Last year, without Kevin Garnett, the Boston Celtics were unceremoniously booted from the NBA’s Eastern Conference Semifinals.
This year, a hungry Garnett helped guide the C’s to an 8-0 start. Things were looking eerily reminiscent of Boston’s record-setting 27-2 start to the ’08-’09 campaign. Then, the wheels seemed to fall off after a 110-103 loss at the hands of the Phoenix Suns — a game that precipitated a 3-3 stretch for Boston’s Big Three.
Three losses in six games is hardly cause to sound the early season alarm — however, Celtics’ faithful should take notice that two of those three losses came against teams currently atop the Eastern Conference standings: the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks.
So, does the return of KG mean another trip to the NBA Finals, or should the C’s make room for teams like the Hawks, Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers?
If the last six games have been any indication, the Celtics have a long way to go before they ascend to the status of NBA champions again. Before a November 11 loss to the Suns, the Celtics had not allowed any opponent to score more than 90 points. Since that loss, four of Boston’s last seven opponents have eclipsed the 90-point mark — including the lowly New York Knicks.
Garnett’s return was supposed to spark a defensive revival in Beantown. The off-season acquisition of former Detroit Piston Rasheed Wallace was supposed to add some fire to the Celtics’ bench. But, a 107-105 overtime win against the Knicks and a 83-78 loss at the hands of the Magic suggest that neither the offense nor the defense have “clicked” so far this season.
Luckily for the C’s, they play in an anemic Atlantic division — a division that boasts only one team, Boston, with a record above .500. It would appear that the Celtics have time. But not much. Unlike 2007-2008, when the Celtics lifted the Larry O’Brien championship trophy, the Eastern Conference has several potential “powerhouse” teams:
LeBron James carried his Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and the off-season addition of Shaquille O’Neal has Cleveland fans thinking championship. After an 0-2 start, including a opening loss to the Celtics, the Cavs appear to have righted the ship. Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and the rest of the young, athletic Atlanta Hawks own an impressive 11-3 record. Early season victories against Boston, New Orleans, Denver and Miami have helped legitimize the Hawks as a serious threat in the Eastern Conference. And, the defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic have not missed a beat — starting the season tied with the Hawks atop the Southeast division standings at 11-3.
While the Celtics certainly have their work cut out for them, a talented, battle-tested and resilient roster means that anything is possible.
The Big Three are certainly not getting any younger, but some of the Celtics youthful role players — i.e., Rajon Rondo — have proven that they can perform in the clutch and carry their team to victory. And, as the Celtics learned last year, they need complete team efforts (especially against lesser opponents like the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers) to achieve their championship dreams.
While it’s not yet clear who can lay claim to the title of “best in the East,” it would seem that Kevin Garnett and the rest of the C’s cannot rest on their laurels if they hope to play deep into June.
Games to watch out for: 11/29 – @ Miami Heat, 12/3 – @ San Antonio Spurs, 12/12 – @ Chicago Bulls, 12/25 – @ Orlando Magic.