If they are healthy the Celtics are a good team. If they are all focused and "on" they are a very good team. If the assorted pieces of the bench have a good night they can not just provide relief but also provide a spark. Those nights they not only permit the starters enough rest for the old guys to be effective in the fourth period but also extend leads and wear down the opposition. If the pieces fall into place this team can beat the best, on any given night.
Unfortunately they aren't the best. Too seldom are they all healthy. Even when healthy too seldom are they all in top form--physically or mentally. The bench has lots of weapons but has almost never functioned as a smooth running machine--this in spite of often being played as an entire unit. Top to bottom, front to back, and inside out, this team looks better on paper than it usually is on the court. They look better from the nosebleed section because when you get up close, they show the signs of wear, fatigue, age, and decay. They look better in warm-ups because opponents draw our attention to their flaws and limits. In a most un-Celtic way we find that on this team the whole is less than the sum of the parts.
We all knew this was a limited run engagement. I don't think most of us felt that the fall would be so far, so fast. It may even be that the fall hasn't been so far but that the edge is that fine. The NBA is terribly unforgiving of any decline and at the top the difference between on-top and tumbling down the cliff of decay is both minimal and enormous. Doc, and Danny, placed a premium on experience. What has become increasingly apparent is that they gave too little weight to the side effects of the complement to experience, age--or maybe their fingers were crossed, but that wasn't enough. Certainly that wisdom gained with years serves to eliminate mistakes but after a point the natural consequence is a drop off in skills and mobility. Eventually knowing what to do, or not to do, becomes moot as the player can no longer execute the needed action or get to the place his brain tells him he needs to be.
Two years ago Kevin Garnett was a must-mention in any discussion of defensive player-of-the-year. Today, even after months of slow improvement, he is at best an average defender. He knows what to do but the body won't execute as commanded, at least not with sufficient alacrity. His outside shot is still deadly but his inside game has cratered. He can no longer go over the top to dominate defenders, nor can he sky for blocks or rebounds, much less get up again quickly for a second jump. Rasheed's case is even worse. The regular season is essentially over and Wallace has never achieved NBA-game shape. His outside shot is falling at a career low. His inside game is still good but it is built on fall-aways so elevation is not a factor. His only rebounds are those that come directly to him and reach his outstretched arms while his feet are firmly on the ground. His defensive positives are entirely based upon his quick hands since his foot movement is painfully slow and his jump nonexistent. He never loses a scramble for a loose ball because he never enters the fray. It is hard to tell whether his slow rotations are due to delayed recognition or just slow feet. This relative inefficiency on defense of the Celtic's two tallest players is particularly damaging since their older perimeter players can no longer stay in front of even mediocre skill position players. Ray and Finley know what to do but neither has the lateral mobility to keep anyone from driving. Even Paul has become laterally impaired which negates much of his physical strength that is the mainstay of his defensive prowess.
The Celtics defense depends on strong-side help, weak-side rotations, defending the three-point line, and the lane being a bastion of strength. The interior is no longer intimidating. The older players no longer arrive in time to pressure the three-point line and the second unit has never gelled sufficiently to rotate with assurance. Rondo's gambling leads to collapses that leave both lay-ups and three-pointers relatively unguarded. Perk is still an enforcer but Kevin strikes no fear into drivers. Wallace is always a step slow and earth-bound, and the younger bowling balls (Davis and Williams) are threats only to draw charges since neither plays above the rim. Nate has called the Celtics' defense the hardest he has ever had to learn--not too surprising since his earlier schemes were limited to "uh, I got number 11."
I'm not sure if it is the good part or the saddest part but about once a week the crew can summon up a game reminiscent of the old days. The problem is that the NBA plays three to five games a week, meaning most nights the Celtics are about a 50/50 chance. The best hope was that the bench would develop enough to allow the oldsters to ease gracefully into part-time roles. I'll leave it to others to debate whether Giddens and Walker were neglected or were an impossible dream but the cavalry never came over the horizon. We are left with an aging champion gasping for breath as each lap of the race sees him falling further behind.
I'll be rooting for the Green, just as I have done for decades. After all I rooted for John Y. Brown's Buffalo Celtics, for the original Big Three long after their primary publicity was the list of their infirmities, for the Duncan-lottery dive where the high point was the towel waving, and for Boston in spite of Pitino and his shameful disrespect of Red. I rooted for the Championships, all of them; for the rebuilding teams, and there were several; for the chuckers of Obie-ball in spite of the shimmy; and for the teams devastated by the deaths of Bias and Lewis. They are my team. Yet I will keep my hope under restraint as my head tells me only a magical fantasy run can deny the writing on the wall. And I will think of the coming off-season--when the construction of the next championship begins.