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Bob Ryan

So far, so good for Celtics

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 27, 2011

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Blew another chance to get rich. Why didn’t I put something substantial down on the Celtics to beat the Bulls, Heat, Spurs, Lakers, and Magic to the easy chair and big screen, relaxing as they watched all the others play? I mean, what were the odds on that?

Now, it helps that the opponent was the Knicks, and it helps even more that both Chauncey Billups and Amar’e Stoudemire came up lame.

It was a weird series in many ways, not the least of which because the Knicks actually attempted to play defense during the two games in Boston. They were really working at it, digging in and contesting shots just like a normal NBA team.

They coulda/shoulda/woulda easily won either or both Games 1 and 2, although I do believe the turning point — or perhaps I should say the most impor tant single play — of the series was the lob pass from Rajon Rondo to Kevin Garnett coming out of the timeout following the Toney Douglas 3-pointer in the first game. It established the Celtics as the thinking team, putting positive thoughts in their heads and negative ones in New York’s.

But the Knicks really did play hard and well for long stretches in Games 1 and 2. They had good reason to return home feeling good about themselves, and there was every reasonable expectation of winning at least one game on their home floor.

Then came Boston’s astonishingly easy wire-to-wire victory in Game 3. It is easy to salivate over the spectacular 14-for-19 combined 3-point shooting of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, but there is no other team in the playoffs against whom the Celtics could have run their offense with such consummate ease.

The Knicks lived up to every Mike D’Antoni defensive stereotype, fighting through zero picks and switching not at all. Yes, the Celtics’ bigs set some good picks, but good defensive teams can cope with that after time. There were times when Pierce and Allen had no defender within 10 feet. Hand in the face? Hah!

Game 4 wasn’t much better. Think of those two fourth-quarter Garnett left-side jumpers on pitch-backs from Rondo. He might as well have been shooting in pregame warmups. You would have needed a very wide screen to find any Knick in the picture.

Where was the defense the Knicks displayed in Boston? Only D’Antoni knows, but he was too busy praising Boston and lauding his team for its “heart.’’ He didn’t discuss defense. He never does, come to think about it.

So Doc Rivers is correct when he says there is no way of knowing how good the Celtics are based on the Knicks series.

Rondo was dazzling, and the Celtics need him to remain at that level. The esteemed veterans each had spotlight moments. The bench was an anvil in Games 1, 2, and 3 and a life raft in Game 4.

But there was one surprising and welcome development. Count me among the many who snickered every time Danny Ainge would put forth the premise during February and March that Jermaine O’Neal could play a significant role once the playoffs came. Shaq? Maybe. If Shaquille O’Neal could ever get back on the floor, there was an expectation that he could make a meaningful contribution. There was no such hope for Jermaine.

Score one for the brass. Rivers insisted that Jermaine had been doing some good non-box-score things before his injury, and Ainge’s confidence in him never wavered. And the first big payoff came in Game 1 against the Knicks. Everyone who watched that game knows the Celtics could not have won without his stellar two-way play.

He did not match that performance in subsequent games, but he did provide a legitimate big man presence. Suddenly, he is indispensable, at least until Shaq shows up.

Speaking of which . . .

We long ago reached a “Waiting For Godot’’ point with the majestic Shaquille O’Neal, who has given us only those five celebrated good minutes of play since Feb. 1. My mother used to have a saying about our ETA when my family and I would drive down to Jersey from the South Shore: “I’ll expect you when I see you.’’ And that’s how we should approach Shaq.

Meanwhile, one O’Neal is better than none.

After all the weeping and wailing over the trading of Kendrick Perkins, the fact is the Celtics could luck out in this center thing anyway. It’s not going to be the issue with Miami. If and when Chicago shows up, Joakim Noah is a fine player, but he’s not an offensive-minded, physical center. The only problem in the East would have been Dwight Howard, and that is not going to be an issue.

If the Celtics ever got to the Finals, they could start worrying if they were to play the Lakers or Mavericks (Tyson Chandler can be a handful). But that would be a pleasant worry, wouldn’t it?

Here they are, one series down and three to go. They get to balance practice and rest this week, and, aside from the Big Godot, they are healthy.

They are in line to give Miami their best shot. What more can anyone ask?

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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