Note: After more than four years at the Boston Globe and Boston.com, this is Tony Massarotti's final blog entry on Boston.com.The beauty of Boston is that the stories are always evolving, the teams always developing, the objectives always changing. The Bruins appear to be at the beginning of an extended run of success, the Patriots perhaps much closer to the end of one. The Celtics are clinging to hope. The Red Sox trying to rebuild it.
Where these teams end up remains as uncertain as ever, if only because there are no sure things in sports.
But then, ultimately, that is why we all watch.
Here, then, is a long-term prognosis for Boston's four major franchises, each of which has won a championship in the last eight years, each of which stands as a cornerstone in what is, subjectively, the very best professional sports town in America.
Tyler Seguin just turned 21. Dougie Hamilton is 19. Tuukka Rask is 26. Those three players are the axis around which the Bruins could swirl for the next 10-15 years, the kind of franchise nucleus that every team would like to possess.
And we haven't even begun to mention Brad Marchand (24), Patrice Bergeron (27), David Krejci (26) or Milan Lucic (24). The Bruins are young. They're generally signed. And they are seemingly in position to contend for Stanley Cups through the current decade, which is no small feat given where they were as recently as a few years ago.
Quite simply, it will be a disappointment if this team doesn't win another championship sometime in the new few years (or so).
The challenges? To stay healthy and focused. To avoid complacency. This is as true for management as it for the players, particularly as the annual trading deadline nears. The Bruins do not have a Sidney Crosby or a Steven Stamkos, and trades will be necessary to bolster the talent. Good trades result from good drafts, the recent lot of which have helped bring the Bruins to where they are.
On the cusp of another golden era of hockey in Boston.
Let's hope they relish the chance.
For those chanting that all-too-familiar refrain - Blow it up - be careful what you wish for. From the fall of 1993 through the spring of 2007 – the 14-year period between Larry Bird and Kevin Garnett – the Celtics ranked 23d among the 30 NBA teams in winning percentage. They missed the playoffs nine times. The Celtics went an aggregate 472-644, a .423 winning percentage that translated into an average annual record of 35-47.
Why are we reminding of you that? Because it took 14 years to sufficiently arm them with the pieces necessary to acquire Garnett.
Admittedly, this team is probably in better shape, though it would be interesting to see the same group return next year minus Garnett and Paul Pierce. Get the picture? If Danny Ainge were to have traded either Garnett or Pierce at the deadline for a collection of lesser players, the Celtics would be the Milwaukee Bucks. And just who, exactly, would they target as their next Garnett?
Yes, it could be some time before this team wins another championship. In the interim, we'll just have to ask the Celtics to max out. As disappointing as the recent five-game road trip may have been to some, the Celtics are 3-4 on the road since Rajon Rondo was lost to a season-ending injury. Prior to that, they went 7-14 away from the Garden. They're still no worse off than they basically were a month ago because they weren't going to win a championship anyway.
In the interim, enjoy the competitive basketball for as long as it lasts.
In the Eastern Conference, short of Miami, does anyone really want to face them in the playoffs?
As we all know, NFL contracts aren't worth the paper they are printed on. Tom Brady is now signed for the next five years, and there is every chance he will play that long, be it under the terms of this current deal or a renegotiated one. And so long as Brady is upright, the Patriots will continue to chase Super Bowls.
Beyond that, the Patriots now have a number of young pieces in place for the long term. Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Nate Solder, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Ryan Wendell, Chandler Jones, Alfonzo Dennard, Dont'a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes are all basically 26 or younger. There are a host of other players who are between 26 and 30 (including Jerod Mayo). What Bill Belichick has effectively done in recent years is rebuild much of the New England roster save for a few places.
Of course, quarterback is one of them.
As the Baltimore Ravens recently proved, you don't need the best quarterback in the league to win a championship. You just need a good one. In the long term, that might make it a little easier to find Brady's successor, particularly given the age of the Patriots roster and the great flexibility with which New England is entering this offseason.
Obviously, the next 2-3 years are huge. While the roster is growing, Brady is still playing at a high level. Thus, the needs on this team are obvious to everyone. Belichick's ability to address them will determine the success of this club in the short term, and we all know the standard to which the Patriots hold themselves.
Super Bowl or bust.
Over the last 10 years, owner John Henry and his partners have almost entirely rebuilt Fenway Park. Now, oddly enough, the entire Boston baseball operation is undergoing the renovation.
And so, as they transition to the next era in their history, the please-pardon-our-appearance Red Sox enter 2013 with avalanche of questions and issues. For the first time in a long time, we really have no idea how this is all going to look. Ultimately, the idea is transition from a star-studded Hollywood cast to a pack of new up-and-comers, a process that will take months, if not years.
From (Humphrey) Bogart to (Xander) Bogaerts. Given the disdain with which we all held the Sox of September 2011-October 2012, let's remember that this is what we all wanted: to build something again. More than anything, what we need from the Red Sox this year are some real signs of progress in the second half of the season, by which the members of Red Sox Youth should be having a greater impact. Next offseason may prove the most important of the Henry Era - however long it lasts - because, by then, the Sox should have won many of you back.
And once the Red Sox get closer, will they stick to their plan of rebuilding from within? Or will they succumb to their indisputable urges and start focusing on the ratings again?
Growth, as we all know, is not necessarily linear. Over the next months and years, there will be an ebb and flow to this process. We will all need to be patient. But for now, at least, it certainly feels as if the Red Sox are building something again.
And this time, they truly seem to be building it as much for you as they are for themselves.
* * *
A few words on the end of this blog: Eventually, we all say goodbye. This seems a lot less final.
For those of who you care, I am fairly certain I will write again. I'm just not sure when or where. The Globe and Boston.com were gracious enough to keep me on as contributor when I pursued other endeavors late in 2009, and they were willing to keep me now. I cannot possibly thank them enough for that because I've recently wondered (quite frequently) whether I was really pulling my weight.
But as we all know, things change. Parenthood requires more and more energy as children grow older, and every endeavor demands greater focus and commitment over time. There just haven't been enough hours in the day for me of late. So that means cutting back, redistributing, reorganizing.
To all of you who have happily or critically read this blog, thank you for showing up. The Globe has indicated a willingness to keep blog archives accessible, so for nostalgia's sake, I've picked out a few of my personal favorites and identified them in the "Top 5" list on the side of this page.
Writing and talking about sports in Boston remains a passion of mine and always will. Thanks again to all of you for giving me the opportunity to do that, for keeping me in line, for offering validation. There is simply no better place in America to do what we do.
See you later.
Paul Pierce looks energized, Jason Terry reborn, Jeff Green unleashed. Maybe it is all just a coincidence. Or maybe it has something to do with the absence of the petulant Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics held on by their oversized shoelaces for a 106-104 win over the Los Angeles Clippers at the TD Garden on Sunday, Boston nearly torching a lead as big as 19 with five minutes to go in the third quarter. And yet, when all was said and done, the Celtics improved to 4-0 since losing Rondo to a season-ending knee injury, which cannot help but make one wonder about addition by subtraction.
"It's 'The Truth,' " Kevin Garnett told reporters when asked about the late-game heroics of Paul Pierce, who rained a step-back 3-point in the kisser of Clippers defender Matt Barnes to lock down the victory with 2.5 seconds left. "He's the original Celtic. We go how he goes."
My, how quickly things change. For the bulk of this season, Garnett and the rest of the Celtics repeatedly told us how Rondo was their new leader, their soul, their heart. Now Rondo is gone and the Celtics look and sound as unified as they have ever been, regardless of what waits at the end of this season.
Here's the thing about being a fan of any team, be they the `86 Celtics or the `13 Bobcats, the '27 Yankees or the '12 Red Sox: all you can ever really ask is that they max out. Anyone with half a brain recognizes that the Celtics are in the sixth year of three-year plan. People can delude themselves into thinking that the Celtics ever had a chance at a championship this year, but the goal has always been to go as far as LeBron James (or possibly Derrick Rose) would let them.
The Celtics aren't going to win the championship without Rondo this year and they weren't going to win it with him, either. But they are now playing better team basketball than they have at any other point this season and they infinitely more likeable, a combination that makes them far more entertaining, particularly to those of us who have long felt Rondo is, well, overrated.
For those who watched the first half of Sunday's victory, here's what you say: a brilliant demonstration of team basketball that bordered on the scintillating. Ten Celtics stopped on the floor in building a 59-40 lead. All of them scored and contributed at least one rebound or assist. Nobody reached double figures. The Celtics moved the ball, played defense (at least in the second quarter), ran. James Naismith was glowing.
Was the entire game like that? No. But for the last week, the Celtics have generally given maximum effort, shared the ball, played to their potential. They look a little like the Indiana Pacers of a year ago. The most damning blow the Celtics have suffered in the last week or so has been the loss of Jared Sullinger, whose absence on Sunday was a significant reason the Clippers dominated the paint, sometimes dunked at will, generally controlled the boards.
If the Celtics missed Rondo at all in this game -- and, at times, they did -- his absence was most noticeable (and costly) in the second half, particularly the fourth quarter, when the Celtics inexplicably slowed their tempo and their offense grew stagnant. Boston simply took no care of the basketball. The Celtics turned the ball over an astonishing seven times in the fourth quarter, Pierce and Courtney Lee taking turns spitting up the ball as if each were Ray Rice.
This is why Doc Rivers wants the Celtics to push the tempo now more than ever, of course. He knows that if the Celtics get dragged into a methodical, half-court game where defenses can effectively pressure the ball, Boston is cooked.
Beyond that, ask yourself this: how many players on these Celtics have played their best basketball since Rondo's season ended? Terry looks a different player. So does Pierce. Lee and Bradley are a dynamic defensive tandem, the latter drawing a huge offensive foul on Jamal Crawford late in Sunday's game because he was simply in Crawford's shorts. All too often, players like Rondo are praised for making people are them better, but it certainly feels as if the opposite happened to these Celtics.
Rondo made them all worse.
Will this all continue? Only heaven knows. Between now and the Feb. 21 trading deadline, Danny Ainge certainly has some decisions to make, as it pertains to this season and beyond. According to a Sporting News report on Sunday, the Clippers are interested in acquiring Garnett for package that included Eric Bledsoe and the 32-year-old Caron Butler, and trading Garnett is one of the many scenarios Ainge must consider. The Celtics simply do not have any untouchables on their roster, though that has been true for years, not weeks or months.
What the last week should confirm for all of us, beyond a doubt, is that Rondo is hardly untouchable, too.
If you couldn't see that before, you should certainly see it now.
Just how important is Rajon Rondo to the operation of the Celtics?
Maybe now we’ll all get our answer.
And so after all of that, after all of the discussion about extending the window of the Kevin Garnett Era and the best way to build the Celtics, Rondo is the one lost to a season-ending injury, the Celtics revealing on Sunday that the point guard tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Friday’s devastating double-overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks. What a truly dispiriting defeat that was. The Celtics subsequently went out on Sunday and defeated the Miami Heat without the man deemed to be their leader, and story lines were butting up against one another like sections of the parquet floor.
