Since the Chicago Bulls decided a month and a half ago to win just about every game they play, the real drama in the Eastern Conference has surrounded the fight for the second seed in the Eastern bracket, with the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics battling back and forth.
Boston, the defending Eastern champions, appeared to have the edge. The C's raced out to an early lead in the Eastern standings, and though the curious Kendrick Perkins trade appeared to have taken the wind out of the team's sails, it should be noted that the Celtics won six of seven overall immediately following the deal. Five weeks ago, the Celtics boasted a 46-15 record, Perkins had barely played a role in 95 percent of those wins, and Chicago and Miami seemed miles away.
Alas, entering Sunday, things were tied up between Miami and Boston. Then the Heat downed the Celtics rather handily in Miami, an interesting retort following three close Boston wins over the Heat to start 2010-11. And on Monday, charged with winning on the second end of a back-to-back in the hopes of tying things up with the Heat (Miami was in Atlanta, and Boston owned the tie-breaker), the Celtics had a choice.
Fight with the old folks, or go down with the kids?
Celtics coach Doc Rivers chose the latter, and though things didn't turn out as hoped (Washington's more talented kids came out ahead, eliminating Boston's hopes for the second seed in the playoffs), this was probably the best risk/reward option for the Celtics. The Heat are rolling, the team was due to beat the Hawks on Monday night, and that's exactly what went down. They're also due to beat the Raptors on Wednesday like a rented mule, though I have no idea why anyone would want to rent a mule in this modern era. It's so much easier to lease.
Things have gotten so bad with Boston that a win over the upstart Wizards in Washington wasn't exactly a given, even with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo playing. So Rivers chose to sit those four, and the C's were one bum Von Wafer play away from pulling out the win. Cold comfort, but the old folks also got a night off, which will likely allow them a good five days of rest before starting up with the playoffs this weekend. Toss in the length of the first round (a seven-game series can go on for two weeks) and Boston's likely superiority over New York (the team's first-round opponent), and this could work out well for the Celtics.
Until Miami shows up in the second round, that is.
It's no given that the Celtics, who are flailing, will beat the New York Knicks. It's also not a given fact that the Heat, still playing to the sum of its parts on paper, will take down the Philadelphia 76ers. But you'd bet your Bentley on both, and the second round of the Eastern bracket might end up featuring the best series of the entire postseason. And as a result of Boston's lost long-weekend, four out of seven (likely) games will be played in Miami.
Will that matter? Well, that's up to Boston.
This is still the Celtics' choice to make, though. Because we've seen them absolutely steal momentum, confidence, and the home-court advantage away from teams in a three-hour time span, as was the case in Cleveland and Orlando last year. Though "flipping the switch" isn't really the NBA hallmark that some observers think it is, the Celtics did flip a switch last season with just about the same group it enters this postseason with. You'd be a fool to dismiss both what we've seen from Boston over the last month, but you'd be just as foolish to dismiss what we saw from this team exactly 12 months ago. Same group, same goal, same disparate levels of production.
And as a result of that history, we can't criticize Doc Rivers for resting his men, because he has to give his Celtics the legs to flip that switch. And after playing deep into June for two out of the last three seasons, and hoping to again in 2011, a five-day layoff goes a long, long way.
So say goodbye to the Celtics you saw on ABC on Sunday. They're going to be out of the office for a while. You'll see them again this weekend.
- Boston Celtics
- Miami Heat