WALTHAM, Mass. -- Here in the Boston Celtics' practice gym, where banner No. 17 hangs like a crisp, clean dress shirt in a closet full of hand-me-downs, the most absurd exercise in American sports takes place: trying to find something wrong with the Celtics.
Their mission to repeat as champions has been a cakewalk so far. They're 20-2 heading into at game at Washington on Thursday night, and another victory would break the record for the best start in the history of this storied franchise.
|Kevin Garnett recently directed some, um, constructive criticism at the second string. (AP)|
Great stuff. Wonderful history. If only these Celtics cared.
And if only these Celtics were as hungry as last year's team. Danny Ainge fears that in some ways, they're not.
"I think they have a great deal of confidence in themselves as a team," said Ainge, the team president who played on four Celtics teams that went to the Finals and two that won championships. "But I've seen them take some quarters off. Didn't see that last year."
Ah, the glorious life of a general manager whose team is coming off a championship and on pace to win 74 games. Gotta find something to nitpick.
"Doing what they did last year was remarkable from a daily effort and focus standpoint," Ainge said. "I never played on a team that had as much focus as this team (last season). This year, I see them more like the teams I played on in the '80s in that they have a little bit of a swagger, some confidence, and sometimes they believe they can win -- and they have been able to win. But they haven't had that constant focus that they did last year. It's not as consistent."
Finding a missing link in this Celtics ring of honor is like finding a team for Stephon Marbury. You need to look really, really hard. But believe it or not, there are some things Doc Rivers' team isn't doing as well as it did a year ago. The fact that such minute details have attracted the attention of Ainge, and become the unmitigated focus of the players and coaches, is an awfully bad sign for anyone with designs on trying to knock them off.
"If you sit on that 20-2, then all you have is the best record," Ray Allen said. "We're talking about winning a championship. It's good to be in that situation where you're constantly trying to improve, because teams that watch us now, they're watching the last game we played and what they can do to beat us."
Which brings us to the Lakers, and to comments made recently by Derek Fisher.
The Lakers are obsessed with the Celtics. They've circled Christmas Day on the calendar -- not with visions of $10,000 stocking stuffers, but with anticipation for their first meeting with Boston since the Finals. Their minds were already there Sunday night at Staples Center before playing the Milwaukee Bucks.
A bunch of Lakers devoted pregame preparation time to watching the end of the Celtics-Pacers game on TV in the players' lounge and training rooms. They groaned when Boston got some favorable calls down the stretch. A story in the Orange County Register described how Sasha Vujacic walked into the main locker room, shaking his head after Paul Pierce's 3-pointer forced overtime. The Celtics won 122-117 in OT.
"Quite honestly," Fisher said, "if we're the best we can be, we'll beat 'em."
Allen professed no knowledge of this comment -- "You would have to be really searching on the websites to try to figure out what they're talking about," he said -- but he did issue this subtle challenge in response.
"That's what we want," he said. "We want to play a team at their best. That's going to bring the best out of us."
On the surface, it is difficult to differentiate between this 20-2 Celtics team and the one that pushed the Lakers around in the Finals this past June. The Big Three are still big. Defense remains the foundation. They lead the league in opponent field goal percentage (.415) and are second in points allowed (90.95), just like last year.
How many games will the Celtics win?
50 to 60
61 to 70
More than 70
Total Votes: 13,433
The only discernable difference crops up when you examine Boston's ability to shoot and defend the shot that the late, great Auerbach so detested: the 3-pointer. The Celtics are 17th at shooting it this season (.352) and seventh at defending it (.332), after being fifth (.381) and first (.316) a year ago.
The reason isn't hard to pinpoint: It's the absence of James Posey, who left the magical green carpet ride for a bigger payday in New Orleans. Posey was a deft 3-point shooter, and his length on defense helped set the tone for the Celtics' second unit, which rarely let anyone off the hook after the starters had built a lead. Funny, the Celtics will see Posey when the Hornets visit Boston on Friday night, and he'll be presented with his championship ring.
"I'm happy he was a part of what we did last year, and I'm a little upset that he couldn't be with us this year for the journey," Pierce said. "But I'm happy for him because he was a big part of what we did."
If the Celtics have an Achilles' heel -- and it's way too early to call it that -- it's the bench. With Posey in New Orleans and P.J. Brown retired, Rivers has turned to a less-experienced second unit led by Tony Allen, Leon Powe, and Glen "Big Baby" Davis to protect leads and defend the Celtics' honor. If you will allow me the same license Ainge has to nitpick, they've struggled at it.
The situation boiled over last Friday night, when Kevin Garnett ripped into the second unit for letting a big lead slip away against Portland. Garnett and the other starters had to go back in and finish the job. The video of K.G. eviscerating the backups during a timeout, with words apparently so tough they brought Big Baby to tears on the bench, became an immediate YouTube sensation.
"He wasn't getting on me," Davis said. "I was just upset because we lost the lead. I'm a competitive guy, an emotional guy, and I want to win. ... Everybody assumed that I was mad because K.G. said something to me. No. K.G.'s one of my role models. I would never get upset like that towards him. And everything he tells me is to help me, not to hurt me."
As crazy as it sounds, Ainge will continue to look for ways to upgrade the roster. But for the most part, the minor details will be handled in-house. Even in these tough times, there are no 6-foot-8, championship-tested swingmen who shoot and defend the three on the unemployment line.
During their first three-day break of the season, it's safe to assume that the extra practice time is being put to good use. It's a good bet, too, that the Celtics will emerge from it playing better than they were before -- if that's possible. The fact that they believe it is tells you everything you need to know about what goes on in this practice gym adorned with all the banners.
"We're not getting bored," Pierce said. "We have a nice streak going, but the guys understand it's a process. Everybody loved that feeling of winning the championship, and we're trying to go out there and do it again."