For all intents and purposes, this season is something of an afterthought for the Celtics. Of course they would like to repeat and will no doubt make every effort in that vein, but what they sought they worked for last year and got. The question is whether or not this team will have the same measure of motivation going into this season (and through this season) that they did last year.
After all, this isn't a team that has bonded over years of attempts and failures. We're not talking about the 90's Bulls, who had several attempts and failures to reach the Finals, and we're not talking about the 2000 Lakers, who similarly had trouble reaching the top of the mountain. Those teams came together in the hard times and coalesced, established a team chemistry that carried them not only to their first title but to several thereafter. Alternatively, the Celtics were somewhat hastily assembled last summer with a series of shrewd and savvy moves by GM Danny Ainge. As much as they relied on their prodigious collective talent to win the 2008 Championship, they were also pushed along by the wave of expectations and pressures applied by all circles. They were fed by the media machine that insisted that they were destined for the title. They were spurred on by their own collective will to (finally) win a Championship.
Today, that motivation is gone.
They are no longer a trendy team. They are just another enviable assemblage of players with a title in their back pockets. They are looked upon now in the same way that San Antonio or Detroit is looked upon; as a contender with no real ownership of the title. They are now a team lumped in with several other aging teams with rings on their fingers. Could they repeat this year? Of course they could, but no one is all that motivated to talk about it outside of Boston, anymore.
Nowadays people want to talk about the Lakers with a healthy Andrew Bynum. They want to talk about a retrofitted Sixers team or about a loaded Rockets team. They want to talk about the Hornets, who nabbed James Posey away from the defending Champs with a promise of more money. No one is all that interested in talking about Boston anymore because, frankly, they did what they were supposed to do and now people have lost interest.
What remains to be seen is if the team still has interest. Without a doubt Kevin Garnett does. It's impossible for him to step out onto a basketball court at anything less than 150%. His intensity can be infectious, but it can also be exhausting. Sometimes having someone tugging at you like a kid after a pixie stick becomes tiresome.
Paul Pierce had a career year last season and was justifiably rewarded with a Finals MVP for his effort. He was often the teams best and most reliable player - a fact he has no qualms reminding people of - and yet that level of intensity and commitment was such a welcome surprise one wonders if can be repeated by a player not famous for his intensity and commitment.
The fact of the matter is that there is no reason that the Celtics couldn't, and shouldn't, win the title again this year. While the loss of Posey stings, the team is still stocked with capable talent. Any worries about let-up are purely speculation, culled simply from the disbelief that any team, especially one with the age dotting the roster that Boston has, can maintain that level of focus and pressure for a second straight year.
In all likelihood Doc Rivers will take his foot off of the gas pedal a bit this season. There is no reason to exhaust his regulars for 82-games because this team doesn't have anything to prove to themselves or anyone else during the regular season. Like Detroit and San Antonio, this team needs to make sure that it's core is ready to play next spring, not this fall, and that may mean some reduced minutes while the youngsters feast (or starve) against some real NBA competition.
The mystique surrounding this team may have abated for now, but come April there is no reason to expect they won't be even better equipped than they were last year to briskly traverse the Playoffs on their way to title number two.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG - Rajon Rondo
Rondo was something of a revelation last year. Going into the season all anyone wanted to talk about was whether or not he could lead a team so loaded with superstars. He proved not only capable but indispensible. He had a feel for how to run that team that was remarkably mature. It basically amounted to allowing Pierce, Garnett and Allen to handle most of the playmaking duties while he played invasive defense and patrolled the passing lanes. On occasion he would use his speed to get to the basket but all too often passed up a wide-open layup to pass out to the perimeter. His offensive game doesn't need to be dominant, but it does need to be more reliable. Plus Pierce, Garnett and Allen aren't going to be around forever and he's going to have many years in the NBA after they retire, so it would behoove him to get that offensive game rounded out now before it actually becomes depended upon.
SG - Ray Allen
In many ways Allen became more of the leader of the supporting cast than a member of the 'Big Three'. His credentials were and are validation of a career well spent, but he simply wasn't on the same plane as his running mates last season. A good chunk of the reason is because he simply wasn't called on to be more than he was. He willingly took a backseat because that was what needed to happen. He became a highly-paidthree-point specialist and, when called upon, could shoulder more of the scoring load - like he did in the Finals. Of the three, though, Allen is the one that looked the oldest on the court last season. He's only 33, but he has a lot of mileage on his body and this role is the perfect way for a player of his stature to end his career gracefully. He may have happened into this situation, but clearly he's embraced it despite sacrificing much of the glory bestowed upon his fellow All-Star teammates.
SF - Paul Pierce
There was always a pocket of thinking that insisted that in order for Kevin Garnett to truly win, he couldn't be the best player on the team. Most talented? Sure, but he couldn't be that indefinable 'best'. Enter Paul Pierce, who simply played the most inspired basketball of his career and was, at times, the only player on his team that could push through the difficulties in the Playoffs and perform at the level that was demanded for his team to win. His awareness of what a game needed from him was unparalleled on this team, and his ability to deliver that need was all the more remarkable. Pierce has always been a marvelous talent, in the vein of a Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady, but last year he forcibly exited that class by proving that he had the intangibles that forces his team to win. Does having a roster like he had around him help? Of course it does, tremendously. But the elevation in his game last year took more than just better teammates, and all that remains to be seen is whether or not his transformation was permanent, or the result of one man possessed for one destiny-driven season.
PF - Kevin Garnett
He got his title. More than anyone on this team, Garnett and his legacy needed this title. Known as the ultimate talent without the validation of winning, Garnett came into a pressure-cooker of a situation on the most storied franchise in professional basketball and he changed the entire culture of the team by virtue of his presence, and got his validation in the process. While Pierce may have been a more instrumental part of their game-to-game success, Garnett was essential to this team's entire season-long stratagem of shutting teams down defensively for 48-minutes. His dedication to that specific end was the act that defined a season. His intense will was inescapable, and no one wanted to be the guy who didn't at least try to match it. Garnett is not a soft teammate; in fact he's barely a friendly teammate. He plays the game at a fever pitch and expects the same of everyone around him. In the end he may have needed these other guys to make him into a winner, but he was the spirit that got them that chance.
C - Kendrick Perkins
Here is last season's unsung hero for the Boston Celtics. More than any other role player, Perkins dedicated himself to post-defense in an era where the art is disappearing as fast as post-offense. His numbers aren't going to jump out at anyone, but his production in the paint was essential to this team's success. It allowed Rondo to risk his opponent's penetration while he patrolled the passing lanes. It allowed Garnett to move away from the basket to cover more mobile forwards or switch on pick and rolls. It allowed the team to play its brand of suffocating defense because Perkins knew where to be on the floor. He knew how to cut off paths to the basket. He knew how to alter shots as well as he knew how to block them. He knew that defense isn't measured by stats, it's measured by will, and he had the will to lock-up the post for Boston.