Ray Allen came. Rondo went. The Celtics plodded on.
Small samples and large samples are entirely different things, but the Celtics so far this season are 18-20 with Rondo, 3-3 without him. During last year’s pivotal Game 2 against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, the Celtics won without their multitalented point guard. All of that has only fueled the debate about Rondo as much as it has about his position, about the value of offense defense and everything in between.
Pick a side. The Miami Heat won the NBA championship last season with Mario Chalmers at point guard. The Chicago Bulls crumbled without Derrick Rose. In the end, both those stories were more about the star player (i.e. LeBron James) on each team more than they were about the position he plays, which brings us back to Rondo and his admittedly unique skill set.
Just how much is he really worth?
On the surface, we can all make snap judgments about how Rondo’s absence will impact the Celtics. In theory, their defense could improve. Their half-court offense could suffer. Their rebounding will take a reasonably sized hit and their ball-handling an even bigger one, the latter of which could be rather ugly if and when the Celtics reach the postseason.
Now the facts: With Rondo playing a team-high 37.4 minutes per game this season, the Celtics are under .500. They rank 21st in scoring offense and 11th in scoring defense, the latter of which improved only after Avery Bradley returned. They are a relatively mediocre 12th in the league in turnovers.
By now, Rondo’s shortcomings are extremely well-known. No matter what the numbers say, and despite some improvement, he is not a particularly good shooter. He plays cheat defense and is lazy on the ball. The Celtics offense sputters when Rondo is not attacking the basket, and he seems interested in playing some nights, disinterested in others.
From the very start of this season, the Celtics have all but put up lawn signs in the campaign to anoint Rondo as their leader. Unsurprisingly, they have been inconsistent and erratic. Too often, the Celtics have looked like they are coasting, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Paul Pierce has looked old. Kevin Garnett has played reasonably well, but often seems to be on his own, minute-managing program.
So here’s the real question: With Rondo out, does the hierarchy of the Celtics change? Are Garnett and Pierce forced to reclaim the leadership roles they ceded, thereby giving the Celtics more of the day-to-day consistency the team clearly needs? Or does everyone now take a hands-off approach, leading to an on-court disintegration that forces Ainge’s hand as we approach the trading deadline?
Fascinating, to be sure.
For what it’s worth, the Celtics went into New York without Rondo this season – he was serving yet another one-game suspension – and won. They played against the Heat without him on Sunday – and won. Pending the return of Rose in Chicago, Miami and New York currently stand as the two best teams in a weak Eastern Conference, and there is at least some evidence that the Celtics can still compete with both.
Does this mean the Celtics can beat the Heat in a seven-game series? Hardly. But that was true when Rondo was healthy, too. Nobody ever really looked at this season and expected the Celtics to defeat Miami in the postseason. Most of us just believed that the Celtics might have what it takes to beat just anybody else in the Eastern Conference.
Without Rondo, that task now is obviously more difficult. They will miss his talent. But Rondo’s leadership skills always have been in question, and the simple truth is that the 2012-13 Celtics have been disjointed and fractured. They have not often looked like a team.
Now, perhaps, they have a chance to become one.
Halfway through the football season, I believe the NFL is as unpredictable as it has been in any year of recent memory, that line between winning and losing is microscopically thin, which is to say that the Patriots are every bit as good as a number of teams in both the AFC and the NFC.
Of course, that also suggests the Patriots are no better.
As a result, I believe Aqib Talib was worth the price of a fourth-round draft pick, whether he succeeds here or not, because the Patriots have the youngest team of Bill Belichick's tenure and because they do not need another fourth-round draft pick.
What they need is someone who can cover.
I believe that David Ortiz should thank his lucky stars that the Red Sox agreed to give him a two-year contract for a guaranteed $26 million, no matter how small the relative risk for Boston, because I believe there was no team out there willing to give up a high draft pick to sign a soon-to-be 37-year-old designated hitter who just missed 72 games with an Achilles injury.
But I also believe that the Red Sox needed left-handed power in their lineup and that the free-agent market is thin, and that Ortiz isn't the kind of potentially damaging signee that Carl Crawford was.
I believe Barack Obama will win the Presidential election on Tuesday.
I believe that Scott Brown will win the local Senatorial election.
And I believe that neither one of those predictions should be regarded as any reflection on my beliefs or voting intentions.
I believe the NBA would be a better league if the Los Angeles Lakers fell completely on their faces because there are two players in the league no more unlikeable than Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, no matter how many championships Bryant has won.
Though it is still worth noting that Howard has never won any.
I believe that NHL owners and players are on the brink of permanently damaging their league if they are not careful, that they should get back on the ice as quickly as possible.
Because I believe the Bruins are hurt as much as any team by this lockout, because the Bruins have a nucleus in place that should be able to contend for Stanley Cup Championships for years to come.
Unfortunately, I also believe that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are obstructionists to a deal more than conduits.
I believe the Red Sox should sign Cody Ross to nothing more than a two-year contract with some sort of option for a third season, vesting or otherwise, and that Ross' salary should fall somewhere in the range of $7-9 million per year.
Because, while I like Ross, I believe he's quite replaceable.
I believe the Red Sox' catching problems are far more significant that we are giving them credit for.
And that the Red Sox should look into trading Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavaranway and picking one or the other.
I believe the Celtics will need time to develop chemistry, but that people are overrating the club and its potential, and that the Celtics are not nearly as good as many think they are.
Because Kevin Garnett is another year older.
And because so is Paul Pierce.
I believe that Devin McCourty is a far better safety than he is a cornerback, that the Patriots would be far more prudent to keep McCourty at safety along with Patrick Chung, and to start Talib at the left cornerback position with Alfonzo Dennard on the right side.
I believe that Chandler Jones is certified, bona fide, and undeniable freak, which is to say that I believe Jones has the chance to go down as one of the most prolific defensive players in Patriots history if he stays healthy, keeps his head screwed on straight and is committed to getting better.
I believe the Atlanta Falcons are still a bit of a mirage.
And that the Houston Texans are the real deal.
And that the Denver Broncos are rapidly become one of the more intriguing teams in the league.
I believe that Tyler Seguin is having one whale of a team in Switzerland, because there is no better place than Europe for a 20-year-old bachelor with world class skills and a pile of money.
And that there is also no more dangerous one.
I believe that "Argo" is worth seeing.
And that most science fiction movies are not.
And that any film featuring Kevin James or Adam Sandler (or both) is generally a waste of time.
I believe that Mike Aviles is in Cleveland now because Terry Francona wanted him there, because Francona always had an affection for players like Aviles and Willie Bloomquist or Eric Hinske and Mark Kotsay, who could play in the infield and outfield and make his life easier.
The way most any manager would.
I believe the Celtics will get significantly better the day Avery Bradley returns to the team because I believe the energy Bradley brings on defense is something the Celtics currently lack terribly.
I believe that Ray Allen acted like a baby.
And that John Farrell will not.
And I believe, with little hesitation or doubt, that the golden age of Boston sports is far from complete, that we have entered a stage in our sports history where our teams will be expected to contend for championships year in and year out, because success fuels success.
And because winning is terribly, terribly hard to give up.
The Celtics were getting blasted by the Miami Heat the last time you saw them, last June, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. That was when the crowd at TD Garden broke into a familiar chant, spontaneously and sincerely, sending the team back to Miami in what would prove the final days of the new Big Three.
Don't you remember?
Let's go, Cel-tics.
“I want to say to all the fans, thank you guys. I’ve never in my life experienced anything like this — in any sport,” Celtics centerpiece Kevin Garnett said at the time. “I’m just truly blessed to be a Celtic and be a part of the city of Boston. That’s what’s up to all the New Englanders around here. It’s [expletive] crazy.”
And so here we are now, five months later, and the Celtics will be back on the parquet floor on Friday night for their home opener against the Milwaukee Bucks. Garnett is back. Paul Pierce is back. Ray Allen is gone. Rajon Rondo has officially been elevated to core status, displacing Allen at the center of a Celtics operation that is, in some ways, amid an indisputable state of transition.
Out with the new Big Three, in with the Big Three III.
Or maybe just the Big III.
No matter the moniker, the challenges for the Celtics are now crystal clear in the wake of Monday's season-opening loss at Miami, and not solely because the Heat remain the class of the NBA. The Celtics have work of their own. What vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge amassed over the winter was a collection of talent. Over the next several weeks and months, the Celtics must meld into a team, no small task in the current landscape of professional sports.
The defense, after all, clearly needs work. How and where does Jeff Green fit in? Will Jared Sullinger play a lot or a little? And how, exactly, will coach Doc Rivers manage a roster that includes Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa, the last of whom joined the Celtics late and jumped into the offense as if playing in a neighborhood pickup game?
Roles must be determined, chemistry assessed. How these Celtics fit together is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of Rivers' tenure as coach because, for the first time since Garnett arrived here during the summer of 2007, the Celtics' DNA has been significantly altered.
Five years ago, we all looked at the Celtics team the way some now look at the Los Angeles Lakers, who have flanked Kobe Bryant with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Before the Celtics played a game, we wondered about their ability to mesh. We had concerns about the bench. But those Celtics bonded almost instantly, winning their first eight en route a sterling 29-3 record after 32 games. In the third game of the year, on a night when eyes opened all across New England, the Celtics stormed to a 77-38 halftime lead against the completely overwhelmed Denver Nuggets, so impressively and seamlessly working together that we had to almost immediately alter our thinking.
Those were the days of ubuntu.
Culminating in Allen's departure over the summer, the Celtics have since undergone massive changes. In retrospect, most recently, maybe we underestimated the impact. Garnett, Pierce, and Allen made such a fluid transformation five years ago that we may have forgotten they were the exception rather than the rule, even at a time when star players seem to change teams far more regularly.
In their first year together, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were a rather pedestrian 9-8 after 17 games. Bryant, Nash, and Howard have begun 0-2. The point is that chemistry often takes time in the NBA, even when the involved parties are among the most accomplished players in the league.
In the case of the Celtics, the nucleus of this team has been altered more than we think. Garnett and Pierce simply are not the same players anymore, and Rivers has admitted that he must continue to curb their minutes. That means far more time when neither will be on the floor. That will often leave Rondo to play with a supporting cast he is all but entirely unfamiliar with, including Jeff Green, whose misfortunes have limited him to just 27 career regular season games with the Celtics, two of them starts.
Do we understand how new this team really is? Do we? And come playoff time, as was the case even with the 2007-08 team, the Celtics will have to go through a transition again.
By then, of course, the Celtics will be a far different team than they are now, and not solely because Avery Bradley presumably will be back. (The Celtics were a different team with him on the floor last year.) Rivers will have many of his answers by then, will know who fits with whom, and we all will have a far better understanding of where the Celtics area headed in the short term and the long.
In retrospect, the chants of the TD Garden crowd late in Game 6 last spring were a sendoff for those Celtics, whose future was similarly uncertain.
