Ray Allen and KG could hardly look this past Saturday against the Nets.
Lest you think this is just another post heralding the end of the very short-lived era of Celtics dominance, let me say that I’ve been encouraged by Ray Allen’s return to action since the passing of the trade deadline. In the four games following the Feb. 18th deadline, Ray averaged over 22 points a game, and the Cees went 3-1. Then came the clunker against the Cavaliers on the 25th, and the wheels seemingly fell off, culminating in the loss to the lowly Nets this past Saturday. It was one thing to come out, blow the doors off the Cavs in the first half, and then succumb to the normal 3rd- and 4th-quarter ills that have befallen the team all season. It is another thing entirely to lose to the absolute worst team in basketball. A team that had only won 5 games previously, only one of which was against a team currently above .500. A team that will be lucky to win more than 10 games the entire season.
Granted, the Celtics have been without Paul Pierce the past few games, and his leadership cannot be discounted at this stage. KG doesn’t move the way he used to, and each time a defender bumps knees with him, I cringe. Rasheed Wallace, while playing solid basketball recently, isn’t providing the spark off the bench the Celtics need. The acquisition of Nate Robinson (*sniff* goodbye Eddie!) has yet to prove to be a good move, even though he has the skills to make a major impact as Rondo’s backup. I have confidence the Celtics will start playing better with the return of their captain, but there is a serious disparity between playing better and playing championship-caliber team basketball.
Overall it appears the Celtics, and their fans, may be victims of unrealistic expectations. When Boston put together the championship team of 2008, no one thought it would be so dominant. With every game they won by double-digits, their legend grew until it was clear they were destined to be the champs. Though they had to fight through long series in each round of the playoffs, in the end they displayed the supremacy that everyone had come to expect and brought home the title trophy. Unfortunately, that expectation hasn’t been tempered to reflect the status of their aging stars, or the lack of a strong veteran presence off the bench. It began last year when Garnett went down and the Celtics struggled through the first round of the playoffs, ultimately losing to a younger, healthier Orlando team in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It isn’t a question of talent or of leadership per se, but simply one of time, distance, and wear. If the Celtics can stay healthy, play team-oriented basketball, and remember to do the things that made them a contending team, they still have a shot to beat just about any team in a 7-game series. Those are some big ifs, but it wasn’t so long ago the Cees could barely make the playoffs, let alone be considered a perennial title contender. It’s difficult to remember this when you have three of the best players in NBA history in your starting five.
Which brings me to the looming baseball season. I haven’t put a lot of thought into how the 2010 Red Sox will fare, but I have to admit I really like the way their roster is put together. Despite some minor health questions, the addition of John Lackey makes the rotation easily the strongest in the American League, if not all of baseball. The Sox have what looks to be one of the two- or three-best infield defenses in the majors. As always, the biggest question is one of offensive potency. Will they have enough power through the middle of the lineup? Though their potential 1-4 hitters leave little doubt, the rest of the order is somewhat suspect. David Ortiz has yet to prove his detractors wrong and return to form as a powerful slugger. We cannot begin to estimate how big an impact allowing Jason Bay to leave will have on the Sox’ run-producing ability. Marco Scutaro and Adrian Beltre have both struggled in recent years, but the friendly confines may prove to be just the place for them to regain their stroke.
On paper (a hollow approximation) the Red Sox look like a World Series contender. They’ve made some definite improvements in several key spots, and strengthened their already-stalwart pitching corps. The bullpen should remain one of the best in the game. If the offense can find a way to break out of the slumber it was perpetually immersed in last season, then we may be watching Red Sox baseball well into late October and early November. If not, then we may be hopefully awaiting the arrival of the 2010-2011 NBA season sooner than later.