Boston Celtics turn season around and peak before 2012 playoffs
Celtics rebound from disappointing start
The Celtics stumbled and sputtered through the first half of the shortened 2011-2012 regular season and just couldn't get it going. All the signs indicated that the core group of players, excluding Rajon Rondo, were obviously too old to compete with the NBA elite teams. The Celtics simply lacked the ability to compete with the best teams and it appeared that perhaps it was time to blow up the nucleus of the team that won the NBA championship in 2008 and had made deep playoff runs in the following years. Prior to the All-Star break it was starting to look as if the Celtics would continue to decline and may not even make the playoffs.
The trade deadline
With the trade deadline approaching, it remained to be seen whether or not Danny Ainge would pull the trigger in shaking up the roster. The trade deadline passed without any significant changes to the Celtics roster and management decided to play on with the current main players. It's ironic that the Celtics did not make any big changes to their roster, and yet it had a big impact on their play. Multiple trade rumors surfaced that suggested that Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo were all subjects of possible trades. Perhaps, the fact that no big trades were made was a catalyst to the greatly improved play of the Celtics after the All-Star break. The trade talk may have served as a distraction for the players and morale may have been down. Once the trade deadline passed, there was a sense of relief for the players and they were recommitted.
Pierce goes vintage
As the season progressed, players adjusted to the grueling shortened schedule. Most notably, Paul Pierce got healthy and in shape. He was hobbled by some nagging injuries in the beginning of the season and really wasn't in shape when the season started. Pierce began clicking and returning to vintage form in March. The healthy Pierce lead the Celtics to an impressive 12-5 record in March while averaging 22.3 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. His play in March earned him Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors. All of a sudden, the Celtics were beginning to go on a little bit of a run and make up ground in the Atlantic Division. Boston eventually caught the Sixers and passed them in the Atlantic. This gave Boston the number four seed in the Eastern Conference.
Garnett moves to Center
Due to a season-ending injury to Jermaine O'Neal, Kevin Garnett was shifted to the Center position. Brandon Bass filled the Power Forward position. Though the veteran KG was not happy to make the move, he transitioned to it and excelled at it. The Celtics became more athletic by now having a rangy and athletic center. Garnett was able to continue to playing his brand of defense while becoming more of an offensive presence. Given the shooting ability of Garnett, he started getting better looks further away from the basket. There became a renewed focus on using Garnett as more of a weapon on offense, and it worked brilliantly.
Rondo goes on a streak
Rajon Rondo took his game to another level around the time of the trade deadline. It's possible that he was making a statement about his value. Whatever the reason, Rondo shifted into beast mode and started an amazing stretch of games where he handed out ten or more assists per game. Along the way, he notched a couple triple-doubles as well. Though still not shooting exceptionally, the inspired play of Rondo had a huge impact on the way the entire team played. At the time of this writing, Rajon Rondo has had ten or more assists in 19 straight games. Notably, the Celtics are 13-6 in that stretch. That's a very respectable number considering that two of those victories came against the Miami Heat, and some of the losses were close losses to very good teams.
Ray Allen goes to the bench
This may be the most unexpected part of the Celtics resurgence. Once the team got going and started playing better ball, Ray Allen injured his ankle. With all the injuries that had piled up during the season, losing a future Hall of Fame player could have been catastrophic and ended the run that the team was on. Amazingly, the injury may have turned out to be a bit of a blessing in the long run. In the absence of Ray Allen, second year player Avery Bradley began getting increased playing time and became a starter. In the short amount of time while Ray Allen was out, Bradley solidified his role on the team. Bradley had shown glimpses of his defensive prowess throughout the season and now he was given an opportunity to play increased minutes and show his skills. With this change, the team defense greatly improve and the starting lineup was more athletic with the addition of Bradley. The starting five of Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass. and Kevin Garnett proved to give the team a spark. The athleticism and improved defense was an unforeseen benefit of the injury to Ray Allen. Bradley even proved that he could be a weapon on offense as well, particularly utilizing his blazing speed in the open court alongside Rondo. When Allen returned, he eventually gave way to Bradley as a starter. Bringing Ray Allen off the bench gave a big offensive boost to the second unit and changed the whole dynamic of the team. During this stretch, the league took notice of the defending capability of Avery Bradley and he became known as on of the best perimeter defenders in the league.
Pride and toughness
What this team lacks in athleticism and youth, they make up for with pride and toughness. There are three, possibly four, future Hall of Fame players on this team. These guys simply refused to cave and let the season slip away. Players like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have far too much pride to fade away without a fight. When the going got tough these guys buckled down and went to work. They were not about to be embarrassed without going down swinging. There's something to be said about the history of the Celtics and what these players embody. There is a respect for the game, and a love for the game, that drives these competitors. Being written off proved to be a big motivator for the team and they begin proving people wrong - that maybe they weren't done.
Heading into the playoffs
The Celtics have a tough stretch heading into the playoffs. It appears that they will hold on to the top spot of the Atlantic Division and will be the fourth seed in the playoffs. They will likely face the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. Boston possibly gained some confidence and a psychological advantage over the Atlanta Hawks when they beat them on the second night of a back-to-back (including traveling) after a thrilling victory over the Miami Heat. The Celtics did not play well in this game but pulled it out in overtime. Though the Hawks have given the Celtics trouble in the past, the Celtics have to like their chances matching up with Atlanta in the first round. Boston has already beat Atlanta twice in the regular season.
If the Celtics make it out of the first round of the playoffs, they will likely meet up with the Chicago Bulls unless the Bulls are upset by the number eight seed. With the newer-look Celtics, this could be an interesting series. Derrick Rose has had injury problems, and if he isn't healthy, the Celtics have a better chance of taking the series. One area where the Celtics definitely need to improve and bring their best game is with rebounding. Defensively, with the emergence of Avery Bradley, it could be closer than some people may expect. It's hard to really pick the Celtics moving past the second round at this point because there are a lot of variables that come in to play. An injury to a key player could totally change everything and doom their unexpected run. Their recent play, however, has shown that they can beat any team on any given night. More importantly, the veterans have shown grit and toughness, beating better (perceived) teams and winning games where they had everything going against them. A couple months back, making the playoffs wasn't even a given, and we certainly weren't discussing the Celtics as any kind of contender.
Any Celtic fan couldn't ask for anything more at this point - one more chance to see the current group try to make a run in the post season. It will be interesting to see how the season and playoffs end up. Will the Celtics contend for the championship? Maybe not. Probably not. But they have given hope by turning a disappointing season around and striving for more. The Celtics are peaking at the right time and have had some momentum lately. And who knows, anything can happen.