Against Milwaukee on Friday night at the same TD Garden, the Celtics will reintroduce themselves to their home fans, and the bonding process will start anew.
Everything is always subject to change in the world of professional sports, particularly when Danny Ainge is involved, but what happened during the annual NBA Draft on Thursday night certainly felt like a transition. With the 21st and 22nd selections in the first round, Ainge and the Celtics did exactly what everyone expected them to do, drafting a combination of youth and size to alter a Boston roster badly in need of both.
The critical question: Was Ainge merely fortifying his roster, or was he beginning to overhaul it? The latter suddenly seems far more likely, with or without Garnett, unless Ainge can unexpectedly orchestrate the kind of magic trick he executed precisely five years ago, the summer he unloaded what seemed like his entire roster for Ray Allen and the irrepressible Garnett.
And so now, as then, we wait on KG.
Or the next KG.
We all have our feelings on Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, but here's the truth: Not a single one of us knows any more now than we did eight years ago, in 2004, the last time Ainge made at least two selections in the first round. That year, selecting 15th, 24th and 25th, the Celtics plucked Al Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen, the last two of whom he said were ready to play in the NBA. Jefferson ended up as the biggest piece in the deal that brought Garnett to Boston, though he played three seasons here in the interim.
These Celtics are seemingly in better shape to compete than those Celtics were, but we all know how it works in the NBA. You are either a legitimate NBA title contender or you are not. There is really no gray area. Truth be told, the Celtics probably moved into the far more crowded of those two neighborhoods two years ago, a big reason this year's seven-game saga against the Miami Heat was so enjoyable.
Maybe that is why Ainge seems fully prepared to move on, without, perhaps, both Garnett and Ray Allen, particularly at a time when LeBron James is in the prime of his career and has seemingly solved the riddle.
"I feel like I'm over the sentimental for two reasons," Ainge said last week. "First, as an organization, we have given these guys everything we've had to try and give them opportunities for success. I feel the players have given us everything they had. They don't owe us anything. And we don't owe them anything. It's just business."
All of this brings us back to Garnett, who played the last months of the season, for the most part, like a man intent on leaving nothing in the tank. If you had to guess, you'd swear he was preparing to walk. Garnett has played 17 years in the NBA and earned nearly $300 million in salary alone, and he is a surefire Hall-of-Famer. He has been to two Finals and won one. He ranks 12th in league history in minutes played. Garnett could leave the NBA now damn near the top of his game and with positively no shame, and it is quite possible he has already told the Celtics that he intends to.
The Celtics, for their part, have given every indication they want Garnett back, and his return makes sense for them no matter what. Even without any major additions through free agency or trade, Garnett is the perfect mentor for players like Sullinger and Melo. He is a model of commitment, work ethic and the team concept. Finding a true NBA superstar with a greater understanding of team is darned near impossible, something that has made Garnett the perfect centerpiece in Celtics green.
He isn't (wasn't?) a scorer like Kobe Bryant, a corporation like LeBron James. He is (was?) a basketball player. Try to find anything about Garnett's personal life, his interests beyond basketball, his hangouts. Paris Hilton he ain't. No music career. No movie appearances. No time on the gossip pages. For someone with such presence on the basketball court, he's damn near invisible off it.
Would Garnett be willing to come back in a largely ceremonial position, a big brother for players like Sullinger and Melo? The answer is likely no. As Ainge himself said, the beauty of the five-year pact between the Celtics, Garnett and Allen is that everyone got what they were promised.
In recent days, especially, there has been much speculation concerning the Celtics' interest and objectives entering this draft. On Thursday afternoon, multiple reports surfaced that the Celtics were trying to move up in the first round to draft head coach Doc Rivers' son, Austin, ultimately chosen by the New Orleans Hornets with the 10th pick. In the end, the Celtics ended up where they began at Nos. 21 and 22, attempting to dress their most obvious needs with at least one project.
Lest anyone forget, this summer's NBA free agent market is as thin as Louis Orr or, for that matter, Garnett himself. If Garnett returns, the Celtics lose much of their salary cap flexibility anyway. Ainge's best chance to work a miracle was in the days and hours leading up to the 21st and 22nd selections on Thursday night, choices that ultimately took place without interruption.
In the process, maybe Kevin Garnett made his choice, too.
Today, on the one-year anniversary of the Bruins' Game 7 victory over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, I believe that Boston is still the best sports town in America, that no one else really compares, that even in the absence of a title since then Boston has played for one championship (in the NFL) and came within a whisker of playing for another (in the NBA).I believe that despite similar records since Sept. 1 of last year, the Red Sox are not at all like the Chicago Cubs and that comparing the plights of the two franchises is a convenience of mathematics and an obvious thing to do given the goings and comings of Theo Epstein.
I believe the Patriots are loaded, with a deep and talented roster, and that they are about to prove that losing the Super Bowl does not jinx your chances for the next one.
Rather, I believe the loss can improve them.
I believe that Kevin Garnett is going wake up one day and retire, that an impending departure from the NBA is what fueled him, and that Danny Ainge now faces perhaps his greatest challenge as the Celtics' basketball architect.
Because when Ainge rebuilt the Celtics the first time, we didn't have the expectations we do now.
I believe that as baseball detaches from the steroids era, pitching throughout the game has improved while the pitching in Boston has deteriorated.
And I would like to know why.
I believe that Tim Thomas is sticking it to the Bruins, at least on some level, though I believe there is probably a whole heck of a lot more to the story.
I believe that Aaron Hernandez is really a wide receiver, that Daniel Fells and Bo Scaife are now behind Rob Gronkowski on the depth chart, and that Tom Brady has more toys to play with this year than his children.
I believe that if Rajon Rondo can continue to improve as a shooter, that people like me will have to admit that we were wrong and that Rondo could become an indisputable force for years to come.
Because when Rondo made his jumpers in Game 2 of the Miami series, that is exactly what he was.
I believe that Theo Epstein was a good general manager here, that he inherited a good team from Dan Duquette, and that if media people could put aside their personal and professional biases they would have seen that a long time ago instead of seeing it now.
Because I believe that Epstein was responsible for, among others, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria, and J.D. Drew, and that he wanted Jose Contreras as badly as he wanted Matsuzaka.
I also believe that Epstein never wanted anything to do with John Lackey, that the Red Sox player development system generally flourished during his tenure, that Red Sox ownership should have coughed up the extra dough and listened to him when he wanted to sign Mark Teixeira.
Because I believe, in the event you have not noticed, that the balance of power in the American League East shifted when Teixeira ended up in New York, that the Red Sox have not won a playoff game since, that Boston ultimately had to give up basically the same money and highly regarded prospects to get Adrian Gonzalez.
I believe the Bruins need to add a top six forward because both Milan Lucic (restricted) and Nathan Horton (unrestricted) are free agents at the end of next season, and that a salary increase for either seems unwise.
I believe that Roger Clemens is guilty.
I believe the same of Jerry Sandusky.
And the same of Lance Armstrong.
I believe that LeBron James is getting closer, that he is maturing as a player and person, that he is finally starting to understand that all the world ever wanted was to see a little humility.
But I also believe that he is going to lose again this year.
I believe that the Miami Dolphins signed Chad Ochocinco almost exclusively for "Hard Knocks."
I believe that Tim Tebow will work out far better with the New York Jets than anyone imagines.
I believe that Devin McCourty should remain at safety unless or until the Patriots have injuries at cornerback.
I believe the Red Sox should do everything in their power to start making the transition now to younger players like Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Kalish, and Ryan Lavarnway, because I think the Sox will be far better off in the long term as a result.
I also believe the Red Sox will be better off in the short term.
I believe that summer is now an underrated time of year in the world of professional sports, what with the major league trading deadline, free agency in the NHL and NBA, and the start of training camp and personnel evaluations in the NFL.
And I believe, finally, that Boston will somehow be among a group of cities in the middle of it all, that administrators for the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots and Bruins will looking to further extend what is already one of the great runs in professional sports, the local teams now having produced a stunning 16 trips to the league semifinals or better since the start of this millennium.
I believe that has to be some kind of record.
This kind of game has always been there for LeBron James, always within arm's reach of the most talented player in the NBA. And if the Celtics are now to defy the odds and still win this Eastern Conference series against James and the Miami Heat, the key seems obvious.
They must derail James before he gets started on Saturday night, lest James become the locomotive he was at the TD Garden on Thursday.
The performance? Oh it was prolific, historic, downright Jordanesque, James going for 45 points and 15 rebounds in 45 minutes of the Heat's season-saving, 98-79 win over the Celtics. The numbers still do not do it justice. James had 14 points in the first quarter, 16 in the second and 11 more in the third, scoring 41 of his team's first 74 points on 17 of 22 shooting. Consequently, the fourth quarter was nothing more than a formality, true garbage time, Celtics coach Doc Rivers pulling centerpiece Kevin Garnett off the floor with a stunning 8:26 to go.
This is the way James likes it, of course.
Because the fourth quarter has never truly been his comfort zone, in this series or any other.
Consider: in the first quarters of the six games between the Celtics and Heat this postseason, James has scored 13, 6, 16, 12, 7 and 14 points on 29 of 49 shooting, an average of 11.3 points per game and a shooting percentage of 59.2. In the fourth quarters, he has scored 5, 6, 4, 6, 9 and 4 points on 11 of 26 shooting, an average of 5.8 points and a shooting percentage of 42.3. None of that has done anything to dispel the notion that James is far better at the beginning than he is at the end, which has been the biggest criticism thus far in James' championship-free career.
Here is a breakdown of James' first and fourth quarters in this series:
Game 1 - 13 points (6-9 FG)
Game 2 - 6 points (1-6 FG)
Game 3 - 16 points (7-12 FG)
Game 4 - 12 points (6-10 FG)
Game 5 - 7 points (3-5 FG)
Game 6 - 14 points (6-7 FG)
Total - 11.3 points average (29-49, 59.2 percent)
Game 1 - 5 points (2-3 FG)
Game 2 - 6 points (0-4 FG)
Game 3 - 4 points (2-4 FG)
Game 4 - 6 points (2-5 FG)
Game 5 - 9 points (3-6 FG)
Game 6 - 4 points (2-4 FG)
Total - 34 points, 5.8 points average (11-26, 42.3 percent)
In fairness to James, let's all acknowledge that his fourth-quarter numbers in Game 6 are deceiving for an obvious reason: the game was essentially over. Rivers himself admitted as much when he yanked Garnett, whom Rajon Rondo followed to the bench shortly thereafter. LeBron's numbers dipped in the fourth quarter of Game 6 because he didn't have to play.
But then, isn't that kind of the point in this series? Entering Game 6 on Thursday, Miami had outscored the Celtics by two points in the series, yet trailed in games, 3-2. With the series tied, Miami's scoring edge is now 21 points. The Heat have won the two games in this series decided by more than 10 points (Games 1 and 6) while the Celtics have gone 3-1 in the other four, and the most ardent Celtics fans will tell you that Boston would have won Game 2 as well were it not for some very questionable officiating.
