Boston Celtics are starting to defy old perceptions

After beating Miami in five games, Kevin Garnett, left, Paul Pierce and the Celtics have evened their series with Cleveland at one game apiece.
After beating Miami in five games, Kevin Garnett, left, Paul Pierce and the Celtics have evened their series with Cleveland at one game apiece. (Mark Duncan/associated Press)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

WALTHAM, MASS. -- Coming into the playoffs, it was easy -- perhaps too easy -- to dismiss the Boston Celtics and their so-2008 trio of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce as also-rans playing on borrowed time. They were aging, injured and inconsistent and had gone just 27-27 after Christmas, including an embarrassing home loss to the woeful Washington Wizards in the final weekend of the regular season.

But questions about whether the Celtics were bored or saving themselves are starting to be answered this postseason, as they walloped Miami in five games and have outperformed top-seeded Cleveland for three out of the four halves in their best-of-seven conference semifinal series.

Boston's 104-86 victory over Cleveland on Monday evened the series at 1-1 but has been somewhat overshadowed by the $25,000 fine Danny Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations, received Thursday for tossing a white towel over his head in an attempt to distract Cavaliers forward J.J. Hickson as he shot a free throw in the fourth quarter. The only use Celtics players seem to have for white towels is to wipe off sweat. They have too much pride to throw them in.

"A lot of people wrote them off," two-time most valuable player LeBron James said. "But I felt like they were just waiting for another challenge."

While watching the Atlanta Hawks struggle with lower-seeded Milwaukee in the first round, Pierce sent a message on his Twitter account, @paulpierce34, that read, "Atlanta has to learn its a different game wen u go from being the hunters to being hunted."

Pierce and his teammates should know, since the champions once-removed have undergone the transformation from being the team to beat to a team that continues to impress the longer it hangs around.

The moment Garnett and Allen were teamed with Pierce three summers ago, the Celtics became the prohibitive favorite, and they went on to capture the franchise's 17th title. Last season, Garnett suffered a right knee injury that essentially quashed their hopes of defending their title. And with the 33-year-old Garnett lacking his previous lift, the 32-year-old Pierce's nights of brilliance becoming more sporadic and the team slipping to fourth in the Eastern Conference, Allen understands that perceptions have changed -- especially with the Celtics starting a series on the road for the first time since the Big Three was formed.

"We've seen it a couple of different ways," Allen, 34, said, with his team set to host Game 3 at TD Garden on Friday. "We don't have as big of a bull's-eye on our back as we once had. But our hunger is still there. Yeah, we had to navigate through a lot of different things, injuries, different players, different lineups, but it's still the same. It's some type of challenge every year and for us, it keeps us fresh and keeps us on our toes."

The extended delay between games gave Celtics Coach Doc Rivers the chance to give Garnett and veteran center Kendrick Perkins a day off from practice on Wednesday to rest their respective injuries. Perkins is dealing with a strained right knee and a busted upper lip, which required six stitches ("I look at it like I'm already ugly," Perkins said of his new look).

Garnett suffered a mid-foot sprain after Perkins stepped on it early in Game 2, but he said he would be ready for Friday. "I'm not injured. I just banged my foot. Nothing more, nothing less," said Garnett, who participated fully in practice on Thursday. "We live on the planet of Doc Rivers. And on that planet, sometimes you have to sit out a day."

The Celtics need Garnett at his best, since much of their offensive scheme centers on him taking advantage of his matchup against former Wizard Antawn Jamison, a game but not accomplished defender. Garnett is averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds this series, which is up from his regular season averages of 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. He's also taken 41 shots against Cleveland, which is unusually high for the typically unselfish Garnett (he took 45 shots the entire series against Miami).

"I want Kevin to be more aggressive. I told Kevin, 20 [shots] is not enough. I want 25," Rivers said. "I just think the more aggressive he is, the more we can go to him, good things happen."

A lot of good things have happened with the ball in the hands of Rajon Rondo, who outperformed James in Game 2 -- when he accounted for 59 of the Celtics' points (Rondo scored 13 and handed out 19 assists) -- and has been the second-best player on the court this entire series.

Pierce has yet to have much influence on the series, averaging just 13.5 points, but he warned against overlooking him. He joked on Thursday that he was taking a "mental cleansing day" to refresh and relax at home in his whirlpool. "I'm playing within the system. I just try to give the game what I think it needs," said Pierce, who has been held below 20 points in five of the Celtics' seven playoff games. "I don't put any pressure on myself to try to go out there and force the action. There's going to be games when they need me to come up big. When that time comes, I'll be there."

This series against Cleveland, and this postseason in particular, could very well mark the end of an era, with Allen scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and Pierce having an early termination option. But Rivers said his team hasn't changed its approach, even if the Celtics are not considered a favorite to win. "I don't even know when we were the hunted that we focused on that," Rivers said. "We just got to focus on playing. All that other stuff will take care of itself. If we're good enough, we'll show it; and if we're not, we'll show it. Once they throw the ball up, it's nothing that anybody says that's going to matter. It's what you do."

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