The recent play of this team is showing to one and all that this team isn't as far away from contending as their record may indicate. Several factors have affected the Celtics this season that both gave us the second worst record and make us a much better team today.
First, you can't discuss the Celtics' season without mentioning the injuries. It started right from training camp when Ratliff was unable to play due to the injured back. He played in just 2 games this season. Also in training camp, Delonte West was out with the bad back and then an injured toe and infection.
We never really had a healthy Wally this season because just as he was getting his legs under him from the off season knee surgery, he started spraining ankles and kept spraining them all season. He had 5 ankle sprains in all, alternating ankles with 3 on the left and 2 on the right. He finally had season ending surgery on March 8 in hopes to be back strong next season.
Big Al went out early with an emergency appendectomy. He was expected to be out 4-6 weeks but he put to rest the "soft" lable once and for all by coming back just 2 weeks later. Perk had off season surgery on his shoulder after the second dislocation occurred early in the summer and was unable to really work over the summer, although he did sneak in some work when he thought he could get away with it. He was just getting going when he developed plantar fasciitis. He was out 10 games and came back basically 50% healthy. He has been playing through pain all season and still isn't 100%. Kandi went out with an abdominal tear and missed a big chunk of time at the same time Perk was out, making us a team without a true center. We had 21 feet of centers on the injured list, as Doc would joke.
Then Pierce was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his foot. He was originally expected to miss 2-3 weeks but was out over 8 weeks during which the Celtics won only 2 games. He was diagnosed on December 21 and it wasn't until February 10 that he was cleared for his first full practice. But, and this is key, on February 6, he had a procedure performed on his elbow as it was once again swollen and sore. Even though he is back and playing, he isn't 100%. He is struggling to get his conditioning back, has little lift in his legs, and continues to struggle with swelling and pain in his elbow. We see flashes of the old Pierce when he can make the big shots as he did in San Antonio, but only flashes because he is playing hurt.
On January 11, Tony Allen was just hitting his stride and playing excellent ball. He brought energy and a tough defensive player to the lineup. He was leading the Celtics in Pierce's absence and then disaster struck once again. Going in for a dunk after the whistle blew on a foul, Tony crumbled to a heap on the floor with a torn ACL. This injury was more devastating to the team than Pierce's because Tony was our main defensive stopper and was stepping up his game and taking it to the next level when he went down and it really shook the team.
Ryan Gomes, who has been a very steady player for the team, went out in December with a strained calf muscle and again in March with a sprained right foot. Gomes hasn't been spectacular but he is steady and makes very few mistakes. He gives us another weapon on offense and is a very good rebounder. Since Delonte's injury in training camp he has misses periods with his back and recently, a concussion. Scal missed time in January with a knee injury that he received in the same game that Tony went down.
When you look at the number of injuries and the players who have been in and out of the lineup because of those injuries, it is staggering. Every time a player would go out, the team has to adjust and then readjust when the player returned. There has been little time for the team to build chemistry or trust on the court. Right from training camp and continuing throughout the year, injuries have disrupted the team and kept them from developing any kind of chemistry.
But the injuries weren't all bad. Even though the injuries have dashed any hopes for a playoff berth this season, they have given our young players a chance to get more minutes and more experience. These players have grown in leaps and bounds. Consider the experience that Al got from being the first, and sometimes only, option on offense as well as having to play center with Perk, Ratliff and Kandi out. Also consider the experience that Green got with Pierce out where he got extended minutes on the court. Consider the experience that Rondo go with West being out and that is paying off as we see Rondo with increasing confidence taking over the starting PG spot.
Now that Pierce is back and the young players are playing with more confidence, we are seeing good things. Perk and Al are developing into a great low post tandem and play very well off of each other. West and Rondo are also developing great on court chemistry and play very well together. Pierce is developing an impressive inside outside game with Al and we haven't had a combination like this for many, many, many years. The team is building chemistry and trust in each other and it is resulting in wins, most spectacularly, one in San Antonio to end the Duncan curse.
Al Jefferson is the best low post player since McHale came to work on the parquet. Rondo is a pure point with all the tools it takes to become a top point guard. He only lacks a consistent shot to get him to the elite level and he is such a hard worker, that isn't far off. Perk is a solid center. I know he has gotten a lot of criticism this season, but just as Al took a leap this season when he was finally healthy, Perk will do the same thing next season. Green is still inconsistent but has grown in leaps and bounds this year and should be a consistent threat next season along with being better defensively. Delonte proves over and over that he is a player, whether at the point or the 2 and gives us a defensive presence as well as an offensive threat. Powe, Gomes, Ray and Telfair have also impressed at times this season. Powe has gotten little playing time but every time he is on the floor he does good things, showing that he is going to be another low post threat that we can bring off the bench.
Just read the quote from Tim Duncan about our team.
"Impressive young guys," said Tim Duncan. "Al's going to be a great one. Paul's been very solid for his entire career, and then they have some young guards there that have some real promise to them. They have really built a bright future for them, and they're going to be a good team in years to come if they keep developing the way they are."
Anyone watching this team has to agree that we are going to be a good team for many years to come as these players continue to develop.
And when you think that they are still without Tony and Wally who figure to be key players, and without Gomes who is still out with the foot injury, you can't help but be excited about the future of this team. Add to this that all the injuries will give us a very good draft pick this season. We have a good chance at a top 2 pick in a year when two franchise players are expected to go first and second. Even if we don't get Oden or Durant, we have a chance at a very, very good player as well as a great bargaining chip to bring in another top veteran if we choose not to use it. The future is indeed bright again in Boston. For the first time in years, I have hope.