Faced with the need for a big game, James can certainly deliver it -- as he did in Game 6 and as he did in Game 4 (40 points, 18 rebounds) against the Indiana Pacers. There is simply no stopping James or the Heat once they get rolling, which plays to the strengths of both James and the Heat.
Simply put, James and the Heat are frontrunners. They have been since their overhyped creation. Once the Heat get you down, they can beat you into submission. But if any club can withstand Miami's early assaults and put Miami into situation where the Heat must execute under the pressure that can only come in the final minutes, the entire equation changes.
Is James' performance in Game 6 somehow lessened by the existence of a meaningless fourth quarter? Hardly. If the Celtics couldn't keep up, that was their problem. (And it was.) We can all find examples of James' great postseason performances during his career, from the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit in 2007 to the Pacers and Celtics this spring. But trying to find James' most clutch moments is something altogether different, his last one coming, perhaps, against the Orlando Magic in a 2009 Eastern Conference final series that James and his Cleveland Cavaliers ultimately lost.
LeBron James is a basketball bully, folks, which does not diminish his talent. Mike Tyson intimidated opponents with his raw power, too. Tiger Woods has never won a major tournament in which he has failed to hold at least a share of the lead entering the final round. All of three of those men are regarded among the greats in their profession, though James remains the only one without a professional championship.
In the end, here's the point: James was transcendent in Game 6, but the fact that this game ended up as a blowout had far more to do with a lackluster performance by the Celtics. Lest anyone forget, James was every bit as brilliant against the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics in 2008 -- he had 45 that day, too -- but Paul Pierce answered with 41 and the Celtics won the game. Those Celtics did not implode like these Celtics did, which is why Boston is not going to the next round yet.
Come Saturday night, based on the pattern of this series, the pace of this blueprint for this game seems clear. James will come out like gangbusters in the first quarter, as he has essentially done in all six games, and the Celtics must withstand it. They must either stand in James way or answer on the other end of the floor, staying within striking distance. The Celtics were underdogs in this series from the start, remember, and the goal always has been to be right there with Miami and James at the end, with a chance to win.
After all, the series between the Celtics and Miami Heat may have taken another unexpected turn and changed some on Thursday night.
But Lebron James and the Miami Heat did not.
The Miami Heat, like the Celtics before them, boarded their plane home in a state of utter disbelief, appalled with the officiating, distraught with the reality. In Miami last week, Doc Rivers lamented the free-throw totals. In Boston last night, Pat Riley chalked it all up to a "typical night" in the TD Garden. And in the end, what we have here in the NBA Eastern Conference finals now is a certified barnburner.
The Celtics, it seems, are once again intent on going out in one final blaze of glory.
Seemingly defeated and demoralized last week following as Game 2 loss at the American Airlines Arena, the Celtics completed a weekend sweep of the Miami Heat on Sunday night with a 93-91 overtime victory splattered with big plays and controversial calls as much as sharpening intensity and high drama. And so the Eastern Conference finals are now tied at two games apiece with three to play, the Celtics and Heat now demonstrating an obvious distaste for one another that has been simmering beneath the surface for some time.
And so, as ESPN reporter Doris Burke asked, what was key to the Celtics' offense in the first half on Sunday night?
"Them complaining and crying to the referees in transition," answered a rather blunt Rajon Rondo, the Celtics point guard.
So there you have it. The Celtics regard these Heat as whiners, moaners, criers and kvetchers. And lest anyone think otherwise, the Miami Heat think the same about the Celtics.
And for the most part, both teams are right.
Cry about the officiating, if you must, but give them men in stripes credit for at least this much on Sunday night: no one was off limits. There were no sacred cows. Of the 10 starters who played in Game 4, seven of them collected at least four fouls, a group that includes LeBron James, Joel Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass and Rondo. The other three starters all had three fouls. Pierce and James both fouled out -- Pierce just 38 seconds into overtime, James roughly three minutes later -- stripping each club of its high scorer during intense minutes with a season at stake.
Know what that is? A test of mental toughness. A test of wills and character and grit. A fight between the old guard of the Eastern Conference and the new, either the Celtics or James fighting to be in the Finals for a sixth straight year.Think about it: James was there with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, with the Heat in 2011. The Celtics were there in 2008 and 2010. In 2009, with Kevin Garnett injured, James and Cleveland lost in these Conference Finals to the Orlando Magic.
Of course, the Celtics are precisely why James chose Miami, why he chose Wade, why Chris Bosh also was invited to conspire with Riley to form the NBA's latest dream team. The Heat were formed to dethrone the Celtics, against whom James failed during his final years in Cleveland.
For Garnett and the Celtics, maybe that is part of what is driving them now, individually and collectively. Over the weekend, NBA.com writer Steve Aschburner (who formerly covered Garnett for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) cited a league source close to Garnett as hinting that Garnett may retire. That only seems to fuel the competitive distaste that Garnett and James seem to have for one other, the two stars tangling up at one point on Sunday night with each giving the other a shove beneath the Celtics' hoop.
But then, in the NBA, a team takes on the personality of its star player. And as much as Pierce is matched up with James on the floor, James and Garnett remain at the center of this struggle, the former guarding the latter at the final stages of each of the last two games in the absence of Miami big man Bosh.
Before James, after all, Garnett was perhaps the original high school phenom who made his way straight to the NBA, even if he was just the No. 5 overall selection of the 1995 draft.
Where this series now goes from here remains anybody's guess, though there are some things we can discern with relatively certainty. Both teams are intent on fighting. Neither is going away. The officiating will remain an enormous factor and the object of much subjectivity, and the team that best handles such a distraction might very well be the club that plays Oklahoma City or San Antonio for the championship.
If you are a Celtics fan intent on believing in conspiracies, you should resign yourself to the fact now that the Celtics are not going to get the calls in Miami on Tuesday night that they got in Boston over the weekend. That is just how the NBA works. As much as NBA critics like to lament the fact that the NBA is a star-driven league, they often overlook the fact that the NBA favors home teams, too. The Celtics knew that when they put this group together five years ago, and the Celtics made it a priority that year to get home court throughout the playoffs, at one point setting their sights on an undefeated home season.
In this series, the Miami Heat obviously have home court advantage, something Miami earned while going 46-20 during a season in which the Celtics started 15-17. Had the Celtics played something even close to representative basketball in the first half of the year, maybe Games 5 and 7 of this series would have been played in Boston. Alas, they will not. And so if the Celtics are indeed to beat the Heat during what feels like a final stand, they will have to win at least once in Miami this week, validating an NBA adage as old as the league itself.
The series doesn't start until someone wins a road game.
But if Games 1-4 of this affair were nothing more than preliminaries, then we are in for one heck of a finish.
In the interest of fairness, then, let us all agree on something: if the Celtics play as they did on Wednesday in an epic 115-111 overtime loss, there will be no shame in that. The Celtics can cut ties with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett can retire - if that is what each chooses - and no one can say that the Celtics failed to meet expectations, that they cowered, that they quit.
As Globe columnist Bob Ryan so aptly put it weeks ago, the Celtics are, after all, in the fifth year of a three-year plan.
What happens from here is anybody's guess, the Celtics now facing the indisputable reality of needing to win the next two games against these Miami Heat, on Friday night and on Sunday at the TD Garden. Anything less would almost certainly spell their demise. What the Celtics now face is a list of challenges that seem insurmountable, presented here in no particular order of importance:
1. The officials. Everyone from Danny Ainge (following Game 2) to the most rabid Celtics fans are ranting about the latest NBA conspiracy, and no one can dispute that the league has (and always will have) a credibility problem with regard to the officiating. In basketball, complaints about the officiating go all the way back to the peach basket, though the Celtics in this series have their share of legitimate complaints.
Fact: the refs blew the call on Rajon Rondo's overtime drive. The rash of technical fouls with which the Celtics were hit in Game 1 was an embarrassment. At home this postseason, Miami has attempted an average of 32.4 free throws per game, a number that leads all teams in the NBA. And since the start of the 2001 playoffs, only three NBA players have attempted as many as 24 free throws in a game, two of them (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) currently playing for the Heat. (The other is Dirk Nowitzki.)
Following Game 2, even Celtics coach Doc Rivers noted that Miami shot 47 free throws to the Celtics' 28. Of course, no one in Boston complained four years ago when the Celtics shot 38 free throws to the Los Angeles' Lakers' 10 in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, choosing instead to mock Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who whined about the fact that Leon Powe (Jackson called him Pow) had more free throw attempts (13) than the entire Lakers squad.
If you think the officiating is going to flip in Game 3, don't be so sure. In the NBA, star players get the star treatment at home and on the road. This postseason, among the 16 NBA playoffs teams, the Celtics rank 13th in average free throw attempts at home (20.7). On the road, the Heat rank fifth (24.6). That means Miami still could end up with more free throws.
2. Age and inconsistency. These go hand in hand for obvious reasons. The older you are, the harder is to fire up those engines on a regular basis. If you really want to examine it, the Celtics have not played two consecutive strong games this postseason. They have not won two consecutive games since Game 6 against Atlanta and Game 1 against Philadelphia. On Wednesday night, Kevin Garnett played 45 minutes, the most he has ever played in a Celtics uniform.
Ray Allen played rather well on Wednesday night, but can he put together two good games at this stage? And can Paul Pierce, who has fouled out in two of the last three games, come even remotely close to keeping up with younger, more athletic players like Andre Iguodala (of Philadelphia) and, of course, James?
As for Rajon Rondo, whose 53-minute, 44-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound performance in Game 2 will go down in history, there are questions there, too. Rondo certainly opened eyes on Wednesday, shooting from the outside with such deadly accuracy that ESPN Chris Broussard rightfully categorized his Game 2 performance as the NBA's "worst nightmare." If Rondo can start making jump shots (or even scoring) with any regularity in this series, the balance could shift considerably. But as we all know, Rondo's resume is littered with examples of erratic behavior, on the court and off.
The bottom line: the Celtics seemed to hit Miami with their best shot in Game 2. And lost.
3. Miami is the better team. Rondo was the best player on the floor in Game 2, but James and Dwyane Wade remain the two best players in the series. That was true last year, when Miami won in five games, and it is true now. Add in the play of Miami's role players and the Celtics' injuries - most notably to Avery Bradley - and the Celtics don't seem to have the front-end talent or the depth to beat the Heat.
Short of getting significant contributions from their bench players - particularly Mickael Pietrus - the Celtics cannot play much better (if at all) in Game 3. Their best chance may be for Miami to play worse. But since Miami fell behind the Indiana Pacers 2-1 in their second round series, James and Wade have played as if on a mission, ripping their way through the Celtics defense at critical parts of games and attacking Boston on the interior.
