Do the Celtics Have A Shot?
As far as Eastern Conference Semifinals are concerned, that Boston/Philadelphia series was about as ugly as they come. Game 7 was just like every other game in that 7-game set—ugly, physical, and barely watchable—but the Boston Celtics came out of it alive thanks to some crunch-time play (and yet another triple-double) from Rajon Rondo. Now they’ll be given the opportunity to face to the Miami HEAT in the Conference Finals, but do they have any sort of chance to defeat them and get back to the Finals?
It will depend on a few key items, but the short answer is, why not?
For starters, the HEAT could be without Chris Bosh, still nursing that abdominal strain, for the entire series. The Celtics are not a big team, with Kevin Garnett having played center for the season’s most successful stretches, so Miami entering the series down their most talented big guy has to be considered an advantage for the Celtics. Garnett has been arguably the team’s best player in the first two rounds, playing like a much young man than he is, and he’d almost certainly rather face up against Joel Anthony or Udonis Haslem than Chris Bosh.
At the same time, it’s a good thing for the HEAT that Garnett is all they have to really worry about in the frontcourt. As we saw at times in the Indiana series, teams with a strong inside presence at both the power forward and center positions can get the better of the HEAT. Boston is thin in their own frontcourt, as well, so if Miami can minimize the damage done by Garnett, the rest of the HEAT are obviously more than capable of making up for Bosh’s loss. Remember that Dwyane Wade and LeBron James’s 197 points in the final three games of the Indy series was the most those two have ever scored in a three-game stretch as teammates. Heaven help the Celtics if they keep that momentum.
However, it would be ridiculous to count them out of the series before it even begins. Boston is one of the best teams in the league at slowing down the game, and their excellent half-court defense is exactly the sort of thing to frustrate Miami’s legendary transition game. In the playoffs, the Celtics have held teams to a measly 83.9 ppg and haven’t given up more than 92 at any point in the first two rounds. That streak will get broken at some point this series, but they’ll have to seriously slow down James and Wade to have a shot. Boston’s got as good a shot of doing that as anyone.
It’s also worth noting that the Celtics were 2-1 against the HEAT in the regular season, which of course doesn’t mean much now, but does show this series isn’t the cakewalk some think it will be. Losing Avery Bradley hurts them defensively, because that was the guy tagged to work on Wade this series, but Rondo at point guard is a clear advantage for the Celtics. He showed not only his versatility in the first couple of series, but in Game 7 of the Conference Semis, he also showed his ability to lead in the clutch.
In other words, now is a good time for Rondo to take his game to the next level. If there was ever a time to do it, this is it.
Whoever wins the series, expect this one to be every bit as physical (if not more so) as the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Miami won that one in five games, but it certainly didn’t come easy. Don’t expect this one to come easy for either team, either, but we also shouldn’t expect for it to be as ugly as the Philly series.
Miami is still the favorite, but to say the Celtics have no shot is premature. A lot depends on how deep we see Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen dig into their reservoirs of talent and postseason experience. It could be their last shot as teammates to win a ring. It would be a shame to see this season’s rejuvenation of the Big Old Three go to waste.
Young Pacers Proud of Themselves, Despite Loss
The Indiana Pacers were the third-seeded team in the Eastern Conference this season. Larry Brown won Executive of the Year. Roy Hibbert was an All-Star for the first time in his career, and most of the other players on the roster either came into their own as professionals this year or found some sort of personal rejuvenation in the midst of a great team season.
Even though they lost in the Conference Semis to the HEAT, there’s no way to call this season a failure for the burgeoning Pacers, something that’s not lost on some of the young players who helped make all those good things happen.
“I thought we did a lot (better) than people expected,” point guard Darren Collison told HOOPSWORLD. “We were a little bit under the radar coming into the postseason play, but as far as our self-confidence, I think we always thought we could make a deep run in the playoffs.”
Winning their first playoff series since 2005 was a good start for this upstart team, but young groups like this rarely go from first round flame-out one year to NBA Finals the next. As Paul George explained, getting just one step further this year was a step in the right direction for the Pacers.
“You take a team like OKC who struggled a little bit but the more and the more those guys got time to play together, you just see now they’re one of the top teams in the West,” George said. “You take a club like us, who’s been building throughout the drafts and taking steps, small steps and still have a core of young guys? I think our future is really bright.”
The good news is that this will be more or less the same group next year. If extensions go well the next few summers for Hibbert, George, Collison, George Hill, and Tyler Hansbrough, there’s an excellent chance that the bulk of this group could be together for a while. Seeing how well they’ve performed so far, there’s no way that’s not a good thing.
“I love the group that I’m with,” George said. “To have George (Hill) and Roy (Hibbert) and Danny (Granger) and David West, I think I’m in a great position and situation to have these guys and come back and be able to extend all of us… I think with myself growing and continuing to get better, I think the sky’s the limit for our group.”
Collison, while looking forward to the future with his younger teammates, credits this season’s success to the addition of some key veterans in the offseason.
“Larry’s done an excellent job bringing in George Hill, David West, (Leandro) Barbosa. He’s done an excellent job of bringing guys that want to win first and very talented guys that can put the ball in the hoop and play defense at the same time. We’re very happy to have the luxury that we have with David West and George Hill and Barbosa, and we want to keep this ship rolling.”
The ship has sailed for 2012, but the Indiana Pacers learned some valuable lessons for next season’s playoffs.
“It almost comes to making plays and being playmakers out there because the plays that you run the team knows them so well,” George said. “You have be much more assertive. It gets tougher. You see the fouling and the plays that have been going on, it’s all in the sport of basketball, just emotions flaring, some guys taking it way too far. It just gets tougher on both ends of the floor.”
And it’s going to continue to get tougher for the Pacers, particularly as they head into next season with targets on their backs. They’ll be expected to do big things, including winning the Central Division and returning to a top seed in the East, but once the league knows how good you are, things get just a little bit harder.
It was a great run for Indy this season, and the future is bright. Not easy, but bright. If they can hold their core together, continue to make smart moves with their cap space, and grow on the arch they’ve been on, they’ll be really good for a long time.
What we saw this postseason was only the beginning.
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