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Deep thoughts on the Celtics' chances

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 29, 2012 11:42 AM

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Assuming health, the Celtics now run 10 deep, maybe 12 on some nights, which sounds awfully good in theory. But NBA champions are generally monarchies, not democracies, and nobody knows that as well as Danny Ainge or Doc Rivers.

The point? Don't expect a championship.

Though the Celtics may die trying.

"Our bench is so much better on paper and I think it will be better than it was last year," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Friday in an interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub. "[But} you know, like I know, in the playoffs, Miami's not going to have a bench much. They're going to play eight guys and LeBron [James] is going to play 40 minutes [a night]. So there's not going to be a lot of taking advantage of [them] when [James and Dwyane Wade] are off the floor. Having said that, Kevin Garnett is going to need to rest. And when he's off the floor, we're going to have to still be really good."

So therein rests the formula for Celtics success this season, a theory that will begin being tested Tuesday night in Miami, where the Celtics open this season the way they ended the last one - against James, Wade and the Miami Heat. Yes, Ray Allen will be on the other side this time, a fitting development given James's propensity to cry about injustice. The obvious difference is that James manned up and won a title last season, all but carrying Miami on his back during a truly brilliant postseason run.

But if you think the Celtics can unseat James this year, just remember what happened last spring. The Celtics led their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Heat, three games to two, with Game 6 to be played in Boston. James played an average of more than 46 minutes in Games 6 and 7 while amassing 76 points and 27 rebounds, and the simple truth is that the Celtics had no answer for him.

Not in their starting lineup. Not on their bench. Not in their future.

Still, give Ainge and Rivers credit for this much: they continue to compete as best they can, despite whatever restrictions the nature of the game puts on them. The NBA is a superstar's league and always has been. The best player in the league can control the play on both ends like in no other sport. The window on Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce (not necessarily in that order) has been closing for years, but Ainge and Rivers continue to keep the sash propped open at least a sliver, leaving open the possibility for the kind of unexpected run that took place last spring.

Maybe James goes down. Maybe Derrick Rose doesn't come back. Maybe the Indiana Pacers are not quite as ready as many believe them to be, opening the door for Rivers to mix and match pieces as if he were running a clothing store.

Look at the fun Rivers could have with this roster, beyond Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, whose continued development is perhaps the biggest key to any Celtics success. Jeff Green. Jared Sullinger. Brandon Bass. Avery Bradley. Jason Terry. Courtney Lee. Leandro Barbosa. Darko Milicic. Chris Wilcox. The chances of all those players remaining healthy -- and playing well -- are decidedly slim, but one of Rivers's greatest challenges may be in keeping everyone relatively happy.

At the very least, all of that makes the Celtics interesting, particularly as Rondo further assumes the bulk of minutes. As much as the play of Garnett is at the center of the Celtics operation, Rondo is now the closest thing they have to LeBron. Rondo averaged better than 45 minutes per game against Heat in the conference finals, including an epic 53-minute minute performance in Game 2.

If Rondo makes jumpers the way he generally did in that series, he will continue to be a different player. The Celtics will be a different team. And we may have to reassess their chances.

Beyond that, Ainge succeeded this offseason in making the Celtics younger and more athletic, at least assuming health. Terry for Allen was essentially a wash, but Lee is 27. Green, who had an encouraging season, is still only 26. Bradley, who will be out until December but was dynamic last season, is not yet 22. At the very least, Rondo should have more playmates who keep up with him this season, creating even more opportunity for up-tempo, transitional basketball.

And then, lest we forget, there is Sullinger, the beefy rookie who averaged 11 points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes during the preseason. The Celtics have not had a true, impact rookie on their roster since -- when? -- and there is the chance that Sullinger's combination of girth and touch could make him that kind of discovery, particularly given how his skill set meshes so perfectly with the Celtics' needs.

Does that mean Sullinger will be the Rookie of the Year? No. Hardly. But it means he could help more than any Celtics rookie in recent memory, which is saying something.

For Rivers, all of this makes his role on the Celtics as important as it has been in some time, particularly during the regular season. Keeping Garnett fresh will be of the utmost importance, and Pierce's minutes, too, are a concern. (He played poorly against the Heat last spring and the matchup with James was a blowout.) At the same time, the Celtics have more than one promising young player whose development is a priority.

In the interim, LeBron waits.

And in the absence of a comparable franchise centerpiece, the Celtics have little choice but to try and hit James from all sides.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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