With regard to James in particular, the Celtics basically did everything right against him in Game 2. They held him to 7 of 20 shooting from the field and essentially forced him to beat them from the free throw line. (He missed four free throws in the final 15 minutes.) They kept the game tight and put pressure on him at the end, James missing a pair of potential game-winning shots as time expired.
Again, despite that, the Celtics lost.
All of which cannot help but make one wonder if time is now running out on them.
In the absence of Avery Bradley entering Game 1 of this series between the Celtics and Miami Heat, we worried mostly about the wounded Ray Allen, about his inability to match up with Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade. Maybe it's time to move Paul Pierce to the top of the list.
Quite simply, he doesn't look like he can even come close to handling LeBron James anymore on either end of the court.
Even if you conceded the Pierce-James matchup entering the NBA Eastern Conference finals - and you should have - what happened at American Airlines Arena on Monday night should have you reevaluating exactly where the Celtics are positioned in what could be this era's equivalent to Custer's Last Stand. James outscored Pierce (32-12) and outrebounded him (13-2), all while making nine trips to the free throw line.
Pierce, on the other hand, did not attempt a single free throw for just the fifth time in 124 career playoff games. And the bottom line continued to tell an ugly story that suggests the James-Pierce duel is the biggest mismatch of the series:
In James' case, that figure was best in the game. In Pierce's case, that number was the worst.
“You’re not going to take everything away from them,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers told reporters after the Celtics allowed Miami to shoot precisely 50 percent in each half. “They have two sensational players. But we gave them both tonight. We let [Dwyane] Wade, we let LeBron play in extreme comfort, and we gave the other guys everything they wanted as well.’’
So why are we picking on Pierce?
Because what has happened on Monday night merely continued a rather disturbing trend.
Fact: in the last six postseason games between these teams, the Heat are 5-1, including a perfect 4-0 on their home court. Pierce played well in the one Celtics victory during that span, that coming in Game 3 of last year's second-round series. Of course, that contest also came following three days off and did little to derail James or the Heat, who promptly won the next two games to close out the series.
Starting on Monday and working our way backwards, James has now scored 32, 33 and 35 points in the last three playoff games against the Celtics - all Miami wins - while ripping down 31 rebounds and shooting 36 of 70 from the field (.514), including 7 of 16 (.438) from 3-point distance. He has attempted 27 free throws.
Here's how Pierce has matched up in those games:
Before anyone suggests that these numbers are at all skewed because they either represent a small sample or because they discount the Boston victory, you're missing the point. In the postseason, every game matters. And so long as James can outplay Pierce by a landslide in five of every six games, Miami will happily throw one game away.
We all know the reality here. Pierce is 34 and will turn 35 in October. James is 27. But for all that has been said and written about the Celtics and Heat in recent years, decidedly little attention has been paid to this matchup. Here in Boston, we have spent considerable time talking about the perceived advantages the Celtics have in Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Entering this particular series, we all acknowledged that the absence of Bradley could create a serious issue for the Celtics with regard to Wade.
We knew, too, that James is a better player than Pierce.
But if Pierce does not do at least a little more to make James' life difficult, the Heat will wipe the floor with the Celtics again and drain any potential drama from this series before anyone knows what happened.
Four years ago, as we all know, Pierce and James engaged in one of the great Game 7 duels in league history during the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. While James scored 45 points in an eventual 97-92 Celtics victory, Pierce answered with 41 and finished as a plus-10, the best number of any starter in the game. In many ways, James was every bit the force then that he is now, but Pierce was equipped to match him nearly blow for blow.
But now? Only heaven knows if Pierce has it in him to even remotely slow down LeBron - or whether the Celtics have any other options at their disposal. Allen, too, looked terribly overmatched on Monday night, and one cannot help but wonder whether Celtics coach Doc Rivers must consider some matchup changes before the teams play Game 2 on Wednesday night.
If Paul Pierce is incapable of doing a better job against LeBron James than he did on Monday night, after all, the Celtics don't stand a chance.
Rajon Rondo just kept on taking them, one jumper after the next, the ball splashing through the hoop at TD Garden on Saturday night as if there were never a doubt. A triple-double is one thing. Knocking down 18-footers in the crunchiest of crunch times is something altogether different.
Dwell on the points (13), rebounds (12) and assists (17), if you must, but let there be no doubt about regarding Rondo's greatest contribution to the Celtics in their 92-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. With the game in the balance, Rondo knocked down jumpers as if he were Dennis Johnson. That fact clearly was not lost on Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who made a pointed a reference to Rondo's sniping following a game the Celtics absolutely stole.
"I thought Rondo's shooting, obviously, down the stretch was fantastic. He wanted those shots," Rivers told reporters after the Game 1 victory. "We ran that play [for his final jumper]. We were going to switch Ray [Allen] and put him in that spot where the guy curls back up and Rondo wanted that play. He wanted the shot and he took it. That has to be great for his confidence."
And so as the Philadelphia 76ers return to the Garden floor tonight for what is now a critical Game 2 for the Philadelphians, here is the question: How are the Sixers going to defend Rondo now? During Saturday's series-opening affair, the undersized Sixers generally conceded most anything from the outside, particularly if coming from Rondo or Kevin Garnett. Philly rumbled to a 13-point lead in the second quarter and, quite simply, looked younger, healthier, more athletic.
Whether that continues tonight is anybody's guess, but the Sixers now have an interesting problem on their hands: what if Rondo actually starts to make his shots? Prior to the fourth quarter of Saturday's game, Rondo had taken six shots from 15 feet or more, three of them beyond the 3-point line. He was 0 for 6. And then, in rapid succession during the final six minutes of the fourth quarter and with the outcome in the balance, Rondo curled around a succession of picks and squared up at the left elbow, burying theretofore problematic jumpers with such assertiveness that you cannot help but wonder if he has found a sweet spot.
Were he still here, DJ himself could have told Rondo about the opportunities that can come with being labeled a poor shooter. He could have told Rondo that the label may never go away. And DJ could have told Rondo that he was nonetheless regarded as a clutch shooter because he made them on those occasions when it mattered most, operating with the kind of coolness that made him a particular favorite of Larry Bird.
"[Rondo] was aggressive, man," Celtics centerpiece Kevin Garnett told reporters. "I thought second half he did a lot better job looking for his shot."
With all due respect to Garnett, it wasn't in the second half. It was in the second half of the fourth quarter, though there is really no point in splitting hairs. If and when Rondo makes his jumpers - be they on Saturday or at Miami in April -- Rondo becomes a completely different problem and the Celtics become a completely different team. Whether Rondo can consistently develop that skill remains to be seen, and the Sixers are not likely to change their game plan against him just yet.
The triple-doubles? Oh, they're a nice thing for the stat geeks, though what they illustrate more than anything else are Rondo's unique skills as a rebounder. There just have not been many point guards who can rebound quite like him. The points and assists really should be a given considering the shooters the Celtics have on their roster, though that hardly takes away from Rondo's exceptional skills as a ball handler and distributor.
The truth? In the first half on Saturday night - and really for the first three quarters - Rondo played poorly. He was careless with the basketball. For all the flapping TNT analysts did about Rondo's compiling yet another triple-double during his postseason career, they made little mention of his whopping seven turnovers, more than half of the Celtics' total (13) for the game.
Against these Sixers, in particular, turnovers will be problematic for these Celtics. Rivers cited them as the key to the series just moments after the Celtics dispatched the Atlanta Hawks last week, understanding that limiting the Sixers to a half court offense will be critical in defending them.
In the bigger picture, beyond Game 1, we all know what is at stake for these Celtics going forward in what is likely the last run around the trio of Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. In all likelihood, barring an upset somewhere, this is the last series the Celtics should win. Beating the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference final is hardly a pipe dream, but to call the Celtics favorites would be an obvious stretch. With or without Chris Bosh, Miami has home court. Miami has LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Heat dismantled the Celtics in five during last year's Eastern Conference playoffs, and there were many who believed the Celtics had a chance in that series, too.
Additionally, of course, the Celtics currently look worn. Both Pierce and Allen looked sluggish on the floor on Saturday night, seemingly leaving Rondo with only a rejuvenated Garnett at his side. TNT sideline reporter David Aldridge noted as much during his postgame interview with Rondo, when he asked the Celtics point guard about the effect of the postseason schedule on what is indisputable an aged Celtics roster.
"As this series goes on, there's no rest for guys. There's a game every other day," Aldridge said. "For an older team, it may be difficult ...."
"It may not be. Look at us," Rondo interrupted. "We'll be fine."
Maybe they will and maybe they won't.
But if Rondo can repeat what he did Saturday in the final six minutes, all bets are off.
Sights, sounds and observations while couch-ridden:
On those nights the shots are falling, like Sunday, the Celtics look positively unbeatable. There is no one to stop them. From Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to even Mickael Pietrus, Brandon Bass and Greg Stiemsma, the Celtics have a collection of shooters like few other teams in the league. That is why LeBron James, in April, called them the best jump-shooting team in the league.
James's remarks, of course, came in the wake of the Celtics' 115-107 win at Miami last month that remains the most impressive win of this Celtics season. The Celtics shot 60.6 percent that day. They shot a preposterous 64.3 percent (9 of 14) from 3-point distance. They all but repeated the trick on Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks in an avalanche of jump shots and 3-pointers that produced a 101-79 victory and a 3-1 series lead in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Win or lose tonight in Game 5, the Celtics should rub out these Hawks in no more than six games. In the next round, the Celtics should rub out the Philadelphia 76ers or Chicago Bulls, too. All of that should set up a rematch with the Heat for the right to go to the NBA Finals, and this year's meetings with the Heat have proven that the Celtics indisputably have a chance.
A championship? That still seems unlikely. Even against Miami, the Heat (who will have home court) certainly will be favored. But short of unforseen injury, nothing should stop the Celtics from being in the NBA's final four.
For all of the credit being heaped upon Celtics vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge this season, for all of the confidence Ainge allegedly showed in his team by failing to "blow it up," we all know better. We all know Ainge was willing to (and tried to) deal. Where Ainge really gets the credit now - and over these last five years - is for continuing to add shooters to a Celtics core of Garnett, Allen and Pierce, all of whom can consistently puncture opponents from the outside.
Generally speaking, think of the complementary players Ainge has brought to Boston in complementary roles over the last five years. James Posey. Eddie House. Sam Cassell. Rasheed Wallace. Pietrus. Bass. Even Keyon Dooling, Delonte West, Sasha Pavlovic and Von Wafer. All of them were at least respectable to above-average shooters at their respective positions, acquisitions designed to make the Celtrics tougher to defend in the half-court setting that invariably categorizes the postseason.
On Sunday, did you find yourself lamenting the Celtics' absence of a low-post offense, something that is almost never talked about anymore? What about their deficiencies in rebounding? The Celtics of today are, in many ways, no different than the Celtics of 2007-08, built on defense and jump shooting, save for the slashing of someone like Avery Bradley.
As Globe columnist Bob Ryan noted on Monday, Celtics coach Doc Rivers often has described the NBA as a "make-miss league."
