Celtics are back from the grave

Left for dead after 27-27 finish, they're likely headed to Finals

May 23, 2010|By Mark Heisler, Tribune newspapers

Who dug you guys up?

A funny thing happened to the Boston Celtics on the way to their eternal rest. Just before the funeral procession reached the cemetery, someone looked inside the hearse and found the decedent was alive.

Now it's like one of those New Orleans funerals with the band breaking out into Dixieland and everyone strutting their way home — but with the guests of honor in the lead.

I actually love the Celtics, although I'm not sure it shows, judging by some of my e-mail from New England. Still, by March I had given up any chance of seeing them in the Finals, leading to some regrettable choices of words (ancient, tottering, history, Dead Celtics Walking).

Not that there's a long list of people who kept the faith, or any list. No one gave them a chance after their 27-27 finish, which began at Christmas, including home losses to the Nets and Wizards.

That's n-o o-n-e, including the Celtics themselves.

Coach Doc Rivers, reported by the Boston Herald to be leaning toward resigning, calmed the waters with a non-denial denial, saying he would just think about it, as he always does.

In other words, Rivers was giving it a last shot.

Celtics fans abandoned ship en masse, led by ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, fuming at their "decrepit, non-rebounding, poorly coached, dispirited, excuse-making, washed-up sham of a contender." The column ran under this heading: "I know the Celtics are going to lose in Round 1."

After months of hearing their season would start in April as the Celtics circled the drain, the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan, decades-long keeper of the flame, gave up the ghost.

"There wasn't much we could point to that said they could do it," Ryan said from Boston. "It just didn't look possible. Count me among those highly skeptical. I said, 'They'll probably beat Miami and that will be it.'"

The real turnaround didn't even happen until Games 5 and 6 against the Cavaliers.

As expected by everyone but Simmons, the Celtics took out the one-man-band Heat in the first round. Then they split the first four with Cleveland, with LeBron James signaling he was hurt, playing left-handed as much as right, scoring 46 points in his team's losses in Games 2 and 4 before disappearing in the pivotal Game 5, when he shot 3-for-14.

With a healthy LeBron, the Cavs sweep the Celtics, general manager Danny Ainge is about to clean house and Rivers is getting on with the rest of his life.

To that point, the Celtics were living and dying with their whirling dervish, Rajon Rondo, the best NBA guard ever who passes up open 15-footers.

Paul Pierce was 32 going on 90, scoring 13-14-11-9 in the first four games against Cleveland and shooting 32 percent.

Since then, he has been Paul Pierce, and look who's back.

This is a team that went 71-10 before Christmas in three seasons with Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, before age and injuries became factors.

If they're not all the way back, with the explosive Rondo, the underrated Kendrick Perkins and whatever Rasheed Wallace is, it's close enough to concern the Lakers.

It doesn't hurt that the Magic's basketball IQ wouldn't light a 60-watt bulb.

Now it's worse with daffy Vince Carter replacing Hedo Turkoglu, who was sloppy but ran their offense and banged down their big shots, like the one that won Game 7 in Boston last spring.

Barring turnarounds by the Magic and Suns, Christmas is coming early for the Lakers, Celtics, ABC and NBA.

Miraculous as the Celtics' revival is, they earned it with their undying ferocity and commitment, as opposed to the Lakers, who leave wakeup calls for April — or, like last spring, later.

Unlike the Celtics of yore, they've been humility itself. Of course, Rivers played most of his career in Atlanta, where one could learn humility, as opposed to Boston.

Ainge remains boyish and down-to-earth. I sat with him at the Pac-10 tournament a couple of years ago, noting at one point I thought Stanford's Robin Lopez had looked pretty good.

"Did you?" Ainge said. "I didn't see much there."

I learned later he was hoping to get him with the No. 30 pick, but the Suns took Lopez at No. 15.

Wherever Red Auerbach was, he dug it. Welcome home, Celtics.

mheisler@tribune.com

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