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Celtics recreate the mystique of 2008

That face says it all for the Boston Celtics.

It’s October 2009. You’re a Boston Celtics fan. The season is about to start, and your team has just added Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels to a troupe of stars. Things are looking great, and you’ve already forgotten the exit in the conference semifinals during the playoffs.

Fast forward a few months, and things don’t look so great. Paul Pierce is playing poorly, Ray Allen can’t seem to hit a shot, and Kevin Garnett seems way past his prime. The one bright spot is Rajon Rondo, the point guard of the future. The team has blasted with disappointments, not the least of which is a home loss to the lowly New Jersey Nets. The quest for another title seems lost, and the days of the Big Three seem over.

No so fast.

Since this year’s playoffs began, the Boston Celtics have looked more like the champions of 2008 rather than the underachievers of 2010, and more than anything, it has been thanks to some intangible factors.

Foremost, there seems to be a newfound desire to win amid the team — and no Cetics player has embodied that shift in philosophy than Wallace. Often the butt of jokes about lacking effort and the object of criticism that he could be one of the best players of all-time if he tried, ‘Sheed has noticed the potential to come away with a title this year. All it took was a little prodding and nudging from his coach, Doc Rivers, to get him on the right path. Since Rivers’s encouragement, Wallace has been playing to win the game: taking quality open shots instead of chucking up three-pointers, playing inspired defense, and realizing the concept of teamwork that makes the Celtics run.

But the improvement in that area is not limited just to Wallace’s actions; everyone on the team seems passionate about the team’s success. Watching Game 2 against the Magic, whenever a player hit the floor after a foul, three or four other Celtics on the floor swarmed around him to help him up and scowl at the offender. It’s that kind of backing that can sway the outcome of close games.

So when Matt Barnes elects to help Rondo up after a tough foul, and Mark Jackson adeptly pointed this out, it’s a sign of weakness. It’s not a display of competitive nature to help your opponent up even if it is “nice.” Barnes’s action is indicative of how the Magic just don’t seem in it to win it. It’s more of a game than a battle of life and death, as the Celtics see it.

And the competitiveness and passion translate into greater basketball success on the court: more offensive rebounds, better looks, grittier defense, and just more balls in the basket. When you are motivated to score, the form on your jump shot is that much sounder, the timing of your block attempt is that much more precise, and the finish of your dunk is that much more vicious.

The Celtics have figured this out, and the Magic still need to get on board; that’s why they’re down 2-0 going to the TD Garden for two road games.

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Thinking about the Celts and Cavs

The Boston Celtics showed me something with their series victory over the Miami Heat. They showed me they aren’t completely terrible.

After a decidedly lopsided matchup with the Miami Wade, the Celtics aren’t so lucky in their next opponent; they’ll face LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

Game 1 went to the Cavs fairly easy, at least apparently so. What’s not shown in the final tally is that Boston held a double-digit lead in the third period. Cleveland escaped mostly thanks to a scorching second half from Mo Williams.

Despite that disheartening collapse, I’m starting to think Boston actually stands a chance to make the series somewhat competitive. Rajon Rondo was dazzling in the first half, and the Celtics need to embrace that style of running everything through Rondo. Let him drive all he wants and either get an open layup, kick it out to Ray Allen or Paul Pierce for a jumpshot, or hit Kevin Garnett as he dives to the rim.

One of the things that I love so much about this series has nothing to do with pure basketball. I love the ferocity these two teams bring to the table. LeBron is one of the scariest offensive players, and KG’s one of the most intimidating defenders.

The intensity is so high when these two teams play that it makes the games so much more fun to watch.

Hopefully the Celtics can pull one or two wins out during the seven-game spate.

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The Boston Celtics: what’s left?

Has the reign of the Big Three in Boston come to a close?

I remember feeling completely shocked having heard the news that the Boston Celtics had acquired Ray Allen from Seattle and Kevin Garnett from the Timberwolves prior to the 2007-2008 season. What a stacked roster, I thought. Pairing two of the league’s elite with Boston staple Paul Pierce would certainly mean great things for the Beantown Green. And that was definitely the case.

The Celtics glided by the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals that season in a matchup that evoked the nostalgia of the Bird-Magic 1980s showdown over 20 years prior. So Allen, Garnett, and Pierce got their championship ring, but it wasn’t destined to happen again the next season.

Boston showed grit and toughness in putting away the underdog Chicago Bulls in seven games — basically all of which went to at least one overtime. Young point guard Rajon Rondo stepped up, nearly averaging a triple double in the postseason in 2009. Nevertheless, Kevin Garnett’s absence owing to his knee injury was too much to overcome. Glen Davis filled in adequately, but it was not enough to stop Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and the Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals.