When the Celtics make like they did Sunday, a trip to the Eastern Conference final seems like a can't-miss proposition.
* * *
Kevin Youkilis is doing all the right things, greeting Will Middlebrooks with smiles at the top step of the dugout, but we all know what is going on here. In four games, Middlebrooks is batting .381 with three home runs and nine RBIs, all as Youkilis and the Red Sox approach the end of a deal that has the Sox holding a $13 million option for next season.
Fact: if Middlebrooks keeps playing like this, Kevin Youkilis is not getting his job back. Not this year. Not as the Red Sox continue to plod along in what seems like the definition of a bridge year, a team without an identity and, it seems, much of a chance. If and when that changes, the Red Sox can adjust accordingly. But there is one (and only one reason) to play Youkilis over Middlebrooks if and when Youkilis is ready to return.
To trade him.
Of course, we are still in the early stages of the 2012 season, and so there is ample time to evaluate these Red Sox, decide what is best for the short term and the long. But in the next two months, the Red Sox will be playing for more than just a potential place among the contenders in the American League. They will be playing for the trading deadline, for the purpose of deciding who stays and who goes in what looks to be a transitional year.
If the Sox are not within reasonable striking distance of a playoff spot come July, Youkilis is trade bait, folks. Ditto for David Ortiz or Daisuke Matsuzaka or Cody Ross or Mike Aviles. For that matter, ditto for just about anyone who might leave the Sox this fall or next. (This means you, Jacoby Ellsbury.) In the wake of last year's September collapse, the Red Sox must take a hard look at anything and everything on the trade market, particularly with youngsters like Middlebrooks, Ryan Kalish, Ryan Lavarnway and Jose Iglesias, among others, now on the cusp of the big leagues.
Middlebrooks is now only the obvious.
* * *
In some ways, Matt Light is that rarest of the rare, an NFL starter since essentially the day he set foot in an NFL traning camp. Light played 12 years and 155 games in the NFL, 153 of them starts. He started every game he played from early in his rookie year. Light protected the blind side of Drew Bledsoe (some) and Tom Brady (mostly) during five trips to the Super Bowl, six trips to the AFC championship and three Super Bowl titles, and he did so with relative consistency, professionalism, dignity.
Was Light ever the best left tackle in pro football, a Hall of Fame-type talent? No. But he was better than average, a very good player for a long time on what has been the most successfuil organization in football during his tenure, which is hardly a coincidence.
Light, in many ways, was the model Patriot during his career, a workmanlike and efficient player who did not self-promote despite a high-profile position.
With regard to the Patriots, the impact of Light's departure could be profound. Logan Mankins will be out for the start of the season. Now the Patriots will have a new left tackle (presumably Nate Solder) on the left side, too. All of that means that Brady's blind side will be guarded by an entirely new tandem, at least in the early part of the season, which may now be the biggest question for a team that has loaded up on offense and defense in free agency and the draft, in that order.
Like any player, Matt Light had good years and bad years during his time with the Patriots.
Maybe now, in his absence, we will come to understand just how good
Make it work for you, Rajon.
"I try not to let my emotions get the best of me, but I'm an emotional player," Rondo told reporters Thursday as the Celtics prepared for Game 3 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Atlanta Hawks. "I try to keep my composure and my emotions to myself, but it was a heat-of-the-battle moment and I wanted to win. We make mistakes. I'm not on trial, or anything."
Actually, Rajon, you are on trial. Such is the life of a professional athlete in this day and age, particularly in Boston, where we expect the best of the best to be intense yet mature, gifted yet hard-working, confident yet humble. Mistakes are allowed, to be sure. But getting yourself suspended for Game 2 of this playoff series was a colossal error in judgment with potentially enormous repercussions.
An exaggeration? Hardly. Take a good look at the Eastern Conference at the moment. Derrick Rose is out. Dwight Howard is out. All that stands between the Celtics and another trip to the Finals during this latest era in team history is a potential matchup with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, and we all know how the Celtics fared against Miami during the final weeks of the regular season.
If Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce haven't already missed their final chance at a title, you nearly made sure of it.
Deep down, Rondo himself knows this, which is why, according to Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Rondo waited at the team bus and thanks his teammates as they boarded their way back to Boston for Game 3. Whether Rondo expresses that type of contrition and gratitude publicly hardly matters. But those certainly sound like the actions of a contrite and grateful man, which is really all anyone should want.
What we should all want now is for Rondo to get right back on that line he indisputably crossed in Game 1, when he bumped referee Marc Davis and earned himself a one-game suspension. The Celtics have the Hawks right where they want them now with the next two games to be played at the TD Garden. And with Hawks forward Josh Smith now questionable for duty in Game 3, it is incumbent for the Celtics to do what the Hawks failed to do.
Grab the throat of your opponent.
By now, we all know the story with Rondo. The petulance. The immaturity. The stubbornness. And the skill. We can all continue to debate Rondo's true value to the Celtics, his viability as a franchise-type player given his shooting deficiencies, his worth on the trade market. But with these Celtics at this particular point in time, Rondo will have increasing value if and when the Celtics advance to the later rounds of these playoffs.
A championship? No one should be talking about that just yet. But take a good look at the remaining teams in the Eastern Conference and ask yourself this question: is there anyone out there, including the Heat, who has a better point guard than the Celtics do? Rondo is a mismatch in any series the Celtics will play before the Finals, which is why it would be interesting to see how the Heat would approach him if and when the time comes. (Dwyane Wade? LeBron James?)
On April 10, after all, Rondo was instrumental in the Celtics' 115-107 win at Miami, a game in which Rondo had 18 points and 15 assists to go along with four rebounds. Statistically, Rondo has had better games during his Celtics career. But the Rondo of that day showed little reluctance to take -- and make -- jump shots, including one 3-pointer, that prove critical on a day when the Celtics shot a whopping 60.6 percent from the field.
The Heat, undoubtedly, will challenge Rondo to repeat that trick if and when the time comes. And if he can do so with even moderate success, how the Heat defend him (and the Celtics) could change dramatically in the series.
For now, of course, the focus remains on the Hawks, who are younger and more athletic than the Celtics. (Isn't everyone?) The scheduling lords were kind enough to give the Celtics two days off between Games 2 and 3, a break that allows the older members of this team to recharge. Rondo should be as fresh as ever entering Game 3, of course, and the goal for the Celtics now should be to rub out the Hawks as quickly as possible, minimizing any tread or wear on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
No one is expecting the Celtics to win the championship this year, of course, but they are certainly positioned to make one more entertaining run in what is a deteriorating Eastern Conference.
Keep your head, Rajon.
And don't foul it up.
For the Celtics, the blueprint was obvious in this first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. The Celtics needed to split the first two games in Atlanta and then hold serve in Boston, building a 3-1 series lead that ultimately should have required no more than six games.
But as the saying goes, the best laid plans often go awry.
And in this case, blame it on Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics and Hawks will play Game 2 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series tonight in Atlanta, and as we all know, the Celtics will do so without their multi-talented point guard. With 41 seconds left in Sunday's maddening Game 1 loss to the Hawks, Rondo indisputably bumped referee Marc Davis, a rather careless and foolish lapse in judgment that earned Rondo a one-game suspension.
And so now, on a night where there might have been every reason to feel good about the Celtics' chances, the team must play its most important game of the season to date without a point guard.
Before we get into the particulars of tonight's game, let's all agree on the magnitude of Rondo's blunder. Quite simply, this was the kind of mistake that can cost a team a series and, perhaps, a trip to the NBA Finals. That is not an exaggeration. If the Celtics lose tonight and ultimately drop this series in seven games, Rondo may have cost himself (and the Celtics) one final run at a championship in what could very well be the final joint crusade for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Think about it. The Celtics played the Miami Heat three times last month and won all three, the most impressive a 115-107 victory in Miami that was the team's best win of the season. Derrick Rose is out for the playoffs and beyond. (For that matter, so is Dwight Howard.) The Eastern Conference is as open as open could be, with only the Heat serving as a legitimate obstacle to the Celtics along the way.
Even then, if things line up right, the Celtics wouldn't have to face Miami until the conference finals.
Rondo's petulance now has interfered with all of that, putting undue pressure on the Celtics to win Game 2 against an athletic Atlanta team that went 23-10 at home this year. (The Celtics were 24-9). Anyone who has paid attention to the NBA can tell you that the Hawks have been a far different team at home than on the road over the last five years, something the Celtics obviously learned in the spring of 2008, when the Hawks forced the Celtics to seven games in the first round despite being the eighth and final seed in the East.
The Celtics ultimately won that series -- and the NBA championship -- because they had home court. And while they may not need home court now as much as they did in 2008, Rondo has made the challenge infinitely more difficult for them.
Can the Celtics still win this game? Of course, though doing so may require them to run their offense through Paul Pierce (5 for 19 in Game 1) with Avery Bradley or Keyon Dooling (or both) manning the "point." Pierce, for his part, was 0 for 6 from 3-point distance in Game 1 -- the Celtics were 0 for 11 as a team -- and Rondo's absence likely means that Pierce won't get many chances to spot up from long distance and redeem himself in Game 2.
Meanwhile, minus Rondo, Bradley gets considerably less effective, too. And so a Celtics half-court offense that can become stuck in the mud anyway now has the chance to positively calcify.
Beyond Rondo and Pierce, particularly with Allen still sidelined, the key performer for the Celtics in this game is obvious: Garnett. The cornerstone of this Celtics five-year Celtics renaissance -- then and now -- Garnett shot 1 for 9 in the first half of Game 1 and was thoroughly outplayed by Hawks counterpart Josh Smith. If that happens again in Game 2, the Celtics are almost certain to come back to Boston facing a 2-0 series deficit, leaving an aged club with no wiggle room entering the middle of the series.
Remember, folks: the Celtics are old. Any game they can avoid playing now is another they may be able to play later. If the Celtics can keep a series to six games instead of seven, that is less tread on the tires of Garnett and Pierce, at least. In Game 1, Doc Rivers' rotation really consisted of no more than seven players, Dooling and Sasha Pavlovic contributing a whopping six minutes each to the cause.
That is yet another area in which Rondo's bratty behavior strikes them, stripping Rivers of the player who should have been on the floor the longest. (Rondo led the Celtics in average minutes during the season.)
Obviously, the Celtics must approach this game devoid of the bitterness that might have existed after game 1. Garnett, for one, seemed rather perturbed that Rondo took himself out of the mix for Game 2, but these Celtics have proven to be nothing if not tough and resilient. They can still win this game without Rondo. They can still take control of the series. They can still make one more run at the Finals, a task that has suddenly grown considerably more difficult than it should have at this early stage.
But if the Celtics do--- at least for now -- it will be in spite of their enigmatic point guard, and not because of him.
In the wake of their collapse, beating up on the New York Jets is the fashionable thing to do, just as it was to beat up on the 2011 Red Sox. The teams share some similarities, and they still share them entering their respective 2012 seasons.
