Celtics Not Past Their Prime Yet

The Boston Celtics have been contenders ever since the Big Three formed in 2007. With those three veterans on life support, could this be the last gasp for this storied franchise?

They’ve come out of nowhere yet they’ve always been here. The Boston Celtics, too old, not enough firepower, too many injuries, suddenly find themselves in the thick of the NBA title chase.

They won the Atlantic Division title last night with a victory over the Orlando Magic. This wasn’t probable weeks ago. In fact, until the trade deadline passed in March, this team might have been busted up, the rebuilding process beginning during a hurried season that seemed lost at the start of the year.

Boston remains intact and somehow the team has prospered despite the numerous injuries and tired legs. No team has distinguished itself during this truncated season so why not the Celtics?

Since the All-Star break, Boston has stepped up, going 23-9, winning with a banged-up lineup and Father Time lurking in the background. This has to be Doc Rivers’ best coaching season. Rivers is a superb coach, but to win with these guys, that’s something special.

The Celtics continue to win despite guys such as Avery Bradley and Greg Stiemsma playing significant minutes. Boston’s core is still around, but they aren’t star veteran ballers playing for an elusive championship.

The Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined before the 2007-08 season, taking the league by storm with unselfish play and down-and-dirty defense. Boston forced the most high-powered offenses to grind out games, which ended in victory most of the time; the biggest payoff was squashing their biggest rival, the undermanned Los Angeles Lakers, in the 2008 Finals.

The Celtics haven’t won a championship since then.

In 2009, Garnett was injured during the playoffs. The following year, the Celtics and Lakers played again in the Finals, this one a classic series that went down to Game 7 in the closing seconds. Los Angeles prevailed. The demise of the Celtics was at hand.

Last season, Boston loaded up with frontcourt talent, signing future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and former All-Star Jermaine O’Neal. Strangely, the C’s gave up their biggest advantage over every team in the NBA — frontcourt depth — when they traded center Kendrick Perkins (the man in the middle during the ’08 campaign) for Oklahoma City’s Jeff Green, a youngster who didn’t fit in with the team’s style of play. To make matters worse, he was of no use last season and this year because it was discovered he had a heart condition.

This season, the biggest obstacle was age. And it showed at the start of the season. They were 4-8 early on, but have heated up recently.

Point guard Rajon Rondo has single handedly lifted this team up, taking the lead on a team of future Hall of Famers and veterans. Rondo averages 12.1 points per game, 11.6 assists per game and 4.9 rebounds a contest. He has had 20 assists in a game twice this year, 15 or more assists in a game 10 times this season.

The guy’s a one-man fastbreak on an aging squad. Rondo has established himself as one of the elite point guards in the game despite having a questionable outside shot and limited teammates who can run with him.

Good thing Boston suits him up, it would be an ugly sight to see Garnett, Pierce and Allen plod up the court with an average point guard.

With Miami and Chicago struggling, the East is up for grabs. And Boston has beaten both of those teams at least once this year; it has defeated Miami twice this month with more game to play against the Heat. It was unlikely that the Celtics could reach the finals two years ago as the No. 4 seed. The Celtics will probably enter this postseason as the 4 seed. Who knows, it may happen again.

Clippers and Memphis Give Chase

These are the teams nobody wants to see in the playoffs. Then again, in the Western Conference, every team is a tough out.

Historically, however, nobody would fear the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. Ask the San Antonio Spurs about the Grizzlies. Ask the Los Angeles Lakers about Chris Paul.

Finally, Memphis has some street cred in the playoffs. The team that had never won a playoff game broke through last season, sweeping the top seed Spurs in the first round before succumbing to the Thunder in the second round in seven games.

Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol beasted their way down low last year. Gasol upped his play to an All-Star bid while Randolph has been slowed this year because of his injuries. Rudy Gay, one of the most athletic players in basketball, didn’t even play during the postseason because of injury. Memphis is deep, physical and confident. This group is no longer the Small Market Team That Could.

These guys are legit. The Grizzlies have been climbing the standings all season, edging their way to closer to the No. 4 or 3 spot in the Western Conference.

