The Boston Celtics were not supposed to be returning to the NBA Finals.
They were, according to the prevalent thinking among fans and media, supposed to be past their prime.
They were supposed to be beaten easily by Lebron and the Cleveland Cavaliers, or at least by the steamrolling juggernaut from the south, the Orlando Magic.
As the Celtics gathered at mid court to celebrate their return to the championship series, Boston fans cheered and NBA fans wondered: what happened?
How did the Celtics, supposedly a team of old, over the hill veterans who couldn’t win consistently in the regular season, suddenly look so amazingly good?
The answer lies in two parts, both equally important.
The first part is more due to the nature of the modern NBA, and how an experienced team approaches the regular season.
It’s no secret that the NBA season is far too long, with too many guaranteed contracts. As a result, teams like the Celtics, much like San Antonio has done in previous years, will pace themselves all season. The coaches rest their older players much more during the season, trading the meaningless wins and division leads for a spot in the playoffs, when it suddenly matters.
The NBA regular season is nearly a preseason, and the playoffs are the actual season. Players try a lot harder in the playoffs. Suddenly the lights come on, fans are tuned in and players want to win. And that’s why players like Lebron suddenly look less incredible and more like ‘just a pretty good player’. The NBA has loads of talented guys, and when playoff time arrives, the experienced players suddenly flip the switch and pour it on.
So the Celtics have experienced players in spades, mixed in with the energy of youth, with Rondo, Perkins and Big Baby Davis providing the athletic exuberance to fit in with the older players’ basketball smarts.
But the second big factor as to why the Celtics have been winning isn’t so obvious.
Sure, they’ve got Garnett back, but even though his intensity is great and he has a nasty mid range jumper, he’s not the raging athletic he once was. He’s not the only reason the Celtics are winning.
To find that out, you’ve got to look at a single, easily missed statistic.
For the last seventeen games in a row, no player has led in scoring back to back.
What does that mean?
It means the Celtics have a lot of weapons, and whoever you leave open is going to kill you. All they have to do is figure out where your team is weak.
This only works because the players understand it. With a lot of teams, the star player is going to get his shots no matter if he’s being triple teamed or not. And if a team has two star players but both are being held in check by the defense, the depth of most rosters is not enough to get points.
And so the Celtics have put aside egos, and ignored the silly rantings of the media. If Ray Allen torches an opponent one night, journalists will write about the lack of scoring from Paul Pierce or Garnett.
A few nights later, when Allen is being smothered and Pierce is lighting up the scoreboard, it’s Allen who the writers will blast.
But none of that matters, because winning is the thing, and for the Celtics, it’s working perfectly.