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For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the pipe-smoking (probably) Boston Celtics.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
The image has been blurred, somewhat. The Boston Celtics needed seven games to down a rather ordinary Philadelphia 76ers squad in the second round last season, and were only challenging the eventual champion Miami Heat when Chris Bosh was on the sideline and LeBron James was clueless about interior play. The Heat downed the Celtics by an average of 16 points a contest in Games 6 and 7 during last spring's conference finals, numbers that were probably more representative of Boston and Miami's respective stations last season than the five games that preceded those striking Heat wins.
The whole point of the 2012-13 Boston Celtics is that they want another chance. They want to get to a point, sometime next spring, where they can accurately determine what the fluke was between those Game 6 and 7 Miami wins, and the 2-1 record Boston enjoyed against Miami during the regular season in games that LeBron actually played in (3-1, overall). Even if you toss out the late-season game that James missed against Boston, that's a 5-5 season split between Boston and Miami, and the Celtics seem expressly designed to put the Heat in the same sort of dodgy position that flummoxed them at times during the team's uneasy run from The Decision to last June's triumph.
They want to see if James will want to dig in and traipse all over them again. We're so assured of James' dominance towards the end of the Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals that we more or less take his new low post know-how as a given. The Celtics want to see if he's willing to give it to them, again, next spring. And I kind of want to watch, because I'm a sickie.
The space between a drizzly autumn and a brightened spring is an eternity for those old legs. And the Celtics took a roundabout way of buttressing their roster against the hoped-for reunion with the Heat on a playoff stage — watching as Ray Allen joined the Heat as a free agent as a way to spite Boston's newfound love of all things Rajon-y and Rondo-y. Allen has his ring, won in 2008 with the C's, so to Boston fans his chase for a second ring was kind of a jerk move on the surface, though the same fans should be assured the Celtics wasted no time in expertly rebuilding.
[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]
Because the contract extension handed to Kevin Garnett still allowed Boston to toss all manner of exceptions all over the free-agent field, Jason Terry and Courtney Lee will step in to provide the sort of pell-mell offense and sound enough defense that Allen's play at off guard lacked last season. The spacing won't be nearly the same — even if Lee's marks from long range are to be feared by opponents, defenses won't be giving Lee an all-out blitz on the perimeter as they did with Allen, blitzed that opened up lanes for an offense that struggled terribly last season.
The defense, even with yet another year added to Garnett's legendary legs, should remain stout. Hell, it might even improve. Losing Greg Steimsma's shot-blocking hurts, but losing his legendary fouling technique will not. Darko Milicic is a deserved joke at this point, but he'll either block shots and respond to the first enviable group of teammates since his stint in Detroit, or coach Doc Rivers just won't play the guy. Avery Bradley, upon his return, could be something special. Jeff Green is famously overpaid at this point, but if he turns into the next Derrick McKey few will complain.
The pressure is on Rondo, though. He's fearless, and a joy to watch; but too often last year he resorted to the sort of offensive play that reminded you more of a Mark Jackson or even an All-Star-leveled Brevin Knight, as opposed to the all-world point man he likes to fancy himself as. The league-leading assists are fantastic, but how can the NBA's best point guard man the helm of a team that finished 27th out of 30 teams in points per possession? Does he have the sort of offensive-minded teammates that a Chris Paul or Steve Nash get to boast? No, but 12 points per game and sub-60 percent shooting from the line just isn't going to cut it for a team that badly, badly needs buckets.
Part of point guard stardom is the leadership qualities inherent in structuring a winner from huddle to goal. And part of being a leader means an able understanding of exactly what your team needs. And 3.4 free-throw attempts per game and endless amounts of passed-up shots is not leadership — it's stat hounding.
This is Rondo's year to prove me wrong. And Boston's chance to get there, all over again. Throughout the summer, we trumped their chances to ride matchups and veteran play back to the Finals for the third time in six years this June. Pity they have to play from October until April until it's time to start.
Projected record: 47-35
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: Kevin Garnett (duh), Rajon Rondo (duh) and depth behind the remixed Big Three. It wasn't always pretty -- in fact, we'd kind of like to forget that whole seven-game second-round rockfight with the Philadelphia 76ers, if it's all the same to you. But after being under .500 at the All-Star break, losing their Hall of Fame sharpshooter for nearly a third of the season with ankle injuries, sputtering their way to a bottom-third-of-the-league offense and then losing their best perimeter defender to a shoulder injury, there the Celtics were, one win away from their third NBA Finals trip in five years.
They were there because even after 17 years, 50,600 combined regular- and postseason minutes and a nearly incalculable number of basket-stanchion headbutts, KG just keeps cranking along, turning our pathetic articles and lousy analysis into a potent bathtub rageahol that enables him to continue at his historic, soaked-an-hour-before-tipoff pace. He's still blowing up high screen-and-rolls, still calling opponents' offenses better than their own point guards and, as he reminded us by topping 20 points 10 times last postseason, still plenty capable of filling it up, too. (Remember, KG had been the best player in the Eastern Conference finals before LeBron's Game 6 changed ... well, everything.) He's back, for three more years, and at this point, to doubt his ability to continue being KG is to defy evidence.
