Confetti rained down on the hardwood of The Summit in Houston in 1995 when Rudy Tomjanovich, the Houston Rockets’ head coach, expressed a combination of heartfelt relief and vindictive “I told you so.” The defending champion Rockets had been dismissed as too old to repeat, yet they were the ones strutting around in commemorative hats and T-shirts.
Tomjanovich was asked to comment on his team, which had entered the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference and never had home-court advantage in any series.
“I have one thing to say to those non-believers,” Tomjanovich said. “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
Those words came to mind as the Celtics survived a 91-89 victory over the Knicks on Friday to improve to 7-2 in their last nine games. This aging Celtics group might not be together right now if Chris Paul had been a bit more enthusiastic about living in Boston or if Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen‘s expiring contracts were not so valuable on their own. Somehow, the Celtics are only the fourth-oldest team in the NBA, even if it seems like they are the AARP All-Stars.
The 1995 Rockets had an average age of 28 years old, led by 32-year-old future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. There are differences between that team and this year’s Celtics, obviously. The Celtics aren’t defending champs, for one thing. The Celtics are actually a bit younger average-wise, but their core of Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce is much older than the Rockets, which included 29-year-old Kenny Smith, who was a spring chicken by comparison.
The similarity isn’t particularly in the teams’ collective ages, and it’s definitely not their style of play. It’s the feel.
There were moments in the Rockets’ 1994-95 season when everybody just knew they were finished. The five-game losing streak in February and March, capping a stretch in which they lost seven of 10 games, was supposed to bury them. A three-game losing streak to end the season showed that they were worn down from the grind of 82 games.
In the playoffs, they fell behind 2-1 to the Jazz in the best-of-five first round before winning the deciding game at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City. They lost three of the first four against the Suns before surviving an overtime elimination Game 5 and winning Game 7 in Phoenix. They lost two straight at home to the Spurs in the conference finals and the bell began to toll. They just kept winning. The three teams they faced to make it out of the West averaged 60.3 wins each.
The problem with those Rockets was that they would not lose. The 2011-12 Celtics exhibit the same stubborness.
The Celtics’ victories, even the season-defining ones, have not been pretty. Friday’s game illustrated how the Celtics can awe fans one moment and frustrate them the next. They are maddeningly inconsistent offensively, ranked a middling 17th in the league in offensive efficiency per HoopData, but their second-ranked defensive unit has given them a chance in every matchup with the so-called legitimate teams in the East.
If the Celtics have an 18th championship run in them, the Rockets’ model is the one they will likely have to follow. They only have to catch the Sixers, who they trail by three games in the loss column, to earn one of the three first-round home playoff series promised to each division champ. Based on record alone, though, the Celtics sit at No. 7 in the East. It would be shocking if they somehow claimed one of the top four seeds outright.
More likely, the Celtics will be in for a slog in the postseason. Despite the shortened schedule, they would have to play upwards of 82 games anyway, as there are unlikely to be any easy sweeps. The Heat are more talented, the Bulls are more consistent, and the Sixers and Pacers are younger.
But unlike those three teams, the Celtics’ core players have been champions before, and as Rudy T. said, don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.