All good things must come to an end. We all knew that the Big Three era wouldn't last forever for the Boston Celtics, no matter how long Danny Ainge tried to string it out. Going into this season, most thought the run was over.
Whoops, guess again. Here they are, on the brink of the postseason, possessing the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and preparing to make perhaps their last title run together.
Of course, they have their doubters. Plenty of 'em. They're too old. They don't have enough talent. They've heard it all, and Kevin Garnett let the media know that he's seen its "lousy analysis."
Confidence isn't an issue for the Celtics, and neither is talent. While they may not have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Derrick Rose, they still have Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Bass, not to mention their stellar reserves. The talent is there, no doubt.
Still, it won't be easy. Right from the start, the Celtics will face a talented team in the Atlanta Hawks. Should they advance, they will likely have to test their luck against the likes of the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. Not exactly easy opponents. But they'll be ready.
With that in mind, here's a look at what the Celtics will need to be successful in the postseason.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
It all starts with four people -- Pierce, Garnett, Allen and Rondo. Now, if you had to rank them in order of importance ... you really couldn't. For the Celtics to be successful, all will need to be playing their best basketball, especially in the later rounds should they get there. Pierce and Allen usually provide the offensive pop, although Garnett's offensive resurgence in the second half of the season has been encouraging. Rondo will need to keep being Rondo, translation, ridiculous. Rondo's passing ability is unequaled in the NBA, and when he's tossing the rock all around the court, the Celtics are deadly. Should any of them succumb to injury, the Celtics may be in trouble.
"Health, health, and probably health," said Jeff Clark of CelticsBlog when asked what the most important factors were for Boston. "The team will get as much rest as they need with the longer layovers between games in the playoffs. They are as well coached as any team in the league and they have veterans that know each other and know what to do with that coaching. Oh yeah, and they have three Hall of Famers and a current and future star player. So if they can all stay on the court and keep the bumps and bruises to a minimum, that would be a pretty key factor."
Tier two is just as important as tier one. The Big Four will be looked upon to do most of the damage, but even they need rest. When they're on the bench, others will need to step up. Bass and Avery Bradley, the other two members of the Celtics' starting lineup, have become critical components of the team's success, as has reserve swingman Mickael Pietrus. The beauty of this team is that, even if one member of the Big Four struggles, there is still hope.
"That's pretty much how they operate," Clark said. "When one guy is struggling on offense, the others pick him up. They ride the hot hands so to speak. Now, when multiple members of the Big Four are struggling, that's more troublesome and the offense can stagnate and stall for stretches at a time. ... As usual, the games will largely be decided based on the play of the stars. However, when the matchups are close and the stars on both sides begin to cancel each other out, there's always one or two guys that swing the balance of a series in one direction or the other."
Which player might that be? There are several good options, but Clark is going with Air France.
"I could say Brandon Bass, but he's a starter. I could say Ray Allen, but that's a little too easy. So I'll tap Mickael Pietrus (assuming he can get healthy and contribute)," Clark said. "He's a scrappy guy that can get into it on defense and hit a couple of back-breaker three-pointers. At some point during these playoffs, I imagine there will be some opposing fans cursing the Frenchman, much to our delight."
Another player to keep an eye on is Bradley. Although the second-year guard has found his comfort zone offensively while maintaining his devastating defensive touch, he hasn't played one minute of playoff basketball. Personally, I think that might be an issue, but Clark isn't worrying.
"He's kind of had his trial by fire already and if anything he's the kind of guy that might take advantage of the playoff atmosphere," said Clark. "If there's an opposing point guard that has butterflies or is getting the yips, he'll be all over him before you can say 'fast break going the other way.' Hopefully Avery's jump shot keeps falling and he stays confident in that shot. But even if he goes a little cold, he can score off backdoor cuts and finding the right seem in the defense."
ROUND ONE: CELTICS VS. HAWKS
It will be a rematch of the first round of the 2008 NBA Playoffs, when the Celtics squeaked past the Hawks in seven games. The key members of each team are still in place -- the Celtics are still running on Big Three power and the Hawks still have the star trio of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford (however, Horford is out of action with a shoulder injury). Boston and Atlanta played three times in the regular season, with the Celtics winning twice. Clark was kind enough to weigh in on the Celtics-Hawks series and the matchups to watch for within it.
"Well, Evans did a good job of covering the series preview here, but as far as matchups are concerned, I think you have to focus on Paul Pierce vs. Joe Johnson," Clark wrote. "The onetime (in a long ago land) teammates are still the driving forces behind their teams' success. Johnson is overpaid but can still be very effective when he gets his groove going. Pierce is the Swiss Army Knife of the Celtics, always ready with whatever the team needs to win (scoring, passing, rebounding, defense, etc.). ... These teams seem to grind each other to a defensive standoff, so at some point the offense has to come from somewhere. When faced with that situation, more often than not you can bet each team is looking to their star small forwards to pick them up. This series should be no different (and yes, I'll take my chances on The Truth)."
PREDICTION: We'll start with the prediction from our Celtics blog, "CelticsBlog," whose proprietor, Jeff Clark, has four simple words for you: "Banner 18. Enough said."
As a lifelong Celtics fanatic, I would absolutely love to agree. Unfortunately, I can't. Despite the drastic improvement shown by the Celtics in the second half of the season, I still cannot bring myself to pick Boston over teams like the Heat or Thunder. Sure, the Celtics can beat any team in the regular season, but we're talking about a postseason series here. The mountainous task ahead seems far too difficult for the veteran C's to overcome. At the same time, I'm not dumb enough to write them off. Why? Because you can't. This group knows exactly what it takes to win. They've seen it all, and you better believe that they are going to put everything on the line in the final go around. I believe the Celtics will get past the Hawks in five games in the first round, and I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that they will upset the Bulls in the second round in six games. But once again, they'll run into the buzz saw that is the Heat, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. Just know this -- if the Celtics get to that point, anything's possible.