THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Midseason form? Celtics in better shape

LeBron James may be the league’s best player, but the Celtics had no problem bringing him and the Cavaliers down. LeBron James may be the league’s best player, but the Celtics had no problem bringing him and the Cavaliers down. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 16, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The thought crystallized during the fourth quarter of that dazzling 120-88 Game 5 annihilation of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Celtics are the better team.

The 61 regular-season Cavalier wins and the tedious 27-27 finish by the Celtics were irrelevant. The only issue was the relative state of the teams at this particular point in time, and when it most mattered, the Celtics proved to be the better basketball team.

Start with this sobering fact: LeBron James would have to be considered the best player on either team. But the next four best players suited up for Boston. Viewed in that context, how could the series have gone any other way?

It’s never that simple. A LeBron playing at his peak is a tide that lifts crafts named Williams, Jamison, O’Neal, Varejao, etc. LeBron did not play at a consistently high level, however, because of an injured elbow, excellent Celtics team defense, and even the possibility that the weight of carrying the fervent hopes of a championship-starved Northeast Ohio proved to be too much of a burden. That thought, once dismissed as laughable, seems more and more plausible to me after watching the events of the Chicago and Boston series. Being a savior isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Even so, that LeBron still might have been good enough to defeat another playoff foe, and he definitely would have been good enough to defeat those 27-27 Celtics of January, February, March, and April. The ultimate issue in the Boston-Cleveland series was Boston, not Cleveland. The LeBron sideshow dominated all local and national attention. Had the opponent been the Rochester Royals, no one would have noticed. It was a LeBron Festival, 24/7.

Should anyone stop talking about where LeBron is heading for five seconds and decide to turn on his or her TV set at 3:30 EDT this afternoon, he or she will see a team wearing green uniforms that is playing high-level NBA basketball, a team that has renewed commitment to both defense and sharing the basketball, a team whose eight primary rotation players all have championship rings, and a team that has the extra motivation that comes when you are trying to prove millions of people wrong. No one picked them to go this far, and they know it.

The current Celtics team did not really exist all season. True, they had that 23-5 start, but that was without Glen Davis. Only now does Doc Rivers have the unit he needs to compete with the Cavs, Magic, Lakers, and Suns of the world.

The basic story line now centers on health. The situation is exactly what Rivers said all along it would be. If, he kept saying before and during many a lost evening this past winter, we ever get healthy, we will be OK. If.

“If’’ has come.

Kevin Garnett injured a knee in February of 2009, and only now is playing the way he was in January of 2009. He missed 25 games last season, plus the playoffs. He missed 13 more games this season, and at no time was he much more than a slightly-better-than-average forward.

It was painful watching him fail to convert alley-oops or get beaten on defense by beings whom, in his prime (and even two years ago), he would have devoured. He has regained his legs, his timing, his shot, and his swagger. He just got through humiliating Antawn Jamison, who is a pretty good player.

Paul Pierce had all sorts of physical problems this season, missing 11 games and playing impaired for the past four months. He’s healthier now. Although he has not had an explosive offensive postseason (three 20-point games out of 11), freed from the responsibility of guarding LeBron, he should do well in the next series. He remains eternally dangerous. Witness that fourth-quarter burst last Thursday night.

You attach yourself to Rasheed Wallace, you must take the whole package, which, in his case, means technical fouls and the fact that he might not be as fully engaged each and every night during the Big 82 as everyone else. Now the money games are here and Rasheed is playing defense, rebounding, and even, yes, hustling.

Of course, he’ll also be “stretching the floor,’’ but the threes are a bonus. What the Celtics need most from him right now is a true big-man presence. He will be part of the Dwight Howard Defense Team.

Even when the rest of us forgot Tony Allen even existed, Rivers believed in him. Now we see why. He can defend, he runs the floor right there with Rajon Rondo, he is physically tough, and he is a makes-things-happen player. Now if he’d just stop doing things like kicking the ball with two seconds left on the 24 (thus handing the opponent a new 14 seconds on the shot clock).

Davis had a wasted season. Period. Now he is fully integrated into the program, which means he brings a fascinating range of skill. He can hit 15-footers, grab offensive rebounds, make great defensive rotations, take charges, and secure loose balls. Doc strictly monitors Garnett’s minutes, and Davis has given his mentor great peace of mind with his play as Garnett’s sub. He also has great value defending power centers (Dwight Howard, anybody?). None of this was true to any great extent during the regular season.

A regular-season record is the product of talent, yes, but it also reflects whom you play, when you play them (i.e. are you in the fourth game in six nights of a killer road trip?), who’s healthy, how difficult the team is to prepare for, and, without question, motivation. In the playoffs, motivation is self-evident.

Coaching and preparation can decide series. Teams can zero in on opponents’ vulnerabilities. In-game coaching decisions are magnified (did Doc kick poor Mike Brown’s butt or what?). It’s all totally different.

The Magic have won 27 out of 30, but the Celtics are ready for them. A month ago, we all thought the Celtics might lose in the first round, no matter whom they played. Now they’re playing Orlando for the Eastern Conference championship, and it’s going to be a fair fight.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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