The Celtics' primary starting lineup won 18 of their first 20 games last season, was 47-12 in the regular season, and went on to win the NBA championship. Boston's starting five will be featured in an upcoming issue of GQ magazine. Not bad for a quintet that included two newcomers, a second-year point guard, three perennial All-Stars, a young center trying to make his mark, and concerns over whether one ball was enough.
But even as great as Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins were in their first year together, they are still learning more about each other daily and hoping for an even better performance this season.
"Being comfortable isn't a problem with us," said Garnett. "It's the details of the game. Just knowing where Paul likes the ball and what he likes to do when he has an [isolation play], feeling him out. We're still in the process where we still feel each other out. It's crazy how with those months away from the game and each other things sort of distanced themselves. And then when you get back to it, they start to come back to you.
"We just play ball. At the end of the day, that's what it is, basketball. It's not rocket science or anything else. If I have a chance to get Ray Allen a good shot, I'm going to [pass]. If I see Perkins and he has a better shot than I got, I'm going to [pass]. My job, and my biggest job, is to get Ray Allen, Rondo, these guards and Paul open on picks and stuff like that. If you have it down to what you're supposed to do, everyone knows their role and it's easy."
While the Celtics' starting five made it look easy last season, Allen said it took much more time than it appeared.
The Celtics went 7-2 without Garnett, who was out with an abdominal strain from Jan. 27-Feb. 18. But when Garnett returned after the All-Star break, Boston lost three straight games at Denver, Golden State, and Phoenix. Sure, there were back-to-back losses to Washington in January. But this really was the first time the starting five, and the team, faced adversity. Allen believes that after Boston overcame that setback with 10 straight wins, its starting five was officially on the same page.
"It took maybe till March," Allen said. "We lost those three games after the All-Star break. And then we picked it up and started rolling and everybody knew what we needed to do . . .
"We're right in line with each other. We know what each individual does. We know what their role is. There's no question. It's just like, yes, go out there and do your job. We know the plays. We know what we want to do."
The Celtics' starting five wasn't together this preseason until Tuesday's 90-86 victory over Cleveland. While Allen, Garnett, Rondo, and Pierce have played in all four preseason games for Boston (3-1), Perkins missed the previous contests while rehabilitating from offseason surgery on his left shoulder. All of the starters played at least 20 minutes Tuesday, with Perkins, the usual fifth scoring option, showing some rust by going scoreless with five rebounds and four fouls in 21 minutes.
"It's very important," said Pierce of Perkins's return. "When guys have been sitting out so long, you have to get used to having him back there and getting him back in spots, looking to establish himself and get back into game shape. It's great to have him back out there.
"He looked pretty good in practice [Monday]. This is our starting five that we played with most of [last season]. That's definitely important, especially if we want to get off to a good start."
Coach Doc Rivers said Allen, Pierce, and Garnett may not play much or at all tonight at New Jersey. Rivers also gave the team the day off in New York City yesterday. But with only three preseason games left after tonight, expect Boston's starting lineup to be on the floor a lot before the Oct. 28 season opener against the Cavaliers.
"The more minutes you get, the more consistent you get with the real live game and even how it's ran," Garnett said. "I'm anticipating us having a lot of minutes to play anyway. It's whatever Doc wants . . . I'm pretty sure closer to the season we'll play a lot more minutes. But when you see guys going down across the league, that worries him in the back of his mind and he wants to make sure that not only the continuity is there between all of us, but implement some of these other guys."
Said Allen: "As a competitor in the game side, I want to play more. We all want to play more. But [Rivers] understands the nature of this process that we're going through."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org