Despite the crushing loss, fans were hopeful of a successful 2009-2010 campaign that would fulfill the promise of a healthy Garnett, a rapidly improving Rondo, and the addition of Rasheed Wallace to bolster the star-studded roster. But it has been a season of highs and lows.

With six games to play, the Celtics still lead the Atlantic Division by a whopping nine-and-a-half games over second-place Toronto. And with six-and-half games separating them and the fifth-place Miami Heat in the conference standings, they’re guaranteed to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. A win over the Cavaliers Sunday showed what they are still capable of.

The game’s result, however, was not exactly indicative of how the Celtics played. In fact, they nearly blew a 22-point third-quarter lead in winning by only four. Furthermore, with the Celtics up two and less than 10 seconds to play, LeBron James, in a one-on-one situation, decided to take a pull-up three-pointer for the win rather than take the ball to the rim past Tony Allen to square up the game and take it into overtime. In all likelihood, LeBron probably did this on purpose — the Cavs don’t need to win anymore; they’ve got first place locked up. So why risk an injury in an extra five minutes of play instead of just going for the win on that shot? My point is that the winner of this game could have been different if not for LeBron’s decision.

And losing to the Cavaliers wouldn’t have been a surprise to fans, even playing at TD Garden. After losing only six games at home last year, the Celtics are only 24-15 in Boston this season. Clearly, these players have lost some of their enthusiasm to win after being denied their chance to repeat.

What’s more? The acquisition of Wallace has proved to be one of the least beneficial of the last offeseason, and each of the big three is underperforming as each of them continues to age.

Still, they’ll draw a worse team in the playoffs, and they’ll have a shot to move on, but they can’t beat teams like the Magic and Cavaliers in a seven-game series. It seems their dominance of the Eastern Conference has come to an end.

Ray Allen will be a free agent next year, and Danny Ainge should seriously consider dismantling this team and building around Rondo. Garnett’s production is waning quickly, and it seems as if Pierce won’t be able to evade the injury bug for too much longer.

The Celtics got their championship win — that’s what Ainge, Doc Rivers, and the players wanted. Now you need to move on. Don’t let loyalty to aging players hinder your preparation for the future. Because as it stands, you don’t have what it takes.

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Game of the Day: March 31

Oklahoma City Thunder at Boston Celtics — 7:30 PM eastern

The Celtics are struggling, and the Thunder are surging in the Western Conference. Coming off an absolute shellacking at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs (who went on to then lose to the New Jersey Nets), Boston looks to bounce back and maintain at least a share of the third-place seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ll have to beat a superbly talented Oklahoma City squad to do so, though.

The West’s young guns beat the Lakers last week and have one of the best scorers in the game in Kevin Durant. Complementing him are standout point guard Russell Westbrook, powerful forward Jeff Green, and rookie James Harden.

The Celtics boast a loaded roster of their own, with the big three and co. I’m excited to see the point-guard matchup in this game, as Westbrook and Rajon Rondo are two indications of the league’s bright, bright future at the 1. I expect Rondo will be able to keep Westbrook in check on the offensive end, but that doesn’t mean he won’t distribute the ball well.

In the end, I give this game to the Thunder. The Celtics are definitely lacking something, and they don’t have the same mystique on the parquet floor of the TD Garden as they have in the past. Kevin Durant should put on a show, and I expect Sefolosha to keep Ray Allen’s offensive production to a minimum. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Kevin Garnett outplays Jeff Green, given his advantages in both height and experience.

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Game of the Day: March 28

San Antonio Spurs at Boston Celtics — 8 PM eastern, telecast on ESPN

Tonight boasts a wealth of enticing NBA options, and I decided on this one mostly because it’ll be available nationally. Of course, it should still be a great game.

The Spurs and Celtics are still both jockeying for playoff position in their respective conferences, and both are clinging to aging standouts to carry them deep into the playoffs. San Antonio has Manu Ginobili, the crafty 2-guard who can get to the rim at will, and the Celtics have Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to put up points in a hurry. Both these teams also feature young bright point guards in Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo, who are key to their teams’ success.

Most important of all, this game brings together possibly the two best power forwards of the decade. Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, both 33 years old, look to make one more championship run before their teams are dismantled.

This will be the second and last game of the two squads’ two-game season series, and Boston prevailed 90-83 in the first matchup on December 3. Garnett and Duncan both stood out in that game: the former posted 20 points and 7 boards and the later 16 points and 15 rebounds.

I’ve got to go with the Celtics at home in what should be a thrilling contest. Expect Boston’s back court to put up strong lines. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Garnett plays better than usual, as he’ll be motivated taking on his Western counterpart.

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