Danny Ainge was in Portland, Ore., looking to the future of the Celtics when he was asked about the playoff prospects of the present Celtics.
The Celtics’ president of basketball operations was in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday to watch the practices for the Nike Hoop Summit, an all-star game that pits the best American high school senior basketball players against the best international players age 19 and under. It was fitting because the playoff future of his current team is like the unfinished basketball products at the Nike Hoop Summit, open to interpretation and projection.
The seventh-seeded Celtics begin what could be either another playoff reincarnation or the last stand of the New Big Three Era on Saturday against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. You be the judge.
The Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett-Doc Rivers Celtics have made defying reports of their demise as ubiquitous a part of the Green’s DNA as the parquet floor.
The Celtics have plenty of pride. What they don’t have is a large margin for error. They don’t have Rajon Rondo, but they do have a bench that is the Ellis Island of the NBA, full of overseas players hoping for a better basketball life.
Ainge was clear that if the Celtics are going to have the type of playoff run we’ve become accustomed to, then asking the team to hop on the aging backs of Pierce and KG was out of the question.
“They’ve shown this year they have a lot left in the tank, all of them,” said Ainge. “The question is do we have enough? Do we have enough with them in support. They’re certainly not the players they were in their primes, but they have the same heart. They’re wiser and smarter and know how to get through games even better than when they were younger.
“I feel good about this group of guys. Doc is a great leader. He has kept this team on track through a lot of ups and downs this year, and I have a great deal of confidence in all them. They’ve been a joy to be around and watch this year.”
The Celtics started 14-4 without Rondo. The Green went 7-13 in their final 20 games, while resting Garnett and, to a lesser degree, Pierce.
That would put the klieg light clearly on Jeff Green, who in 15 career playoff games has shot 37.4 percent from the field.
“It needs to be four or five guys every night. It can’t be Jeff every night or Avery [Bradley] every night either,” said Ainge. “You got to do it as a team . . . That’s why I say we have less room for error. We don’t have that guy who is going to just go get 30 every game and create offense for everybody else night in and night out.”
The Knicks do have that guy in Carmelo Anthony, who led the NBA in scoring at 28.7 points per game and led the Knicks to their first Atlantic Division title since 1994. Anthony is one of the most polarizing players in the NBA. He is a walking basketball Rorschach test. Some people see a gifted, multitalented player who can score with the best of them and lift average teams to greater heights. Others see a selfish, one-dimensional player who is more interested in his own point totals and marketability than his team’s win total.
It is an indictment of a player of Anthony’s resplendence that this will be his 10th playoff season and his teams have only made it past the first round once (2008-09). That’s when Anthony’s Denver Nuggets, buoyed by the addition of Mr. Big Shot, Chauncey Billups, advanced to the Western Conference finals. Every other year Melo has been as he was at Syracuse — one and done.
It is because they’re playing Anthony that many give the Celtics a shot in this series.
Ainge might be more forgiving of individual player idiosyncrasies than most. This is a man who traded for Ricky Davis after all, but he sees Anthony as a great player.
“I think Melo, he is the best scorer in the league. He’s one of the toughest matchups in the league, if not the toughest,” said Ainge. “They have more room for error than we do, just because of the great scoring ability of Carmelo.”
Teams built like the Celtics are now, which rely on multiple contributions, don’t usually win the hardware in David Stern’s playground. The more conspiratorial among us would say the commissioner likes it that way.
In football, gestalt can get you a championship. In basketball, individual brilliance usually carries the play and the day.
“No question,” said Ainge. “When we won the championship and came close [in 2010] Paul was that guy for us. He still shows signs of doing that, but he’s not going to do it for seven games like he did four years ago. You’re right. Those great players and teams usually win.
“There have been teams that have won with balance though. Detroit in 2004 was one. We were one when we won. Paul was amazing in Game 7 against Cleveland. But we had pretty balanced scoring. That’s why we miss Rondo. He has the ability to take his game to a whole other level, a lot of players don’t have that. Rondo has been the MVP of a few playoff series, a few seven-game series he has been MVP.”
Ainge said he “expects big things” from guard Jason Terry, who was signed to bring the kind of clutch postseason shotmaking that Ray Allen used to provide.
Along with declaring he has “all the faith and confidence in the world” in Pierce, KG, and Rivers, it was one of his few predictions Ainge was willing to make.
When not even the man who constructed the Celtics knows fully what to expect from the team, then you know the Celtics’ playoff fate is like their season — unpredictable.