This wasn’t even supposed to be a conversation. The Celtics were almost universally thought to be done, the expiration date on their chances for a title having passed somewhere between the time Rajon Rondo had his elbow pulled out of his socket by Dwyane Wade and the March 15 trade deadline that saw Danny Ainge stand pat. But the too-old Celtics haven’t looked it since the All-Star break, compiling an 18-7 record to put themselves squarely in the playoff race. If the overall record weren’t enough, two recent wins over Miami suggest the Celtics can compete with the league’s best. Here are nine reasons why the Celtics may be for real. (Why nine? To honor the local nine? Because it’s half of 18? Who knows).
1. They’re dynamic at shooting guard
The combination of Ray Allen and Avery Bradley gives the Celtics two speeds at shooting guard. It’s slow vs. fast, methodical vs. frantic, smooth vs. bumpy. Allen’s shooting — especially in clutch situations — is essential for a successful playoff team, and Bradley has injected youthful energy into the rotation, especially on the defensive end. Opposing teams must now prepare for both.
2. Kevin Garnett is playing like it’s 2007
Tell me you saw this Kevin Garnett coming in December and I’ll call you a liar (if you really did: speak up!). Garnett has played out of his mind in the second half of the season, his 24-point, 9-rebound, 11-of-14 effort against the Bulls serving as the primary example. Garnett’s shooting 52 percent since the All-Star break, and his rebound average in that time is approaching nine. Beyond the statistics, the eye test shows more energetic Garnett on the glass and on defense. Whether that’s due to his change to the center position or something else entirely, there’s no doubting the turnaround.
3. Paul Pierce is a machine
Please stop underrating Paul Pierce. Please, please, please. As Pierce passes more all-time greats in scoring he’s bound to receive more accolades, but the Celtics captain is an under appreciated superstar, even in his own city. Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and even Avery Bradley have gotten a ton of credit for Boston’s recent surge, but the Celtics go nowhere without Pierce. If Pierce has luck creating his own shot and continues his playoff-level defense, the Celtics will be in good shape.
4. Oh yeah, Rondo
It’s now 18 consecutive games with 10 or more assists for Rondo. The Celtics should probably trade him for a couple of mid-tier players and a second-round draft pick. You know what I loved about Rondo after that Miami game, besides his stellar play? How genuinely happy he was to win it. How he celebrated with Garnett at mid-court and wore his emotions on his sleeve. You don’t see that often from Rondo. For all his personality quirks, he comes from a good place.
5. They’re underdogs
This may be the easiest Celtics team to root for in years. When the Big Three arrived in 2007 there was a mercenary aspect to it, even though they were winning. The 2010 team that lost in Game 7 of the Finals broke a lot of hearts, while last year’s team was so obviously on the decline. Now they’re underdogs with no business challenging for a title. Even the plucky Oklahoma City Thunder seem like the Establishment pick at this point. Go Celtics? At the moment that’s a pretty easy refrain.
6. They’ve got pride
Riffing on another intangible, on the surface there’s a lot to dislike about the Celtics. Rondo is stubborn. Pierce wants the last shot whether it’s for the best or not. Garnett can be intense to a fault, and Allen always wants to get his shots. But the Celtics’ quirks all come from a good place. Each and every player on the team wants to win, and when push comes to shove, they help each other on the court. Are they stubborn? Can they be ornery? Hell, yeah. But they’ve been there before. The Celtics have players who know what works, and in the playoffs that can’t be a bad thing.
7. They play D
Back to something more concrete. The Celtics are third in the league in points allowed at 89.6 points per game. That’s about 12 points below the league average. It’s a remarkable turnaround from a team that visibly struggled to defend earlier in the season, and it’s the surest sign that the Celtics can truly compete. They built their 2008 championship team on defense, and they’ve leaned on that side of the ball ever since. It hasn’t all been the emergence of Bradley, but he helps.
8. There are no back-to-backs
Another tangible, playoff-related reason why the Celtics can contend in the playoffs is that there are no back-to-back games in the postseason. The Celtics are a respectable 8-9 in back-to-backs, but they’re 25-14 when they have a day of rest or more between games.
9. The competition all have flaws
At least in the Eastern Conference, this isn’t one of those seasons where one team is head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. The Celtics seem to match up well with Miami, while the top-seeded Bulls still have concerns over their lack of a second scorer to compliment Derrick Rose. (Hint: Joakim Noah is not it). The Celtics have proven that they can beat Indiana, Philadelphia, Orlando, and Atlanta, among the other contenders in the East. The Western Conference could be a different story, but even getting to that point would be gravy.