They’re two games behind the Lakers and Clippers with four games to play. Anything can happen in a week. If Memphis stayed in that No. 4 or 5 slot a possible second round matchup is one that it’s familiar with: San Antonio, and the Spurs would be the top seed again if they played in the semifinals.

Los Angeles fans have been treated to quality basketball this season. But it hasn’t been so much Kobe Bryant’s plethora of jump shots (of which he has shot poorly), no, the crowd pleasing has been at the hands of the maestro, Clippers point guard Chris Paul.

Paul terrorized the Lakers during last year’s playoffs, pushing the awful New Orleans Hornets to a Game 6 before falling to the heavily favored Lakers.

With actual teammates now, Paul has flourished. He has the Clippers in the playoffs and the big difference is that they’re not just happy to be here. They’re not looking to get to the second round only to lose a Game 7, something the ’06 Clippers did when they were led by power forward Elton Brand and veteran point guard Sam Cassell.

Paul averages 19.4 points per game and 9 assists, not his best numbers, but remember, the difference is that he’s no longer a one-man show. Highlight reel power forward Blake Griffin gets 20 and 10 a night. Perimeter players Mo Williams, Caron Butler and Nick Young provide scoring punch as they all average double figures.

The Clippers are tied with the Lakers in the loss column, but must finish ahead of the Lake Show since they won the season series.

Like Memphis, you don’t want Paul’s crew showing up at your building for Games 1 and 2 of the second round. There’s a good chance theft will take place as in stealing home-court advantage and ultimately, taking the series.

Bulls-Heat Redux

Who really wants the Eastern Conference?

It’s there for the taking, the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat sharing custody of the top spot most of the season. These two will finish No. 1 and 2, but which teams will be where?

A week ago, Chicago beat Miami to take control of the East. It seemed as if the Heat were resigned to the No. 2 spot until Chicago lost to lowly Washington on Monday.

Now, Miami is two games behind. A win tonight (yes, these same two teams play again on TNT) and things will get interesting. With Derrick Rose’s health uncertain and LeBron James playing MVP caliber basketball, this race might not be finished until the last day of the season.

76ers Falling Like a Tampered Elevator

No team has felt the plunge quite like the Philadelphia 76ers. Thanks to a cakewalk early schedule, many of them played at home, Coach Doug Collins’ squad looks as if they’re playing for the lottery rather than playoff positioning.

The 76ers are one of those teams you want to see in the playoffs. Miami or Chicago can gobble them up in four, maybe five games with minimal effort.

They have talent, but no real superstar. Andre Iguodala is a fine perimeter player with exceptional defensive skills and superb athleticism. He won’t give you 20 points a game. And he doesn’t scare the opposing defense with the game on the line.

A.I. does, however, blast teammates through the media. Iguodala threw teammate Lou Williams under the bus earlier this month when he told Sports Illustrated, “It makes no sense to me why so many good scorers can’t defend. Like Lou Williams. He’s one of the toughest guys to guard in the league, but he can’t guard anybody. I don’t get that.”

Since those comments, the team has unraveled. Philly has gone 3-7 in its last 10 contests, sputtering to the finish line.

The Sixers began the year 15-6 (very home heavy), a pesky team that harassed you on D and played with energy thanks to their abundance of youth. This was fool’s gold and now it’s tough to tell what these guys are playing for.

They have a two-game lead for the last spot in the Eastern Conference. The way they’ve been playing, nobody would be surprised if they tanked their way into the lottery which would pave the way for the awful Milwaukee Bucks to earn the right to get smashed in the first round.

Will the 76ers make it to the playoffs? They’re off to a good start after beating another East coast bottom feeder, the Cleveland Cavaliers to start a five-game road trip. Philadelphia still has four roadies against Indiana, New Jersey, Milwaukee and Detroit.

Three of those games are winnable, four if the Pacers rest players since they’re pretty much locked into the No. 3 spot.

Hmm, playoffs or lottery? If any team can bumble this schedule, it’s the 76ers.

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