics won in '08, and it's how they could win again.
6. Ray Allen hits his shots.
Which Ray will show up in big games this season? The one who killed the Lakers with eight 3-pointers in one half in Game 2 of the Finals? Or the one who shot miserably for the rest of the series, crippling the Celtics' offense when it mattered most? It's impossible for Ray to have 82 good shooting nights every year, but the Celtics would really love to see him step up in big games and carry them. When he's on, he's the best pure shooter in the game.
7. Kendrick Perkins comes back and contributes.
A torn ACL is a serious ailment, and the Celtics should be careful about rushing Perk back into action before he's ready. But they do need their starting center back and healthy by playoff time — having an active, physical, defense-first big man like Perk can dramatically alter so many matchups in the postseason. He's the most unheralded member of Boston's starting five, but he's still a big piece of the puzzle.
8. Rebounds, rebounds, rebounds.
The Celtics pulled down 3,165 rebounds last season. Only the Golden State Warriors, at 3,150, had fewer. Their big men were too perimeter-oriented (think KG and Rasheed Wallace), and they didn't have enough of a presence down low to beat bigger, more physical teams. It's why they lost the Finals — rebounds, second-chance points, points in the paint. Perhaps a fortified big man corps can turn things around.
9. The C's are fourth-quarter killers.
They've got to mix up their offense to stay competitive. All too many times, the Celtics lost fourth-quarter battles because they became predictable, isolating Pierce and Allen and heaving up jump shots. They've got to keep moving the ball, keep working for better looks at the basket, and have the energy to drive when they need to. They can't fall flat in crunch time.
10. No more home losing streaks.
The Celtics lost 17 games at the TD Garden last season. Not a single NBA playoff team lost more in their home building. The C's got complacent on their home floor last season, losing to a lot of bad teams, and it kept them from earning a higher seed in the East playoffs or a home-court Game 7 in the Finals. They've got to do better at the Garden this year.
11. No more upsets.
The following teams were able to beat the Celtics at least once last season: Golden State, the L.A. Clippers, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Indiana, New Jersey. That's a who's who of the NBA's worst. Part of it was injuries, but another part was inconsistent effort and a bad habit of looking ahead to the next game. The C's need to take care of business.
12. No more second-half collapses.
The Celtics blew more halftime leads than anyone last season. The problem was so well-known that Phil Jackson used it in a pep talk for his Lakers in the Finals. The C's may be old and injury-prone, but they should still be able to close out wins when they get up double-digits in the second half. With improved depth this season, the C's may begin to erase this problem.
13. Shaquille O'Neal revolutionizes the offense.
The Celtics haven't had a dominant low-post scorer in a long time. Shaq brings an element that we haven't seen in Boston — he demands to be covered on the block nonstop, which will open things up for everyone else on the floor. The C's offense will be more versatile than ever with Shaq and his 28,000-plus career points.
14. Jermaine O'Neal brings the intangibles.
J.O. said this preseason that he didn't care if he scored a single point — if all he did was block shots, grab rebounds and take charges, that was fine with him, as long as he got a ring. If he can follow through on that pledge, it would be huge. The C's need someone like that to do all the little things Perk can't do. J.O. is all about team this season, and the team will love having him.
15. The bench builds chemistry as the season progresses.
Between the O'Neals, Delonte West and a handful of incoming rookies, the Celtics have a lot of new faces on their bench. They've got a lot of talent, but all the talent needs to learn to work together, and that takes time. If they can fine-tune their teamwork by the time spring rolls around, they'll be in good shape.
16. Glen Davis becomes an elite sixth man.
Big Baby had big numbers in the preseason: 12.0 points and 4.4 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game, on 49.1 percent shooting. If he can contribute like that in the regular season despite limited minutes, the Celtics will have one star-studded bench.
17. Nate Robinson is an X-factor again.
The former Knicks castoff sprung to life last spring and won the Celtics two big games, one in the East finals against the Magic and one in the NBA Finals. His energy and scoring prowess can breathe life into the Celtics' bench. If he's got a couple more big games in him like we saw last year, he can help put Boston over the top.
18. Marquis Daniels returns to peak form.
Before injuries derailed his season, Daniels was a stellar backup for Paul Pierce, giving them a skilled wing man that could make plays on both ends of the floor. Now that he's healthy again, the C's will look for him to contribute again. He'll once again be the second small forward on the depth chart, getting plenty of minutes as Pierce's backup. He'd better make the most of them.
19. Delonte West brings stability to the bench.
West has had his struggles over the past year, both on and off the court. But he's dying for a second chance in Boston, and he'll get it as a versatile combo guard that can play lockdown D and hit key shots. If West can bring a calming presence in the locker room this season, too, that would be a nice bonus.
20. Von Wafer is an unsung hero.
Wafer was an underrated part of the Houston Rockets' playoff run in 2009, stepping up as a dominating bench scorer in surprising fashion. He might not play that same role in Boston, but he can still hit a shot every now and then to help the Celtics win ballgames. With West suspended for the Celtics' first 10 games, Wafer will have a chance to prove himself.
21. Get a pleasant surprise from the rookie class.
Between Semih Erden, Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody, one of the Celtics' three rookies needs to step up. Erden gives the C's valuable big man depth, as an insurance policy against injured O'Neals; Bradley can play lockdown defense against any guard in the league; and Harangody, the Celtics' second-round pick, is a solid forward that can hit shots and make plays. If one of the rookies can make a contribution, the Celtics would love to see it.
22. Danny Ainge isn't afraid to mix it up with a midseason deal.
In 2008, it was a couple of midseason acquisitions that made the difference — P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell. The Celtics appear to have plenty of depth at the moment, but if someone has an off year or someone goes down, Danny should have the courage to pull the trigger and get one last piece for the stretch run. It might make all the difference again.
23. The C's contain Dwight Howard.
One of the keys to the Celtics' playoff run will inevitably be their matchup with Orlando's superstar center. They need someone who's up to the task — either Perk or one of the O'Neals will need to be on Superman at all times, guarding him straight-up and refusing to let him take over the game.
24. Boston's Big Three handles Miami's trio.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, meet Paul, Ray and KG. The Heat's superstars may be younger and better than the C's veterans, but in a playoff series, the Celtics' Big Three need to play out of their minds. Getting past the Heat will be a tall order, but the C's can get it done with a little extra effort.
25. This time around, take down the Lakers.
Last year, the Lakers' bigs were too much. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom ruled the day as the old, beat-up, depleted Celtics folded in the second half of Game 7. But the Celtics have reloaded, and they're determined to be ready this season.
Banner 18, and basketball history, hangs in the balance.
This season will be a big one for the Celtics. They're settling for nothing less than an NBA title.