A couple of hours before Tuesday night's game with the Heat, there was an empty seat next to Celtics coach Doc Rivers as the team prepared to take their official photograph.
"Kevin, get over here," said Rivers, motioning to Kevin Garnett.
Minutes earlier, Garnett was still in the locker room while his teammates shuffled and waited. Rajon Rondo stood separate from the group, shooting jumpers. Ray Allen was engaged in what appeared to be deep conversation with Danny Ainge. Every player but Garnett eventually sat down, but the Celtics big man had to be prodded. When he finally did acquiesce to sitting, he sat on Rondo's leg, playfully telling him to move because he wanted his seat.
Rondo took the seat next to Rivers. The photograph went off without a hitch.
Maybe there are no perfect metaphors, but there also isn't an alternate version of these Celtics. As evidenced by the pregame scene, the players can be particular. They can be quirky. They can be difficult.
But on the court, the Celtics display none of the selfish qualities inherent in athletes who have been at the top of their fields for more than a decade. With a roster that was supposedly too old and depleted, the Celtics have done more with less. They've clinched the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and are guaranteed to finish 10 games above .500 with unheralded players like Greg Stiemsma, Sasha Pavlovic, and Avery Bradley a major part of the rotation. They've absorbed injuries to key players across the roster and moved past near-tragic heart ailments that knocked both Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox out for the season. And they've done it all without whining to the media.
In other words, they're the anti-Red Sox.
"It’s funny how this team doesn’t let egos get in the way of playing solid basketball," Rivers said after a win over Orlando last week. "And that’s what makes them so unique."
At the center of it all is Rivers, who's figured out a way to make stubbornness a positive character trait. With Rivers at the helm, the Celtics have gone 22-10 after the All-Star break. They've done it with a rotation largely composed of eight players, and they've lured Kevin Garnett (16 points, 8.3 rebounds) from the brink of retirement into the all-NBA discussion. Rondo has all but wrapped up the league title for assists, while Pierce is averaging close to 20 points per game.
"No one in this locker room counted the Celtics out," said Miami forward Shane Battier. "They’re just too well coached and disciplined."
The Celtics have coached up two players of particular note. Bradley has seemingly come out of nowhere and is now entrenched in a starting role (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich calls Bradley "a pain in the ass" on defense). He's one reason the Celtics might have a better chance in the playoffs this season than last. Another reason is Stiemsma, who is averaging 1.5 blocks per game.
"I love him," said Rivers. "I just love that kid. He’s just a great spirit."
The basketball statheads will tell you that words like "spirit" and "discipline" don't count in the box score. But intangibles are a reason why the Celtics can't be counted out in the playoffs. The Heat don't want to play them. The Bulls would be hard-pressed to beat them without a healthy Derrick Rose. Neither team can say they have answers for Pierce, Garnett, Rondo, and Allen, now that the Celtics have shown they've also got young players who can make a difference. Boston's lack of depth makes them a flawed team, but so is every other team in the conference.
Rivers has made it all happen behind the scenes, deflecting away potential problems. It's assumed that Allen is unhappy with going to the bench, though you don't hear about it (are you listening, Daniel Bard?) Rondo, Garnett, and Pierce all have unique needs, but they all want to win. Brandon Bass has been a revelation in place of Glen Davis. It's clear from watching the team that for 48 minutes per night, they put aside their egos and play for each other. That spirit was evident in a surprising win over Miami on April 1. It was evident in a four-game winning streak over Indiana, Philadelphia, Miami, and Atlanta. And it was even evident in last night's win over the Heat, a game which Pavlovic took over and the Celtics bench willed themselves to victory despite having little to play for.
“It’s a neat group," Rivers said. "I’ve talked about it all year. They just kind of figure it out."
The Celtics have done more with less than any Boston team in recent memory. They've got a Very Long Way to go on this, but if they win a title, they'll have overachieved more than any New England team since the 2001 Patriots. For a town struggling to watch another overpaid, underachieving team, it's nice to root for an underdog.