- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Good riddance, regular season. Let's do this, playoff basketball.
For the past three weeks, the Boston Celtics have balanced a need to rest players with simply trudging through the schedule, which contributed to a 7-13 record over the final 20 games. Boston did enough to keep the Milwaukee Bucks at arm's length and avoid the eighth seed (which would have meant a first-round matchup with the top-seeded Miami Heat). Instead, the Celtics are off to New York to open a best-of-seven series with the 54-win Knicks.
Go ahead and wipe the slate clean. The past six months determined the degree of difficulty in Boston's playoff path -- and it is higher than any point during the Kevin Garnett era -- but nothing that Boston did over the past 81 games will matter on Saturday when the second-seeded Knicks and seventh-seeded Celtics tip off in Game 1 (3 p.m., ABC).
Coach Doc Rivers went so far as to caution against looking too closely at the four head-to-head meetings between Boston and New York. The playoffs are a whole different beast.
"I don't think that [intensity and focus will] be a problem in the playoffs," Rivers told reporters in Toronto after Boston closed out its regular-season slate with a 114-90 loss to the Raptors. "I think both teams will have that same intensity. That's why you have to be careful with regular-season games. You don't know where the other team is coming from, road-wise, mentally, if they're [playing their fourth game in five nights], if they have injuries. When you get to the playoffs, everybody's right and ready, and that's what it'll be."
The playoffs are a welcome reset button for the Celtics. For all their woes in the regular season, Boston can make everyone forget some of the more maddening losses with inspired and consistent play in the postseason. Players that underperformed for 81 games will be remembered as overachievers if they help this team pull off an upset or two.
Make no mistake, the Celtics are long shots given their placement. The Utah Jazz were nearly two games better than Boston this season, but their campaign ended Wednesday (bumped from the West playoffs by those pesky, Kobe-less Lakers). Boston has never been a seventh seed since the NBA went to an eight-team-per-conference format and has lost all three series it's played as an eighth seed.
Alas, as Rivers would be quick to point out, past failures don't indicate future performance. This is a different team from past seasons. At the other end of that spectrum, Boston can't lean on its championship experience, as only Garnett and Paul Pierce remain (Rivers, too, if you look off the court) from that 2008 title team. Jason Terry has a ring, but much of Boston's roster is comprised of players that haven't been part of recent playoff series (Jeff Green missed all of last season due to heart surgery, while Avery Bradley's season ended in the playoffs last year due to shoulder injuries).
But Rivers loves this time of year and believes the playoff format benefits his team (both in terms of extended rest and strategy-wise). He loves the chess match that awaits.
"I love it, because it becomes just a war," Rivers said of having a single opponent. "It becomes a mental war. It really does. You have to have great focus. You're going to get taken out of your stuff. You've got to be mentally tough enough to still execute. When they're calling the plays, we can tell them where they should go. Same way, the other way.
"I love the playoffs. I love the NBA format. Game 1, Game 2, it's just a great mental test for each team. And, to me, it always turns out that somebody comes apart when you watch the playoffs. It always happens. Sometimes teams are better. But when it's really close, usually one team pulls together and figures out and everything's on the same page, and the other team comes apart. And it's your job to try to force the other team to do that, and I love that."
Rivers will tell anyone that listens that he likes his team. Even after losing Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, and Leandro Barbosa to season-ending injuries before the All-Star break, Rivers is convinced this team has the potential to make some noise.
He has cautioned at times over the past month that we haven't seen Boston's best basketball. He's not lying. The team rested Garnett in 12 of the team's final 17 games (and went 6-11 without him); Pierce and his sore ankles got three games of rest (and a breezy final night in Toronto); and Terry sat out the final two contests despite his longstanding reputation as a gamer.
The vets got their rest. The younger players got some extended minutes with the goal of having them play their best basketball in the playoffs. For some like Brandon Bass and Jeff Green, the past month has been huge for their confidence.
Now we'll finally get to see what Boston is capable of when the games matter most and they have much of their roster available. Rivers and his players remain adamant that they are capable of better than what they've shown.
It's time to prove it.