Which is why neither should be dismissed.
Let's start with the Jets, who are now being mocked for being so downright stupid as to take on Tim Tebow, whom they acquired from the Denver Broncos for essentially a fourth-round pick. Why is this so dumb? The Jets have an inconsistent quarterback in what is now, more than ever, a quarterback league, and they failed in any pursuit of Peyton manning, however brief. So what were they supposed to do? Go into next season with the same situation at quarterback and offense that has proven insufficient for three years?
Here's what Tebow gives the Jets: options. New York isn't going to win a Super Bowl solely with its passing attack, and the Jets still may not win one now, either. But if the Jets are being truthful by saying about Drew Stanton is still their backup quarterback, then Tebow could provide them with an offensive wrinkle the way Kordell Stewart once did for the Steelers.
And there are these factors: Sanchez, who has been babied since he arrived in New York, needs competition, be it from Stanton or Tebow. And the Jets clearly need character in a locker room that badly lacked it, which something Tebow absolutely, positively possesses in bulk.
After all, look at the impact Tebow had on last year's Broncos, who quickly became believers once he began to play.
* Some of us still would have liked to see the Patriots invest in a true impact player on defense, but it's hard to argue too much with what the Patriots have done thus far in free agency. While retaining Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Dan Connolly and Wes Welker, among others, the Patriots now have added Brandon Lloyd, Daniel Fells, Robert Gallery, Jonathan Fanene, Trevor Scott, Will Allen, Donte Stallworth, Anthony Gonzalez, Steve Gregory and Spencer Larsen. Some of those players will prove to be nothing more than names in a pile of bodies, but the New England passing attack suddenly looks as prolific as ever.
At the moment, three questions remain -- two more significant than the other: the defense, the left side of the offensive line and, to a lesser extent, running back. (Fare thee well, Benjarvus Green-Ellis.) With Logan Mankins injured and Matt Light potentially calling it a career, Tom Brady's blindside is currently in question, with or without Gallery and Nate Solder. As for the defense, one can only hope the Patriots are planning to be aggressive in the draft, where they have two first-round selections and two second-round selections.
Could that be at least part of the reason the Patriots asked Brady to restructure his contract and free up even more salary cap space?
* We all have every right to criticize the Red Sox and question their character in the aftermath of last season, but let's not get silly. The Red Sox are not going to go 83-79. From May 13 through Aug. 31 of last season, the Red Sox went 66-32, a .673 winning percentage that translates into a 109-win pace over a 162-game schedule. There is plenty of talent to win. What this all comes down to is attitude and health, both of which are legitimately in question.
But talent? The Red Sox have plenty. In fact, they still have far more than most.
* Given Bobby Valentine's recent remarks about criticizing his players, can't help but wonder when Valentine said Yankees manager Joe Girardi wasn't very "courteous" in pulling the plug on Thursday night's tie game, was that a fact or an opinion?
* Maybe it has something to do with the preponderance of people in this business from the Newhouse School of Communications, but does anyone else find Syracuse alumni to be disproportionately annoying? We're not saying Syracuse folks have quite entered the arena of Boston College, Duke, and Notre Dame folks, but for a school and program that has been smeared by a succession of scandals of late, Syracuse alums ought to be more red faces and fewer of that unsightly orange clothing.
* The New Orleans Saints got what they deserved, plain and simple. Placing prices on the heads of opposing players is disgraceful to begin with, and lying to cover it up is just as bad.
But as long as Drew Brees stays in uniform, the Saints are going to be a huge factor in the NFC South, especially when New Orleans' out-of-conference schedule features the AFC West.
Of course, New Orleans also has to play the NFC East.
* Peyton Manning immediately makes the Denver Broncos the favorite in the pathetic AFC West, but Denver's schedule in 2012 in hardly a cupcake. Thanks to its first place finish, Denver will face New England and Houston this season. Additionally, the Broncos have both the NFC South and the AFC North on their schedule, which means meetings with Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati. New Orleans and Atlanta, among others.
* We all know that Jose Iglesias probably is not quite ready to hit consistently in the major leagues, but many of us believe the Sox should give Iglesias the nod to start the year with the big club. The Sox can carry one fewer pitcher in the early going, anyway, and the team would benefit a great deal from having a young potentially dynamic player on its roster -- even if Iglesias is only dynamic on defense -- to start the season.
Think about it: when was the last time the Red Sox had a rookie everyone could truly get excited about? Jacoby Ellsbury certainly comes to mind, but that was four years ago. When the Atlanta Braves were at the peak of their reign during the `90s, the Braves liked to integrate about two new starters every three years, turning over the stock and keeping the team infused.
Particularly in the wake of last year, the Red Sox could use the positive energy and bounce Iglesias would bring. The team has too many overpriced veterans to begin with. If Iglesias proves overmatched offensively, the Sox can subsequently send him down to the minors, still leaving open for the possibility of a return late in the season.
What would be wrong with that?
But if the Celtics are failing to at least listen - and to give every offer serious consideration - they should be.
Precisely 13 days remain before the NBA trading deadline, and we all know where the Celtics are today: smack dab in the middle of the NBA netherworld known as terminal mediocrity. Based on winning percentage, the Celtics rank exactly 15th among the 30 NBA teams. In the Eastern Conference, they are tied with the New York Knicks for the seventh/eighth playoff spots. The Celtics are getting older by the day and less compelling by the moment, only the March 15 deadline serving as a real impetus to watch them over the next 13 days.
The four most valuable commodities Ainge possesses are obvious: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rondo. Among those, Garnett has obvious value to the Celtics because he is their only expiring maximum contract player. If and when the Celtics cut ties with Garnett at the end of the season, Ainge can use Garnett's salary to at least enter the bidding on premium free agents, regardless of whether Ainge can actually sign anyone.But the others? All are potential bargaining trips to varying degrees, including Rondo, who amasses points, rebounds and assists the way Jason Kidd once did through the late 1990s and early 2000s.
But here's the thing: Kidd has changed teams three times in his career and did not win a championship until last season, at 38, when Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA title. And that is true despite the fact that Kidd actually learned to, well, shoot, something Rondo still has not proven.
And might never.
For all of the talk about Rondo's petulance, his inability to shoot the ball is really the issue here. After shooting a dreadful 56.8 percent from the free throw line last season, he sits at just 61.3 percent this season; for his career, the number is 62.2. Now in his 18th year, Kidd has never shot as poorly from the line as Rondo has in all six of his NBA seasons, and Kidd was never a player so good that a team could build around him and win a championship.
Kidd, for that matter, turned himself into an effective shooter from 3-point land, from where Rondo is just 4 of 17 this season (23.5 percent) and has converted at a career percentage rate of just 24.2.
So now, are we to seriously believe that Rondo is a better championship centerpiece than Kidd was? Before last season, Kidd had made two career trips to the NBA Finals and won a total of two games. And one could argue that both of Kidd's trips to the last round were as much the product of a dreadful Eastern Conference as anything else.
So Rondo can be a temperamental pill. So what. This is the NBA we're talking about. For that matter, it's professional sports. Kobe Bryant is an enormous pain in the posterior, but the Los Angeles Lakers have tolerated it all these years because Bryant is a true great. Manny Ramirez was difficult and the Red Sox annually put up with him because he produced. Ditto for Randy Moss and the Patriots - right up until Moss' productivity dropped.
Then the team cut bait with him.
In defense of the Celtics and their point guard, all of this talk about Rondo's poor attitude is, as Rivers suggested, getting rather old. Furthermore, it reeks of posturing. Is Ainge really telling other clubs (or the media) that Rondo is difficult to deal with? How does that help his cause if Ainge is truly open to trading him? For the Celtics to release any negative spin on Rondo's attitude as a player would be detrimental to their own cause on multiple levels.
That is why it makes all the sense in the world for the Celtics to do what they did yesterday, to come to Rondo's defense and fortify his place as both their "best player" (Ainge) while emphasizing that treatment of the player has been "unfair" (Rivers).
With the right cast around him, Rondo obviously can thrive here. He is an excellent ball handler and distributor, and he is a positively tremendous rebounder for a player his size. At times, he can be a disruption on defense. But Rondo is not and never will be that guy around which championship teams are built, which is why Ainge absolutely, positively must consider moving him if the right deal came along.
What is that deal exactly? That is difficult to say. But the Celtics certainly were willing to trade Rondo to the New Orleans Hornets before the season in a deal that could have brought them Chris Paul, only to be thwarted by one very simple fact.
The Hornets did not want Rondo as much as they wanted some other things.
Doesn't that alone tell you plenty?
The NBA is a joke, plain and simple, a league that is now the laughingstock among the big four of North America. The NFL, along with Major League Baseball and the NHL, all have issues. What the NBA has is anarchy and a credibility level rapidly shriveling to zero.
Take heart, Rajon Rondo. You're not the only player who will show up for work today feeling unwanted. Everyone from Pau Gasol to Luis Scola to Lamar Odom and beyond will lace up his sneakers today knowing his employer tried to dump him in the wake of the botched deal that would have sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers yesterday. The obvious difference is that Gasol, Scola and Odom were actually traded, at least until league owners complained that such a deal was another destructive weight shift in a league already known for competitive imbalance.
Um ... fellas? Correct us if we're wrong, but you just agreed to the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement. If the new CBA does not adequately address the flaws in a league where players have far too much power -- and it doesn't come close -- it's your own fault. You should have buried the entire season.
What a bunch of dopes.
Before we get to the specifics of the Celtics and Rondo, those of us in Boston should all stop for a moment today and ask the following question: if the Celtics, and not the Los Angeles Lakers, had made this deal only to see it overturned, how would you feel today? How would you have felt four years ago if the NBA intervened and blocked the deal that brought Kevin Garnett to Boston? As much as this has to do with an ownerless New Orleans Hornets team operating under the control of the league, it also has to do with a flawed NBA system that boasts a phony salary cap and has too often kissed the feet of the aristocrats.
OK, so the commissioner stepped in here and prevented the rich from getting richer, as if he were some sort of round ball Robin Hood. But here's the problem: the deal was completely within the rules, which certainly suggests that the mighty commissioner, the all-powerful David Stern, can now arbitrarily exert his influence whenever he sees fit.
If that is going to be the case, why does the NBA need a collective bargaining agreement at all?
The NBA, more than any other league, is questionable enough to begin with. Even before the Tim Donaghy affair, by nature, the game has been vulnerable to scandal. The officials blow the whistle more than in any other sport. Point shaving is often suspected. One player can influence the outcome of a basketball game like no other major team sport, and Stern's influence always has been suspected on many levels.
But this? This is embarrassing. This is Stern (and the entire NBA) arbitrarily deciding which teams can get which players, which is akin to fixing the draft lottery so that, say, someone like Patrick Ewing could end up in New York.
What a sham.
Again: if you don't like the rules, boys, you should have changed them when you had the chance.
