The Celtics swore this season would be different. That they wouldn't treat the regular season like a warm-up act. That they understood the dynamics in the Eastern Conference had changed. That playoff positioning and top seeding were not optional this time.
They told a little green lie.
The Celtics waved the white flag on the regular season in Washington, idling the Core Four and conceding the No. 2 seed to the Heat. The Celtics' discombobulated bench lost in overtime, 95-94, sending the team to its 11th defeat in 20 games. Miami won in Atlanta, officially relegating the Celtics to the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference and a date with the New York Knicks in round one. Unofficially, the Celtics' fate was sealed when they got smoked by the Bulls and Heat in statement games in a span of three days.
For the second straight postseason the Celtics are going to try to make the NBA Finals with a road show. This is a team that simply likes doing things the hard and hard-headed way. They like to play with a degree of difficulty. Well, they have it now, and it's 9.0.
Somehow the Celtics have managed to turn departed center/savior Kendrick Perkins into a basketball martyr. Without Perk, the new patron saint of the parquet, they have gone 14-12 to tumble to third in the East. (The Celtics' post-Perkins record is not equal to the one with Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. Those guys didn't suit up deadline day in Denver, and neither would've Perkins, who was nursing a sprained left knee that kept him out until March 14.)
They were 41-14 at the time of The Trade, averaging 98.2 points per game and allowing 91.2, while holding opponents to 43.5 percent from the field. Since The Trade, the Celtics are scoring 92.3 points per game -- because we all know that Perk would have helped in that department with his varied assortment of low-post moves and deft touch -- and surrendering 94.2 points per game, even though opponents' shooting percentage has actually decreased to 43.2.
You can blame it on The Trade. Or the unraveling of Rajon Rondo's game. Or the Big Inactive, Shaquille O'Neal. Or that Danny Ainge never learned the periodic table in high school chemistry. The reasons for the Celtics' playoff predicament don't matter at this point. As a wise coach once said, "It is what it is."
The Celtics are basically in the same position they were last year, except the competition is better this time around.
The Knicks are a superior first-round opponent to the one-man show Miami Heat team the Celtics defeated in the first-round last year. That team's second option was Jermaine O'Neal, 'nuff said. New York, winners of seven straight, has two legitimate superstars in Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, and they're going to treat this matchup like its the NBA Finals, not round one.
The Celtics could rest their starters for a month and this series would still be emotionally and physically draining.
The Celtics have also given real hope to the cubic zirconia of championship contenders, the Heat, who now know if they face Boston in round two that a deciding seventh game is going to be in front of the Miami glitterati. Throughout the regular season, the Heat has proven to be a mentally fragile outfit. I would have given them a 10 percent chance of winning a Game 7 at TD Garden in front of a hostile crowd. Put LeBron James and the South Florida front-runners on their own floor in a deciding game with the Celtics and the odds shift to 50-50.
The battle cry of Boston basketball has become "27-27" -- an oft-repeated reference to the Celtics' regular season record over the final 54 games last season before their remarkable run to Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
But this isn't the same team that pulled off that feat -- both literally and figuratively. Rondo, Paul Pierce and Celtics coach Doc Rivers have all admitted that. Last year's positioning was the result of strategy; this year's is the result of struggling.
"Well, last year we had a team that had been together. You know, there wasn't a lot of changes. We knew each other," said Rivers to reporters last night. "Shutting them down was easy. We practiced. We kind of knew what we were doing. This year has been more difficult. We only have five players from last year's team. We have 10 new players, five of them recently, so it's been a little more difficult, especially since we've really had no practice time. "
Rivers was conflicted by the decision to switch to backup systems for last night's game and the season finale tomorrow against the Knicks. On the one hand, if his starters are to duplicate their Herculean feat they need to be well-rested. On the other hand, his team needed to gain some confidence and continuity before the playoffs.
"This was a tough one," said Rivers. "It was the right one because at the end of the day it's got to be about our team and whatever is best for our team, even over seeding. ...We decided to do this, and it was a very difficult decision."
The Celtics will really rue forfeiting last night's game if the Lakers, currently losers of five straight and fighting for the second-seed in the West, end up finishing a game ahead of them and have homecourt in a Finals rubber-match. Los Angeles enters its game with San Antonio tonight at 55-25, a half-game better than the Celtics.
Wasn't avoiding that scenario sort of the whole point of this season?
In some ways, the worst thing that happened to the Celtics was being able to go 27-27 last year and just turn it on because it entitled them to just shrug off regular-season failure, which is what the last two months now qualify as.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.