The Boston Celtics: A Major League Letdown

When the Celtics lost to the Magic last year in the second round of the Playoffs, it was no big deal. The fact that it took seven games — an epic seven, no less — to oust the lowly Bulls wasn’t even that troubling for the reigning NBA champs. Their emotional and defensive leader was on the sideline in a suit, so it was almost commendable that Boston could defend it’s title so admirably even without Kevin Garnett.

That title defense was a nice feel-good story, but minus KG, the team was probably already thinking about next year. Over the Summer, KG would heal, Paul Pierce would get some needed rest, Rajon Rondo would further evolve and Kendrick Perkins would practice his tough guy face in the mirror. All would be back to normal in Boston. The Celtics would enter the 2009-10 season as a team driven to avenge a disappointing season lost to bad luck. And when they signed both Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels to fill out the rotation, it looked like we would were just a meaningless regular season away from the Celtics/Lakers Finals rematch we all wanted to see.

The season started out well enough. There were still three major contenders for the Eastern Conference crown and the Celtics looked as good as anyone. But after a terrible first two months of 2010 — capped by a woeful yet convincing loss to their Atlantic Division “rivals,” the New Jersey Nets, on Sunday — the Celtics no longer look like a contender.

Really, they barely look like a team that can win a playoff series.

They are a lowly 9-11 in their last 20 games, which include losses to the Nets, Pistons and Clippers and only three wins over teams that were .500 when they squared off. Moreover, they are a highly mediocre 26-19 so far this year against opponents who don’t play in the worst division in the NBA (the Atlantic, which has the same number of teams, 3, playing below .400 ball that the entire Western Conference has).

While watching the scrappy, KG-less Celtics struggle to beat the likes of the Bulls last Spring, I imagine many of you had the same thoughts as me: “They’re sh*tty.”

Well, 57 games into this season: “They’re still sh*tty.”

You might recognize those (admittedly exaggerated to fit this post) characterizations of this team as quotes from Major League, a seminal film about counted-out underdogs overcoming staggering odds to succeed. Unlike the Celtics, which were famously constructed by Danny Ainge’s Voltron-esque assembly of The Big Three Part II in combination with the savvy drafting of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, the Cleveland Indians team in Major League was a ragtag bunch put together for one sole purpose: losing. And losing bad enough so that their owner could break her lease with the city and move the team to sunny Florida. It was only once the players learned of her sinister plot that they were able to put it all together and start winning.

They needed an external wake-up call to motivate them to win.

Now, I personally don’t have much faith in this Celtics team. But if ever there was a wake-up call in this year’s NBA, it’s losing to the Nets. At home. Convincingly.

Will that be enough to help Boston hold off Father Time and magically rebuild the ligaments in KG’s knee? Probably not. I think the Celtics are a clear step behind the three legitimate contenders in the East (Cleveland, Atlanta and Orlando).

But this Celtics team, which I think at least within our little NBA internet world is now being counted out as a title contender, does bare a striking resemblance to my favorite fake baseball team.

Let me count the ways…

Kevin Garnett & Jake Taylor

Former greats cut down by failing knees, KG and Jake are both the inspirational leaders of their teams. Jake calls the shots from behind the plate. Kevin calls the shots from the back of the defense. Jake talks to the umps, lobbying for balls to become strikes. Kevin swears at the refs, lobbying for fouls to become no-calls. Jake gets into the opponents’ head, asking players why their wives let dudes wear their panties as a hat. Kevin gets into the opponents’ head, barking on all fours or clapping inches from their faces.

Jake, although once an “All-Star in Boston,” was never as good at baseball as KG was at basketball. But as we see in the final game when “Jake Taylor calls his shot,” he has a veteran savvy that allows him to still get his job done despite the fact that he can barely run down the line to first anymore. With KG looking like he can barely defend the pick-and-roll anymore half the time, will we see him be able to overcome his physical limitations to still succeed in this year’s playoffs?

Paul Pierce & Ricky Vaughn

Feared, dominant closers, The Truth and The Wild Thing are among the best to ever do it at the end of the game. Hand the ball to Veghead for three outs and everyone in the building expects the team to win, unless perhaps he is facing Clue Haywood, the most feared hitter in the league. Hand the ball to Paul for a mid-range dagger in crunch time and everyone in the building expects the team to win, unless perhaps he is facing LeBron James, the most feared player in the league.