As for the Celtics and Rondo, let's hope Boston owners or officials were not among those who complained about the prospect of Paul joining Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. (Was a swap of Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard to be next?) That would be terribly disingenuous. The Celtics have exploited the NBA system for years, from the drafting of Larry Bird to the renaissance built around Garnett and Ray Allen, and we have all praised them for it. You win by the sword and die by the sword. There is no crying in basketball, either.
Rondo, in particular, should take note of that last fact, if for no other fact that professional sports are a business. For every team that doesn't want you in a trade, there is usually another that does. In this case, the unfortunate reality is that the Hornets apparently did not want him, either, at least not under the terms reportedly discussed by officials from Boston, Charlotte and any number of other teams.
Still, the point is that Odom sounded every bit as distraught as someone like Rondo appears to be, and Odom (a relatively accomplished veteran) would seemingly have more reason to be upset.
"Maybe I'll see you there tomorrow [at practice]," Odom told the Los Angeles Times. "But I doubt it. You don't want to go to no place you're not wanted. I'll try to give them what they want as much as possible."
Sooner or later, of course, Odom will have no choice but to show up. If he fails to do so, he will not be paid. And we all know that most professional athletes (if not all) love nothing more than their paychecks.
For the Celtics, despite the initial outcome of the Paul negotiations -- his temporary landing in LA -- rest assured that yesterday's development is bad news. Boston has never been a preferred destination for NBA free agents, the greatest acquisitions in Celtics history all coming via trade or the draft. Moves like a trade for Paul are the only chance the Celtics have. Lest anyone forget, the Celtics got bounced in the second round last season by the Miami Heat, who are improving. Meanwhile, Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are all a year older, suggesting the Celtics will, at best, be a second-round participant in the playoffs.
Without question, Ainge knows this.
If he failed to, he would not have spent so much time recently trying to do exactly what the Los Angeles Lakers were doing.
Truth be told, the first three quarters told us nothing, too.
The Pats are 9-3 this morning and once again possessors of the top seed in the AFC, but they have very little to gain in the final weeks of the 2011 season. New England should encounter some resistance in the final four games of this season - at Washington, at Denver, both Miami and Buffalo at home - but there should be nothing to prevent the Patriots from going 13-3 and earning a first-round bye when all is said and done.
That said, two questions endure from yesterday's affair.
First, is it really necessary for the fans at Gillette Stadium to boo Adam Vinatieri? (Weak.)
Second, is it really necessary for Bill Belichick to have the Patriots throwing out of the no-huddle offense holding a 31-10 lead with under seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter?
In the latter instance, nothing Belichick can say justifies the decision. Belichick likes to answer every question about his strategic choices by saying that he is "just trying to win a game," but throwing out of the no-huddle with under seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter was downright stupid and indicated no such thing. At that stage of the game, the Patriots should have been trying to milk the clock. Instead, Brady took a needless hit on a third-and-13 play that led to a Patriots punt, after which the Colts scored.
With the score then 31-17, Brian Hoyer entered the game. Does that all make any sense? Up 31-10, Belichick subjected Brady to a needless hit. Up 31-17, he put Hoyer in. That certainly suggests that Belichick recognized the error of his ways, but he never should have had Brady throwing at that stage of the game in the first place.
Sometimes, the man's ego just gets in the way.
Let's hope the Bobby Valentine acquisition does not prove to be the Red Sox' biggest move of the offseason. With the manager now in place entering the winter meetings, the Red Sox have needs to address on their pitching staff, both in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Presumably, there will be a substantive acquisition in there somewhere.
Under the circumstances, with closers going at inflated prices, one can only wonder if the Sox might be far better served to put their money in a starter, specifically Mark Buehrle. If relievers like Heath Bell and Ryan Madson command three- and four-year deals, the Sox would seem far better off committing three years and even $45 million to someone like Buehrle, who has a picturesque delivery and a long history of health.
In any case, here's what you shouldn't want to see: trepidation. So the Sox have made some bad free agent signings. So what? Does that mean they're all bad? If the Red Sox can pull off a trade for a young, healthy pitcher, so be it. If not, they need durability on that staff, and Buehrle is about the closest thing to a sure bet on the market.
The Red Sox don't need to abstain from the free agent market, folks. They just need to make more prudent decisions.
I mean, in retrospect, was giving John Lackey five years just utter foolishness or what? The man had a history of elbow problems. And everyone knew it.
Let's all pump the brakes on the Bruins for a moment. As extraordinary as this 13-0-1 run has been, this is still just the regular season. Roughly a year ago at this time, the Bruins were struggling enough that Cam Neely came out and seemed to put Claude Julien's job on the line, at which point the Bruins awoke and began playing with greater urgency.
Of course, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. And while that title has changed everything with regard to the perception of the team and organization, let's not put these bruins in the same discussion with the Bruins of the late '60s and early '70s just yet. Those Bruins were stacked with Hall-of-Fame-caliber talent, and we simply do not know whether this club has quite the same staying power.
That said, the Bruins certainly are positioned to have one of the great eras in their history, which is something we said a year ago. (You can look it up.) The signing of David Krejci further stabilizes a deep and talented roster that can skate, hit, score and play defense, meaning the Bruins can play any style of game, against basically any opponent, anywhere and anytime.
Still, tonight's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins bears close watching, for obvious reasons. These are two of the last three Stanley Cup champions and, currently, the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference. The injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin last year meant the Pens were absent from Boston's path to the championship, and we still do not know if the Bruins can defeat the Penguins when it matters.
Of course, we also don't know if the Penguins can defeat these Bruins, who seem fortified and emboldened by their Stanley Cup championship.
With all due respect to the most loyal Celtics fans, the window closed in Game 7 against the Lakers in June 2010. Anyone who believes the Celtics can win the title this year by simply adding some small pieces around Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo is missing the point. The Celtics are getting older and slower while the Bulls and Heat are getting better and deeper, which is why Danny Ainge must act aggressively.
Nobody ever said Rondo was a bad player. The question isn't even whether he's a great player. The question is whether he's a franchise player, the kind an organization can build around the way the Celtics built around Garnett, the indisputable centerpiece of the Celtics' latest championship runs. And it is difficult to think of Rondo in those terms when he is a career .622 shooter at the free throw line coming off a season in which he shot .568.
As a result, Ainge owes it to himself -- and, more importantly, the Celtics -- to explore any and all deals for Rondo, who remains his best bargaining chip. If Ainge can get something closer to a franchise player back, even for the short term, he must consider it. The Al Jefferson-for-Kevin Garnett swap was built on a similar principle, and nobody has complained about the loss of Jefferson for quite some time now.
Granted, Garnett is still here, albeit in a reduced capacity.
But is there anyone who still wouldn't have made that trade?
Catching up on happenings in the sports world after the black hole that was the NHL postseason...
- Even after the black hole that was 0-6 and 2-10, the Red Sox are on a pace to win 98 games, a number that have achieved only twice in their history since 1946. The first occasion came in 1978, pre-wildcard, when the sox won 99 games and missed the playoffs. The other came in 2004, when the Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.
Beginning with a sweep of the Yankees at New York in May, the Red Sox have won 11 of 12 series and gone 26-8.
- Rory McIlroy is off to a terrific start in 2011 and in his career, but any comparisons to Tiger Woods at this stage are completely and utterly ridiculous. Even at a young age, Woods never collapsed in a major championship the way McIlroy did at the Masters earlier this season.
- By the way, comparing McIlroy to Tiger Woods at this stage is a little like comparing Andrew Miller to Randy Johnson. Miller has terrific raw ability and will make his Red Sox debut tonight against the San Diego Padres, but let's see if he can throw consistent strikes in the big leagues before we turn him into a multiple Cy Young Award winner.
Especially when Miller has heretofore been closer to Nuke LaLoosh.
- Don't look now, Celtics fans, but your beloved team has slipped to No. 4 in the local power rankings. And if we were to factor in projected future performance of our four major teams, the Celtics would also have the bleakest outlook.
- In this market, at least, the NFL picked a good time for a labor dispute. But with the usual start of training camp now rapidly approaching, how much longer can this go on before Patriots fans really start to get agitated?
- Now this is the kind of year Jacoby Ellsbury deserves a great deal of credit for -- and for an array of reasons. Ellsbury currently has the highest OPS of his career and is on pace for 18 home runs, 82 RBI, 166 runs and, yes, 55 stolen bases.
Oh, and did we mention that he's played in every game?
- In this market, one of the major drawbacks of the Bruins' title run was that we did not get to fully celebrate the failure of the Miami Heat in general and LeBron James in particular. Talk about irony. While the Bruins were winning a title as a team, LeBron was explaining another disappointing end to a season by repeatedly using his favorite letter in the alphabet.
Of course, that would be I.
- Yes, I'm biased, for obvious reasons. But since the Red Sox started giving Tim Wakefield a regular turn in the rotation, he's 4-1 with a 3.60 ERA in six starts.
- By the way, can people in this market stop talking about the Yankees as if they're ready for the senior tour. Fine, the Yankees are old. They still have the second-best record in the American League and are 1.5 games out of first place.
If you are a Red Sox fan, the Yankees should still be your biggest concern in the American League.
- The Bruins will soon be onto the business of the offseason, so let's all agree that Tomas Kaberle should go and the Bruins should consider bringing Michael Ryder back at a reduced rate. Other than that, priority No. 1 in 2011-12 is for the Bruins to put Tyler Seguin in the best possible position to succeed.
- By the way, purely for the record, the Vancouver Canucks were 2 for 33 on the power play in the Cup final, a paltry 6.1 percent. The Bruins, by contrast, went 5 for 27, a far more respectable 18.5 percent.
For the entire postseason, the Bruins were 10 for 88 (11.4 percent) on the power play, which included a 5 for 61 performance (8.2 percent) before the final round.
- Adrian Gonzalez is on pace for 230 hits, 34 home runs, 55 doubles and 146 RBI.
Sounds like a formula for MVP, no?
- We all love David Ortiz and what he has given the Red Sox over the years, but the truth is that the Yankees should have plunked him a long time ago given the damage he has inflicted on them over the years. In 2009, the in head-to-head play, Yankees pitchers hit Red Sox batters on 14 occasions while Red Sox pitchers plunked the Yankees only seven times. During that season, before a game at Fenway Park, one uniformed member of the Red Sox warned Derek Jeter that if Yankees pitchers didn't start behaving themselves, the Red Sox would retaliate.
And they would retaliate, he said, by going after Jeter.
- I still bet the Cleveland Indians will finish below .500.
- Silver spoon update: In this millennium, in the four major sports, that is now 13 trips at least the semifinals (Patriots 5, Red Sox 4, Celtics 3, Bruins 1) and nine trips to the championship round (Patriots 4, Red Sox 2, Celtics 2, Bruins 1) with seven titles, including the proverbial Grand Slam, accomplished in slightly more than six calendar years.
Will it ever end?
I mean, the end of last season was disappointing. But the Pats did go 14-2 with a generally young roster and seem positioned to make noise again in 2011.
Sorry, I meant 14-3.
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