Playing without starting point guard Rajon Rondo and sharpshooter Ray Allen, the Boston Celtics still had enough to take down a Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic team on Wednesday, scoring a 102-98 win at the TD Garden. The victory, keyed by a dominant all-around performance by Paul Pierce (29 points on 14 shots, a career-high 14 assists with just three turnovers, five rebounds and two steals in 35 minutes), clinched Boston's fifth consecutive Atlantic Division crown, which will either give them the longest streak of divisional dominance in the NBA or, if the Los Angeles Lakers can hold off the Los Angeles Clippers in the Pacific, a tie for that mark.
That's a division title in each year Allen and Kevin Garnett have been Celtics, if you're keeping score, and Garnett's pretty proud of this one. He heard us all downplaying Boston's chances and the surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer did what he always does — turned it into motivation. When it was time to answer to a postgame question about what this division title means to the Celtics' players, he took the opportunity to revel in the moment.
"Never count us out," he answered. "I mean, you guys called us old, over.
"You know, I read some of your pathetic articles and some of your lousy analysis," Garnett continued, pausing to slowly look back and forth over the faces of each member of the media surrounding him. "It's opinion. I mean, obviously, you don't know what drive is. We thank y'all for those articles. Appreciate it. Because it lit a fire under us."
Actually, looking back to the start of the season, BDL was pretty fair to these C's. Our 2011-12 Celtics season preview — published right on the heels of the news that Jeff Green, expected to play a key role off the Boston bench, would miss the season due to a serious heart condition — included a sunny-side-up Dwyer saying Boston was "good enough to not only down the Miami Heat [but even] get back to the Finals for the third time in five years," and Freeman calling them "a very good team with reasonable ambitions for this season that outstrip those of all but a few teams in the league." Only one dummy doubted the C's capacity to remain among the East's elite, and you can guess who that was.
That was December, but even as late a Feb. 23, this outcome didn't look so likely. On that day, as the Celtics headed into All-Star Weekend, Boston was 15-17 following a brutal two-week stretch that saw Doc Rivers' squad lose seven of eight games. Since the break, though, they've been one of the NBA's best teams, ripping off a 22-9 second-half record that has featured a pair of signature wins over the Miami Heat, including a stellar shooting performance that ranks among the Celtics' best outings of the past few years.
They've made their run behind excellent team defense, All-World turns by Pierce (averaging nearly 22-6-4 on 46-36-86 shooting percentages since the break) and Rondo (who has evolved into a stone-cold leader and whose historic assist streak has now reached 22 games) ... and, of course, the steady, determined hand of Garnett, who has upped his scoring, rebounding, assist and steal averages while cutting down on his turnovers, commanding Boston's back-line and causing a rising tide (especially defensively) that's lifted all Doc's second-unit boats.
"You know, one of the hardest things, I've always said, in this league is to create chemistry," Garnett said. "I knew at some point we all, as a unit, would get in a rhythm and ride that rhythm out; I think that's what you've seen since the All-Star break."
Without Garnett's willingness to slide to the center position (which he readily admits he hates) to create more opportunities and minutes at the four for offseason steal Brandon Bass, his aptitude for continuing to anchor Boston's defense at the five while creating matchup nightmares for opposing pivots with his quickness and offensive agility, his immeasurable impact on the development of second-year guard Avery Bradley (which he addresses in the video above) and ex-D-Leaguer Greg Stiemsma, and probably a billion other things that we don't talk about at parties, this Boston team wouldn't look like the potential Chicago-and-Miami dream shatterer that it appears to be with three games left in its regular season.
I'd guess all that's had a bigger hand in Boston's second-half surge than lousy articles, but then again, I'm not in the head of Kevin Garnett. (Thank heaven for small mercies, I guess.) Just to be safe, bloggers and columnists in Chicago, Miami, Indiana, Atlanta, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia and everywhere west of the Mississippi should probably start writing about how young, fresh and dynamic Boston looks. Can't hurt to be too careful these days.