They were there because Rondo took over the team, showed that he could dominate games by scoring as well as by passing and rebounding, and proved that whether or not he's the quote-unquote "best point guard in the game," he is inarguably one of its greatest and most difficult-to-solve riddles. He's back, now the clear and defined leader of the team, looking for all the world like an MVP candidate ready to emerge as a nightly marvel in all facets of the game.
This time around, though, the Celtics look deeper and more versatile. Ray Allen's flown south, replaced by former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry and apparent offseason steal Courtney Lee, and with all due respect to the surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, you can forgive Celtics fans for feeling like trading one nearly 38-year-old for two younger guys whose career 3-point shooting marks are two percentage points lower than his and who can do a bit more on the court (especially Lee, on the defensive end) represents a pretty good deal. If third-year defensive ace Avery Bradley, one of the league's more improved players last season, returns in December (if not earlier) and in full health from his offseason shoulder surgeries -- yes, plural, which is the worry -- coach Doc Rivers might just be right in suggesting that his team's got the best four-guard rotation in the league. (They're still short a backup point, though.)
Add a thankfully heart-healthy Jeff Green to back up captain Paul Pierce and key cog Brandon Bass, a potential late-first-round theft in rookie Jared Sullinger to provide low-post scoring punch, and the hilarious combination of Jason Collins and a possibly murderous Darko Milicic to provide 12 hard fouls a night (18, if also thankfully heart-healthy Chris Wilcox comes back whole from his bout with back spasms) and this Celtics team looks like it's grown new rows of teeth behind that razor-sharp first tier to which we've grown accustomed. A sixth straight Atlantic Division title seems likely; another run to within one win of the Finals seems very realistic; a different outcome seems possible. I bet Erik Spoelstra finds that at least a little scary.
What Should Make You Scared: Injuries and the Miami Heat. For a Celtics team that's gone to two Finals, winning one and coming within a quarter of winning a second, all that really matters is competing for championships. To do so, they will have to get past the Heat, an incredibly daunting task as we detailed on Monday, and to do that, they'll need to be at or pretty darn close to full strength come early summer.
Can Bradley come back from dual shoulder surgeries to give Boston a legitimate defensive weapon against Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen in the playoffs this time around? Can Garnett organize the newly imported pieces into a coherent defensive unit capable of stretching to rotate, contest and cover Miami's quick/small/spread looks? Can Pierce, who shot just 34.4 percent from the field in the Eastern Conference finals, do enough against LeBron James and the Heat defense to give the C's a puncher's chance offensively? If he can't, is Rondo ready to take over the mantle of primary scoring option? If so, can he do it often enough to win four times in seven games? Answers to these questions won't come any time soon, but we're betting Celtics fans are going to think about them plenty between now and summertime.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
The Big Three is dead, but that conception of the Celtics had been irrelevant for as little as one season, possibly nearly three, depending on whom you ask. Since their title in 2008, the Celtics have become more and more dependent on Rajon Rondo to control the office, relying on his creativity for shots and letting Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen function more as shooters than ball-controlling scorers. Though KG still controls the defense (and remains excellent in that role), this is Rondo's team.
The Big Three stood as a monument to veteran know-how and hard-won wisdom. Rondo, by contrast, presents a much less conservative sort of stardom: he occasionally seems fearful of shooting, his passes defy logic, he doesn't always get along with teammates, etc. Historically, that makes him a tough player to build around, and it's still an open question as to whether that approach will work when Garnett and Pierce are no longer on the roster. There's an essential uncertainty to what Rondo does, both in the apparent reasoning behind his more curious decisions and the idea that he might only be able to succeed in a very specific kind of team.
But turning Rondo into a central figure also changes the Celtics for the better, and not just because he's coming into his own as a star. With the Big Three, the Celtics were the sort of team that others fought to supplant, even when their record indicated they were not the best team in the East. Their value was part and parcel of the NBA establishment, an example for upstarts to measure themselves against. And while this incarnation of the team is still relatively old, all things considered, Rondo's ascendancy changes their identity into that of the dangerous challenger. They are still identifiably good, but they're less a milestone on the path to a conference title than a predator that might attack with little warning.
That's not to say that the Celtics are an unknown — no one will overlook them or forget they're a postseason contender. But an identity focused around Rondo is necessarily protean and difficult to pin down, which in turn makes the entire team a trickier challenge. A lack of predictability can be asset, especially for a team that's necessarily had to overhaul much of their rotation. Suddenly, the familiar has become strange. Keep pace if you can.