Celtics back on their game
There were times during the opening two rounds of the NBA playoffs when they looked anything but prime championship contenders.
Whenever the Boston Celtics ventured out to play on the road, the sub-.500 Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers took away the swagger they earned during a 66-win regular season.
The Celtics appeared quite vulnerable when they were forced to a Game 7 by both the Hawks and Cavaliers, who finished a combined 50 games behind them in the overall standings.
Even though they reached the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics seemed to be a team missing an ingredient or two needed to win an NBA title.
The way the Celtics were able to close out the Detroit Pistons in six games, though, should enable them to enter the NBA Finals this week with that swagger intact.
Eliminating a 59-win team like the Pistons in a shorter amount of time that it took to get rid of the Hawks and Cavaliers will be a boost of confidence that will come in handy with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers up next beginning Thursday night.
The same team that stumbled six straight times on the road against the Hawks and Cavaliers once again wore the look of the best road team in the NBA, winning Games 3 and 6 in Auburn Hills, Mich.
The same team that crumbled in crunch time away from home in the playoffs put together a memorable comeback in the clincher against the Pistons on Friday night.
Rallying from 10 points down in the fourth quarter against a team making its sixth straight appearance in the conference finals and with a hostile crowd roaring is one of the most difficult things to do in the playoffs.
The Celtics pulled it off, something they weren’t capable of doing against the Hawks and Cavaliers, and the experience will only help them against the Lakers, who are favored to win the title.
“We talked before the game that this was going to be the toughest win of the year, that there may be a time that we’re going to be down and we couldn’t worry about being down,” said Coach Doc Rivers following the victory. “We couldn’t worry about where we’re at, and we just have to keep playing through it.
“I was just really proud of ourselves for fighting back and keeping our emotions.”
Since opening their revival season with a 29-3 record, the Celtics have had targets on their backs as opponents have been shooting for a team that has Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
The Celtics fought off the Pistons during the regular season to earn the best record by seven games and never lost more than three consecutive games.
Now, in the playoffs, they have bounced back from long series with the Hawks and Cavaliers to bounce the Pistons, who threw a scare into the Celtics by winning at the TD Banknorth Garden in Game 2.
The Celtics showed a lot of toughness by winning twice in crucial situations in Auburn Hills when there were plenty of doubters.
“I tell people, when you’re on losing teams, it’s so much easier throughout the season because you just let certain things fall by the wayside,” said Allen.
“Being in this situation here on this team, we took losses all year so hard. We always wanted to figure out what we needed to do to get back on track.
“I think at the start of the year, we went on a roll and a couple of teams thought they knew how to beat us and a couple teams did beat us and they figured out a game plan and then we had to readjust.
“We never gave up, though. It’s been tough. I think everybody’s been in situations where somebody at some point of the season has won a big game for us.
“We’ve faced so many different obstacles. I think you want to figure out whether we found out if we had character. That was the whole point. We definitely got better throughout the year.”
Now they are pegged as the underdogs in a series that will have the spotlight on Bryant, the most valuable player who wants to prove his can win a title without the help of Shaquille O’Neal.
It will be another obstacle for the Celtics, who have hurdled them all since opening night way back in November.
“It’s been interesting because we haven’t done anything, yet everybody was targeting us,” said Rivers. “Maybe it’s (the) fault (of the media). You’ve been putting our guys on TV and the Big Three and all this stuff.
“I thought it was very helpful for us to be a target. Every night teams, they gave us their best shot during the regular season.
“They’ve done it during the playoffs, and I think for us it was probably the best thing because now we can say we have gone through some stuff and we’re still standing.”
Staff writer Jim Fenton can be reached at Jfenton@enterprisenews.com.