This season alone, the Boston Celtics went from everybody’s darling and the early title favorites (praise that began with an Oct. 26 win over the Miami Heat) to bottom-feeders by game 82. There was even buzz of an upset at the hands of the sixth-seeded Knicks.
But the Green swept New York, silenced the doubters, and now the airwaves abound yet again with talk of banner No. 18.
So how do we sift through all the hyperbole and extract something reasonable out of it? Could New York have pushed the series to six, even seven, if Chauncey Billups and Amare Stoudemire were healthy? Is Boston as good as advertised today, or as old and unreliable as advertised just a week ago?
The answers to those questions could go a long way in determining how the C’s will fare in Round 2, likely against the Heat, who own a 3-1 series lead over the Philadelphia 76ers.
For now, let’s focus on what we know after Round 1 — or at least what we had to re-learn in the midst of all the anti-Celtics chatter.
1. Rajon Rondo would be great in Minnesota.
For those unaware, Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni said Sunday before Game 4 that he’d “like to see [Rondo] play in Minnesota and see how he does. They’ve got three Hall of Famers out there.”
The point guard responded with a furious 21-point, 12-assist effort to complete the Boston sweep (its first since 1992). It capped off another sterling series for a guy who simply brings it in the playoffs. His averages over the past three postseasons? 16.5 points, 9.8 assists, seven rebounds and two steals.
As for Rondo’s detractors, C’s head coach Doc Rivers says he’s happy to have the bulletin-board material.
“Keep doing it,” he said Sunday. “If it’s going to make him play like this, I’m all for it.”
2. Jermaine O’Neal is the X Factor.
The 7-footer doesn’t play (or barely plays) in the final 21 games of the regular season, and the Celtics go 10-11. He gets significant minutes in the postseason, and they’re undefeated. That’s oversimplifying, I know, but there’s no doubt that J.O. is the defensive stopper Boston had been missing since the losses of Kendrick Perkins (trade) and Shaquille O’Neal (injuries).
His line in the conference quarterfinals was unspectacular — just 5.5 points and four rebounds per game. But the 32-year-old, racked by injuries for much of his career, was incredibly efficient on offense (61 percent, many of his points coming on jumpers) and was a plug in the paint on D, blocking 2.5 shots a game and redirecting many more.
“We won the game tonight because of Jermaine O’Neal,” Doc said after Boston’s Game 1 win. “His defense, his presence, his shot-blocking, his rebounding, his toughness.”
He brought it the rest of the series, as well, and will need to against Miami/Philadelphia in the semis.
3. Kevin Garnett is no coward.
“Player X” has clearly let Garnett get under his skin. Precisely what KG wants. What’s clear is that “cowards” don’t generally rip off 26 points (20 of those coming in the decisive second half) and 16 boards in a closeout game on the road.
Gotta love a guy who calls someone a punk — in an anonymous blog.
4. Boston was waiting for the playoffs.
At season’s end, in the midst of that miserable drought, Boston fans couldn’t decide: Were the Celtics really that bad, or were they waiting for the postseason? Take a look at the sweep for your answer. Boston’s point differential — plus-8.5 — is better than any other team in the league.
5. Ray Allen’s legs are just fine.
The guy shot better than 44 percent from 3-point range on the season — and yet, there was concern from Celtics Nation surrounding his ability to do it in the playoffs. The 35-year-old had struggled, after all, in his final three outings before the first round.
Nothing like going 17-of-26 (65 percent) from deep to shake off the cobwebs, including the winning shot in Game 1. All told, the old man averaged 22 points and 4.5 boards in the sweep.
All of this has yet again placed the Celtics in the title discussion. But the sports world changes fast. More than anything, Boston must maintain its intensity heading into Round 2. After all, praise comes easy. Titles don’t.
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