(This entry begins a series of 30 guest columns that will run during October, when optimism reigns supreme across the NBA. The theme will be “Five Reasons to Feel Positive About … ” We encourage you to follow the authors on Twitter and visit their sites. – CS)
The squeak of vulcanized rubber against newly finished hardwood once again signals the return of the NBA. As training camps open around the league, veterans are refreshed, rookies are nervously ambitious and new acquisitions are eager to learn and make impacts.
It’s a time of year where most teams have a positive vibe. Everyone speaks in glowingly positive terms about their squad. All teams have rookies who have a chance to step up. All have guys who are maturing into their roles. And many of these teams believe that maybe – just maybe – if things fall the right way, they will still be playing in June.
But only a few teams can stake a legitimate claim to being that good. And the Boston Celtics are one of those teams. Here are five reasons to feel positive about the Celtics, and their chances of being a legitimate threat to get to the NBA Finals.
1. Kevin Garnett is back (and fired up about it)
Unless you’re a fan of the Celtics, there’s a good chance you don’t like watching them play. They will muck it up, and – when their defense is at its best – choke the life out of their opponent’s offense. Just look at the opening round series against the Atlanta Hawks this past playoffs. The Hawks never scored more than 87 points. In fact, the Celtics didn’t give up more than 92 points in the postseason until they met LeBron James and the Miami Heat. That’s not exactly what one would call “entertaining” basketball.
And that suffocating, ugly, knock-you-in-the-mouth defense is at its best when Kevin Garnett is
KG toyed with the idea of retiring after last season. And had his season not turned around midway through the year, I think he would have been encouraged to hang it up. The lockout’s abrupt end caught Garnett by surprise. He entered training camp out of shape, which led to several early season games where he looked every bit of his 36 years.
But the combination of playing himself into shape and a shift to center from power forward re-energized him. He had nine playoff double-doubles, and along with Rajon Rondo was one of the Celtics’ two most important players in the playoffs.
Now Garnett is back. He’s in shape. He’s the Celtics’ starting center. And he’s fired up about it. The man who will tell everyone within earshot that he’ll run through walls for coach Doc Rivers will now man the 5 spot, using his deadly ability to hit the worst shot in basketball – the 18-20 foot jumper – to spread the floor. And Garnett, whom recently retired teammate Keyon Dooling called “a genius,” will be playing his most important role as the defensive QB.
Garnett’s absence on the defensive end is palpable. You can peruse the statistics if you want, but there is really no need. KG passes the eye test with flying colors. There is no one nearly as vocal, no one nearly as prepared, and no one nearly as good at doing what he does within the team defense. Sure, his legs won’t get him as high off the floor as they used to, but they’ll still get him into the right spot more often than not.
And his mouth – oh, that mouth. Garnett gets his teammates into the right position faster than they would without him. In a game where every half step is the difference between success and failure, Garnett’s direction is almost unfair. There’s a reason why some guys who have poor reputations as defenders suddenly improved in Boston. Some of it is scheme, but more of it is Garnett. As much as anyone on that team, Garnett is a huge reason the Celtics are able to prop open that championship window for one more season.
2. Rajon Rondo is becoming a leader
Rondo is an interesting case study. He can be dazzling one day and then suddenly, seemingly absent, as if he is too bored with the activity to continue his participation. He has been called a lot of things by a lot of people, but there’s a new descriptor being added to the list this preseason.
Rivers lauded Rondo for organizing a team workout about a week ahead of training camp. The team gathered in Los Angeles, away from the prying eyes of the Boston media, to familiarize themselves with each other. They installed plays, worked out wrinkles and set expectations for the upcoming season.
It’s already paying dividends; just ask Paul Pierce:
“It’s a tremendous advantage because, for one, Doc doesn’t have to do too much explaining,” he said. “We can just kind of jump into things.”
To a man, every Celtic who was asked about the pre-preseason workouts gave Rondo the credit for making it happen. The two veteran leaders on this team, Garnett and Pierce, quickly call Rondo the team leader now, and the team’s best player.
Unless this is some concerted team effort to pump up its point guard for some reason, Boston may just be witnessing the actual further maturation of Rondo into a veteran in charge of his team.
Rondo seems to be taking the path of another former Celtics point guard, Dennis Johnson. In Boston, DJ was the quiet complement to Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. But prior to picking up his 617 area code, he’d worn out welcomes in Seattle and Phoenix, earning the label of malcontent, or worse.
But Rondo may not need the change of scenery that Johnson did. He may have just needed some new teammates. The addition of Courtney Lee and return of Jeff Green as young, athletic wings who can run with Rondo in the open court seems to have him excited about the upcoming season. Rondo is the NBA’s reigning assist champion, but a disproportionate amount of his dimes have come on jumpers, the staple of the offense over the past few years. With younger horses to run, jump and catch his ridiculous passes, Rondo has less reason to coast on the court.