Sunday, December 30, 2007

Big Boston Wins

On Friday night, the Lakers pounded the Jazz into submission, which I found especially interesting, because the very next opponent for both of those teams was the Boston Celtics. And since I had just watched Boston struggle to beat Seattle on tired legs, I was really interested in seeing the C's take on Utah and then L.A. The result? Two more wins, to run their record to 26-3 on the season. The first was a gritty performance against an angry and hungry Utah team and the second was a beatdown of a Lakers squad that was feeling good enough about themselves to come out wearing throwback shorts (not a pretty sight) for the first half.

The pair of victories reaffirmed something I've believed since the day Boston traded for KG - the Celtics are the team to beat in the East and probably the entire NBA.

I understand that now is the time to go the other way - to point out that Boston has padded its win total against an easy schedule, pick at their flaws, and predict that they will be ousted in the playoffs. But I just don't see it that way.

The common belief among hardcore fans and most experts right now is that Detroit is still the team to beat in the East. People believe that not only are the Pistons better, but that they hold the key to beating Boston, which is a physical point guard.

Certainly the Pistons have more experience playing together and more legit depth. When you throw in the Billups-Rondo matchup, I can see why people like Detroit. But not so fast. These two Celtics wins taught me a few things that, at least for me, keeps them at the top of the heap in the East:

1. Tony Allen is getting healthy.. I was really buying into the "big point guard" thing as Boston's Achilles heel (which would make them the Eastern Conference version of Dallas, I suppose) until I watched the last two games and remembered that Tony Allen is on the team and that he's on the road back to full strength. Still playing with a bulky knee brace and the fear of God whenever he goes in for a dunk, Allen isn't nearly back to 100% and perhaps won't be for the remainder of the season. But even at partial strength, he could end up being a key guy in a Celtics title push. He played fantastic filling in for Rondo (hamstring) against L.A., but I was equally impressed with him in the Utah game, because when Allen was on the floor, Deron Williams (read: powerful point guard) transformed from a dominant playmaker to a turnover machine. Allen is physical, athletic, and tenacious on the defensive end and perfectly capable of getting the ball over half court while playing offense. All of which means that there is no reason that Boston should be getting worked by big point guards late in games. If they feel like Rondo is struggling in the post (note: for every basket he gave up to Williams he seemed to counter with a big steal, so don't count Rondo out either), they can simply insert Allen and let Pierce initiate the offense as a point-forward.

2. Boston will be harder to beat than Detroit. This is in regard to every other team in the East. It may be true that the Pistons match up well with the Celtics and can give them real trouble, but since the two teams are heading for the 1 and 2 seeds in the conference, it means they will both need to win two series to bring about such a showdown. And this is where I believe Boston holds an advantage. We know Cleveland can beat this Pistons team because they did it last year. I also think Orlando (who was right there in every game against Detroit last year and is now much improved) could knock off Detroit. Meanwhile, I don't see anybody besides Detroit taking out Boston in the East. You have to get to the Eastern Conference Finals to win the Eastern Conference Finals and since I believe Boston is more likely to get there, I think they are therefore more likely to win there. I know, pretty complex stuff.

3. The three stars compliment each other perfectly. This isn't anything new, but I think people assumed it would take some time for KG, Pierce, and Allen to learn to play together. It's not. It seems like these three All-Stars have been playing together for years because they are working so well as a trio. It doesn't even seem to matter who else Boston throws out there - Rondo, House, T. Allen, Big Baby, Perkins, Posey, etc. - they all thrive next to the Boston Threeparty (or whatever we are calling them). I believe this is due certainly to each player's willingness to submerge ego for the team, but it is due in equal part to the fact that the three stars fit together so well. KG is the defensive anchor who shuts down the best post player, helps everyone all over the court, and inspires his teammates to be better defenders as well. He doesn't need the ball in his hands to be happy and/or effective and yet he keeps them out of droughts with his scoring, whether it comes from put-backs or off of that unstoppable turnaround (he's starting to resemble Hakeem, no?). Because he doesn't need the ball, it allows Pierce to handle the rock a great deal. Pierce is a guy that does need the ball in his hands to be engaged and effective, so this works out great. And then there's Ray Allen, who has always played off the ball, so this is nothing new to him. Pierce is basically allowed to dominate the ball ala LeBron, Kobe, Iverson, et al, except that he has the two perfect veteran stars playing next to him. And everyone else is either a dunker, a spot-up shooter, or Rondo, so he literally has no competition for making plays. I can't emphasize enough how important this is. Pierce is rejuvenated as a person and player and he hasn't had to sacrifice anything he enjoys doing with the possible exception of taking terrible fadeaways.

I have a feeling that this won't be the only column or blog post that you read in response to Boston's most recent wins. They just won four games in five nights, on the road, and looked great in the process. They willed their way to a win over Utah with pure hustle and late-game execution and then annihilated a Lakers team that had the experts hyperventilating (and did it despite missing their starting point guard).

This team is getting better, not worse, and appears to have what it takes to win it all. And while you could say the same exact things about the Pistons, the C's are the leader in the clubhouse, as far as I'm concerned.

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