Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE
It's all about 18... and the Miami Heat. The new look, confident Boston Celtics have set their sights on beating their hated rivals from the south this season.
An obsession is best defined as a persistent fixation. We all have them, whether it's food, a television show or a sport (and since you're reading this, one of yours is probably the latter -- don't worry, we're obsessed with sports, too).
Doc Rivers, now in his ninth season coaching the Celtics, has been at the forefront of his team's enchantment with besting the defending NBA champions. Right from day one, before the first practice of training camp overseas, Rivers said that his team is preparing for the Heat. Rivers even went as far as to start a "Beat the Heat" chant at Boston's open practice at TD Garden this past Sunday.
And no, he doesn't just mean in Tuesday night's season opener down in Miami.
The Celtics' obsession is certainly understandable. We're talking about the big, bad Miami Heat, after all. They have the most talented star trio (that has proven it can win together), spearheaded by LeBron James, who is coming off by far the best year of his career. Not to mention, Miami recruited the talents of a guy named Ray Allen, and they didn't lose any major pieces over the summer.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Boston made some offseason changes of its own, however. First and foremost, the team brought back heart and soul Kevin Garnett on a three-year deal, followed by the signing of bench scoring specialist Jason Terry. Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox, both of whom spent a considerable amount of time on the sidelines with heart ailments last season, both returned, and the Celtics brought in a well rounded player in Courtney Lee and speedster Leandro Barbosa.
The Celtics even excelled in the draft, which had been an area of concern for the team in recent seasons. Danny Ainge came away with bigs Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo in the first round and Kris Joseph late in the second round.
How did the Celtics' offseason moves stack up with the Heat's? Pretty well, considering that Miami's only big signing outside of Allen was Rashard Lewis.
Just by looking at the rosters, it's evident that Boston has a much deeper team. Being the older bunch, that plays into their favor during the regular season and should translate into a healthy regular season. It isn't fair to completely judge both rosters now, though. Miami is a team built for the postseason. Their mantra is to survive in the regular season -- and that has never been a problem in two years with James, Wade and Bosh -- and dominate in the playoffs.
When that time rolls around, teams shorten their bench and play their stars more and more. That's where Boston's deep bench comes into play, because a healthy Celtics core is absolutely crucial to playoff success. Should Rondon, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett or Rajon Rondo go down at the end of the season, Boston might as well kiss any dreams of an 18th championship this season goodbye. The reserves will be responsible for easing the regular season load on the starters, but an excellent summer for the Celtics has set them up nicely.
Are the Celtics still the team to beat? The simple answer is no. Miami is the undisputed champion, and as long as they have their core of superstars (and they are healthy), they will and should be the favorites. The Oklahoma City Thunder are still a dangerous team, despite shipping off the reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden. The Los Angeles Lakers got a lot better through trades for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Even the Celtics own division got a lot better, with the new-look Brooklyn Nets acquiring the services of Joe Johnson (and still having Deron Williams and Brook Lopez), the New York Nets adding Jason Kidd and a few other spare parts and the Philadelphia 76ers bringing in Andrew Bynum through the Howard trade.
Does that mean Boston should be counted out or considered an afterthought? Absolutely not. If anything, through a terrific offseason, the Celtics have bought themselves another year (maybe even two) of legitimate contender status. How does one define a contender? It varies for everyone, but for me, a contender is a team that can put itself in position to make some noise in the final months of the season. A contender doesn't necessarily have to be a sure thing. Miami, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles are contenders, but Boston is, too.
Some say the Celtics got lucky last year, catching a break when Derrick Rose's injury paralyzed the Chicago Bulls -- the team Boston most thought would play in the second round. Truth is, they did. Regardless, just because Rose went down didn't automatically guarantee that the C's would advance to the conference finals. In fact, they almost didn't. All of Boston's postseason series went a minimum of six games, with two lasting seven games. Even if you catch some breaks -- and every champion usually does to some extent -- you still have to play hard to win the game.
As for their obsession with beating the Heat, there's nothing wrong with it, but the Celtics still need to be careful. Too much of a good thing can be dangerous. Miami is the tallest obstacle in Boston's way, but there are still plenty of teams in the Eastern Conference that can give it a run for its money. Overlooking other teams to focus solely on the Heat could have a disastrous result.
Fortunately, the Celtics can do both. They can step up their game when they play the Heat and play well against other opponents, and there's no reason to think that they won't. Boston has a track record of success since issuing in the new Big Three era. Nothing, not even the loss of Ray Allen, can take that away.
PREDICTION: The Celtics got to the Eastern Conference Finals with one of the worst benches they've ever had. After a fantastic offseason overhaul, the likes of Jason Terry, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Leandro Barbosa and the rookies will ensure that doesn't happen again. And if the Celtics can get that far without quality reserves, who's to say they can't get back to that level and beyond? There's no reason to pick against the Celtics meeting the Heat again in the conference finals, and it's going to be another all-out battle. A seven game series seems like a safe bet, and once it gets to that point, it's anyone's series. Once they get to that point, only one question matters: who wants it more?
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