No matter what else the rest of the team did, the whole game rested with Ricky Vaughn. If he couldn’t get the outs, all the other stuff didn’t matter. Boston’s reality is the same, and while it will be great if KG can start looking more mobile and help the defense once again become ferocious, we all know at least one or two key games in the playoffs will come down to Paul Pierce getting a bucket. Does Pierce still have his end-of-game fastball?

Rajon Rondo & Willie Mays Hayes

Unstoppable speed demons, Rajon and Willie remain less heralded than their superstar teammates — but are probably the most important players on their teams. Willie gets on base with ease, using his speed to score, set up his teammates for RBIs and embrace OBP over the glory of the longball. Rajon gets into the paint with ease, using his speed to score, set up his teammates for lay-ups and embrace FG% over the glory of the three-pointer. Willie did thousands of push-ups. Rondo’s shoulders lead me to believe he has, too.

Willie walked around the locker room with a confidence that rubbed some veterans the wrong way given his proclivity to pop out, but he did all the meat-and-potatoes things that the Indians needed to win and his teammates were willing to give him the keys on the basepaths. Rondo’s personality may similarly irk some veterans tired of seeing the young buck clang jumpers off the iron, but if the Celtics are going to make any noise in the playoffs, they need to let the quick kid with swagger drive the car.

Ray Allen & Pedro Cerrano

Veteran specialists, Ray and Cerrano were both raised under one philosophy: “Chicks dig the long ball.” Pedro does not worship Jesus, and his superstitious nature leads him to believe that he “needs hat for bat” and that sacrificing a chicken can break a slump. Ray once played a movie character named Jesus, and his superstitious nature leads him to believe that his jumper could be affected by Paul Pierce doing 360 dunks in pregame or him not eating a meal of chicken and rice. Pedro shaves his head with a knife. Ray shaves his head everyday at 4:00 pm.

Like Cerrano learning how to hit a curveball, much of this Celtics playoff success will depend on Allen’s ability to re-find his dead-eye accuracy from behind the three-point line. If Cerrano never told Jobu off and hit that clutch home run against the Yankees, the Indians never come back and win that final game. If Ray can’t hit some big threes in the playoffs, the Celtics might not win a series. Bartender, Mr. Shuttlesworth needs a refill.

Rasheed Wallace & Roger Dorn

Lazy, past-their-prime vets who do what they want, when they want, Sheed and Dorn don’t really give a damn what you think. Roger rocks extravagant sweaters, seems to enjoy golf more than baseball and is only playing for the Indians because they pay him top dollar. Sheed rocks extravagant Championship belts, seems to enjoy shooting trick shots more than basketball and will play for anybody “as long ast they CTC.” Dorn still hits the ball well when he tries but can’t field it. Sheed still plays defense well when he tries but can’t shoot it.

When it mattered, Dorn ultimately realized that “we’re all professionals here … this aint the California Penal League” and found some unlikely motivation to buy into the team concept, sacrifice his body and come through for his teammates. If the Celtics can’t get something similar from Sheed, their front court depth will be practically nonexistent.

Kendrick Perkins & Eddie Harris

Experienced performers who offer dependability over the spectacular, Perkins and Harris both get their job done — by any means necessary. Whether you’re talking about putting snot on the ball or elbowing opponents in the throat, these guys won’t think twice about doing whatever it takes … and then explaining their rule-bending with “I haven’t got an arm like you, kid” or “I really closed my eyes, so I don’t even know what part of the body I hit.” And given their ornery natures and permanent scowls, I’m guessing neither guy has many friends.

But both Cleveland and Boston know one thing: these guys will show up to play and give you all they have every time out.

Doc Rivers & Lou Brown

The Webster’s definition of a player coach, both Doc and Lou have great three-letter names fit for inspiring legions of men. Lou is a hard-nosed baseball lifer who gained some invaluable experience in how to overcome long odds at Tire World. Doc is a hard-nosed NBA lifer who gained some invaluable experience in how to overcome long odds at Disney World. Lou used a nudie-girl cutout of the team’s owner as a gimmick to rally his team. Doc used the African proverb of Ubuntu as a gimmick to rally his team.

Far from a tactician, Lou relied on a mixture of unorthodox charm and tough-love to bring the Indians to the top, but in the end, the game-winning strategy came from Jake Taylor’s savvy decision to lay down a bunt. Doc needs to do much of the same — and let KG, Pierce and assistant coach Tom Thibodeau figure out how to get things done when the game is on the line.

Tommy Heinsohn & Harry Doyle

I don’t really think you need me to spell this one out for you.

Seth Carstens