To many pundits, the Heat are the team to beat in the East. Now that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have put a forgettable 9-8 start behind them and learned how to play as a team, they are mere percentage points behind Boston and setting the table for a possible conference finals matchup in May.
Of course, the psychological edge exists. Thus far, there have been three meetings between Miami’s Big Three and Boston’s newly marketable Big Four. The Celtics have taken all three matchups and enjoyed the pleasure of eliminating King James in two of the last three postseasons.
Still, there’s one overwhelming issue as the Feb. 24 trade deadline approaches: health. Erik Spoelstra’s Heat squad is getting healthier, allowing players to better figure out their roles. Doc Rivers’ club, meanwhile, is managing to string together wins while the team’s health spirals.
Think about it. Shaquille O’Neal has a sore Achilles. Semih Erden, a strained groin. According to Rivers, neither player will be back until after the All-Star break. Jermaine O’Neal is out indefinitely after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
Those are just the bigs.
Among the guards, Delonte West is missing a bit longer after right wrist surgery, and Marquis Daniels is out at least another few weeks with a bruised spinal cord. Nate Robinson saw limited time on Sunday, but on a bruised knee. Then there’s "The Truth," Paul Pierce. Well, truth is, he’s banged up, too.
As everyone knows, this team is aging. Never mind that. It’s aged. It’s a fine wine that chilled during the 2009-10 regular season and popped its proverbial cork in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the bottle was empty before the buzzer sounded to end Game 7 in Los Angeles.
That brings us back to the trade deadline. Going back through the last few years, Danny Ainge always has done something. For that matter, he’s always done two somethings.
In 2009-10, the Celtics cruised through the regular season, amassing only 50 wins, but rested their key players and allowed themselves to get healthy. They made late-season moves to acquire Robinson for fan favorite Eddie House from New York and also added former All-Star Michael Finley after he was waived by the Spurs. The problem was, House was a perfect fit for the Celtics, Robinson wasn’t quite used to coming off the bench, and Finley was more popular among fans for what he used to do than what he could still contribute on the wrong side of 35. Ultimately, Boston advanced as far as it did for the players it already had, not the ones it picked up.
The 2008-09 season was a colossal failure regarding late-season acquisitions. The team won 62 games during the regular season and later enjoyed a spirited playoff run without the services of an injured and sorely missed Kevin Garnett. Two of the men relied upon for depth, however, were talented-yet-troubled guard Stephon Marbury and big man Mikki Moore, a veteran with marginal expectations who somehow managed to deliver less. Neither player proved to be a game-changer and both free-agent signings were ill-fated experiments.
Then there’s the pinnacle – the 2007-08 campaign, the Banner 17 season to which all future seasons with this personnel will be compared. At the time, it was the first year of the then Big Three of Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen. They were all hungry, with each player seeking a first world championship. Between the learned ability to play together, everyone understanding their roles, a dynamic and deep bench and two helpful additions, the Celtics were a force to be reckoned with and eventually overmatched Phil Jackson’s bunch from the City of Angels.
How fondly Celtics fans will remember late-season signings Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown. Cassell served as insurance at guard and a mentor for Rajon Rondo, while Brown came out of nowhere – literally – to be a key cog off the bench and also the man that hit the memorable jumper to put away Cleveland in LeBron James’ first playoff run-in with the C’s.
The common theme over recent years is that in late February and early March, Ainge has targeted veterans to assist in his club’s time of need, players in search of a title and eager to give it one more kick of the can. In some cases, it’s been done through a trade or signings as a result of previous buyouts. Either way, Ainge hasn’t hesitated to pick up the phone when he’s seen room for improvement. He executes.
Cassell and Brown won, and both retired. Moore lingered a little longer and is no longer in the NBA, while Marbury left to build an empire in China. Finley walked away, knowing there was nothing left and no jobs waiting for him. Robinson, the only pickup with youth on his side, of course, still remains in green.
Fans and media members alike continue to want to compare this year’s club to the season when all the magic began. When this season started, the C’s were perceived as deep enough to make a title run without the need for help. If everyone returns to reasonable health, that may still be the case. Shaq, Jermaine, Daniels and West would be pretty valuable late-season pickups for most teams, so imagine getting all of them.
If not, what’s out there? Will Rip Hamilton finally be moved from Detroit? Do the C’s have the pieces or desire to go after him? Are the whispers that Rasheed Wallace is interested in coming back true? If they are, would Boston even want a guy who publicly mailed in the 2009-10 regular season?
Right now, the Celtics lead the East, but they need help in the long run. Maybe that help is in house, or maybe Ainge will have to make a few long-distance calls. We’ll know soon enough. If history is any indication, though, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish aren’t walking through that door.
But someone will be.