Celtics surge past eastern competitors
While it is still early in the NBA season, the Boston Celtics have built on their success from last season, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, and have established themselves as one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
After starting the season 0-2, including a loss to the lowly Chicago Bulls at home and a franchise worst 45-point drubbing at the hands of Michael Jordan's Washington Wizards, high hopes were replaced with fears that the team might not even make the playoffs.
The Boston media, which is usually overly quick to predict when a team's season is over - resulting perhaps from the constantly disappointing seasons put forth by the Red Sox-were ready to cast-off the Celtics as one-hit wonders.
They pointed to the questionable off-season moves made by general manager Chris Wallace. Wallace has been criticized for taking on the volatile power forward Vin Baker from Seattle and his over-priced $50 million contract, while letting power forward Rodney Rodgers, who played a vital role in last year's playoff run and who would have required a far cheaper contract, go to their stiffest competition in the Atlantic Division, the New Jersey Nets.
Nonetheless, the Celtics currently have a record of 7-4. Unfortunately their winning record is only good enough for third place in the Atlantic division. The Celtics, however, narrowly trail the division-leading Nets and Philadelphia 76ers-both teams are tied for first with 8-4 records.
The Celtics are 6-2 since starting the season 0-2, and one of their losses came against the now 12-0 Dallas Mavericks, which is the first team to start a season 12-0 since Jordan's 1996 World Champion Chicago Bulls. Moreover, the Celtics have impressive wins against both the Nets and 76ers.
They beat the 76ers by ten points earlier in the season, and they routed the defending Eastern Conference Champion Nets by 19 points on Wednesday. The Nets were the team that beat the Celtics, 4-2, in the Eastern Conference Finals of last year's playoffs.
Before this season, the Celtics thought they could compete with and beat the Nets. In fact, shooting guard Paul Pierce had a chance in Game Four of last year's Eastern Conference Finals to help give the Celtics a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
With the Celtics trailing by two points in the final minute, Pierce had two free throws which, if he had made, would have most likely sent the game into overtime. Instead, Pierce hit just one of two, and the Nets went on to win Game Four and, ultimately, the series.
Going into the rematch last Wednesday night, the Nets held a huge psychological advantage over the Celtics in light of their triumph against the Celtics in the playoffs. As Nets Head Coach Byron Scott so bluntly stated before the tip off of the game, "We are the best team in the Eastern Conference."
And if the Nets had managed to defeat the Celtics on the road, or even played them close, it would have added further credence to Scott's point. However, that didn't happen, and the Celtics sent a clear message to Scott and the rest of the Nets: we are for real. The 17-point victory was considerably larger than any of the five victories the Celtics earned against the Nets last year in the regular season or playoffs (The Nets and Celtics split in ten games last season, 5-5).
Not only was the score an indication of the progression of the Celtics from last year, but the play of Shammond Williams, the Celitc's newly acquired point guard, and shooting guard/point guard Tony Delk, was also a good sign. Both Williams and Delk chipped in 21 points, and for the first time in recent memory, neither Pierce nor power forward Antoine Walker were among the top scorers in a game for the Celtics.
As for Delk, he has an increased confidence and has re-found his excellent shooting touch, which he seemed to have lost following his trade last year to Boston from the Phoenix Suns. He currently leads the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage (.510) and three-point field goals made (33).
It is obviously way too early to start looking for any lasting patterns in the NBA. That said, it is hard for Boston fans to see the play of the Celtics and not get excited. After laying an egg in their first two outings, the Celtics have stepped up both their defense and their intensity to levels comparable to that of last season's.
And for the time being, they seem to have found a consistent third-scoring option in Tony Delk, who is averaging 13.4 points per game. Also, Shammond Williams has filled the shoes of Kenny Anderson (last season's point guard) quite nicely and is averaging 11 points-per-game.
Most of the Boston media, as well as the national media, predicted the Celtics to have just a mediocre season this year and used the acquisition of Baker coupled with the loss of Anderson as evidence that the Celtics were not better off than one year ago. While the verdict on Baker is still out, it looks like it might not matter.
It is important that Boston fans don't overanalyze the Celtic's exaction of revenge on the Nets. However, it is just as important that the Nets realize they aren't going to run away with the Atlantic Division in the regular season like they did last year.
And their main competition is the same team it was last year, the Boston Celtics-who have bettered themselves and are a now a legitimate Eastern power.