Sunday, May 22, 2011
The Five: Playing the 'What if?' game
By Greg Payne
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireSometimes the 'What if?' game is best left alone (and if you have an aversion to such hypotheticals, this probably isn't the best item for you to peruse). But in the case of the 2010-2011 Celtics, there were certain events that happened that you can't help but wonder about. From a certain midseason trade to several key injuries (injury-related scenarios are typically left out of the 'What if?' game, but we're going to bend the rules in this case), to a shakeup in the seedings, here are five 'What ifs?' that will make you wonder just what might have been for Boston:
What if this jersey had never changed to blue and orange? We play the 'What if?' game.
What if the Celtics never traded Perkins and Robinson?
Let's get this one out of the way first since plenty of you have already thought this. Kendrick Perkins' statistics never blew anyone away. In fact, Boston's defensive numbers after the trade weren't all that different from before it. But the Celtics clearly looked like a different team once Perkins was traded away, which suggests his true value might have been what he meant to the team's psyche and its physical identity. Sure, Perkins missed the first half of the season, but he was still around his teammates, knowing he'd return at some point, and the Celtics had Shaquille O'Neal to help fill the void during that stretch. Perkins was an integral part of the team's chemistry (he's already proving himself in that area with the Thunder, even while the statistics show he's having a limited impact there), and as head coach Doc Rivers said recently, his history of playing alongside Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett gave the Celtics valuable continuity that was no longer present after the trade. Had the trade never happened, the Celtics would have rolled out their usual starting 5 -- one of the tightest, most trusting units in the league -- in the postseason, and would have boasted a bench unit that utilized Allen with the likes of Delonte West, Nate Robinson, Glen Davis, Jermaine O'Neal, and Wing Player X (a player the Celtics could have picked up off of waivers to fill the need at swingman). Does that group of players sound better than what the Celtics actually went to war with in the postseason? That's debatable. But the Celtics would have kept intact that valuable team chemistry (something that cannot be underestimated in the playoffs) and they would have most likely continued to be a tough, physical team. Perkins, for one, wouldn't have been afraid to make the likes of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James think twice about attacking the rim so relentlessly in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
What if Daniels never got hurt?
In some ways, Marquis Daniels suffering a bruised spinal cord back on Feb. 6 served as one of the key precursors to the Kendrick Perkins trade. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge admitted that the Celtics were left seeking a talented reserve wing player to spell the likes of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and when Jeff Green became available, Ainge pulled the trigger. Had Daniels never taken that awkward turn into Gilbert Arenas' chest and remained healthy, Ainge might not have felt the need to find another backup for Pierce and Allen, which would have decreased the likelihood of him trading away Perkins. What's more, Daniels, who had been healthy to that point, had played some inspired ball this season (particularly on the defensive end).
What if Shaq and Rondo were healthy against the Heat?
A team never really plans on two of its most important players dealing with devastating injuries in the midst of its postseason run. Without question, the Celtics were a lesser team the second Rajon Rondo dislocated his left elbow in Game 3 against the Heat (a balky back didn't help, either). Despite his courageous efforts to play through the pain in Games 4 and 5, it was evident he wasn't the same player. The Celtics knew if they wanted to beat Miami, Rondo would have to thoroughly dominate his matchup with either Mike Bibby or Mario Chalmers, and the elbow injury in particular took away his ability to do that, which put more pressure on the likes of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. Garnett carried the Celtics in Game 3, but he couldn't sustain the needed energy level to dominate in Games 4 and 5 the way a younger star like Rondo might have been able to. Rondo's shown before that he has the ability to turn the tide of playoff games all on his own, and the C's might have been able to claw their way back into their series against the Heat better had Rondo not been limited physically.
As for Shaquille O'Neal, the Celtics were clearly banking on him being healthy in the playoffs, and while Jermaine O'Neal did a very good job throughout the postseason, particularly on the defensive end, he was unable to impact both ends of the floor the way Shaq did when he was healthy at the start of the regular season. The Celtics were one of the best teams in the NBA when Shaq was starting alongside Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, posting impressive offensive and defensive numbers that ranked them near the top of the league. Had Shaq been healthy, the Celtics would have had another go-to option in the post, which would have helped to counteract some of those deadly offensive droughts they found themselves in at times, particularly in the fourth quarters of Games 2 and 5. O'Neal worked particularly well with Garnett and Rondo when he was healthy in the regular season, and his presence in the playoffs could have helped generate easier shots for Garnett around the rim, and would have limited Miami's ability to double-team him. Had Shaq been around to further elevate the play of Rondo and Garnett -- two players the Celtics were already leaning heavily on against Miami -- Boston might have been able to vanquish the Heat and keep its season alive.
What if the Celtics had won Game 4 against the Heat?
While it's easy to look back and say, "What if the Celtics had won Games 1, 2, or 5?" Game 4 was easily the game that got away. The Celtics were within a Paul Pierce jump shot of tying the series at two games apiece, which would have guaranteed at least a Game 6 in Boston and staved off the threat of elimination for at least one more game. The reason Game 4 gets the nod over the others is because the C's were so close to winning and ultimately betrayed themselves as they fell into a 3-1 series hole. They failed to execute properly on the final play of regulation and then committed turnover after turnover in overtime. Had the Celtics taken Game 4, the pressure would have fallen back on the shoulders of the Heat heading into Game 5, and had the Celtics stolen that fifth game (something they almost did anyway before Miami's late-game run), they would have returned to Boston for Game 6 and a chance to clinch the series.
What if the Celtics had clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference?
With only weeks left in the regular season, the Celtics were still very much in the running with the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat for the top overall spot in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs. Then, in March, the Celtics took a nosedive, suffering unsightly losses to the Clippers, Nets, Bobcats, and Pacers, losing their grip on the first seed in the process. Had the Celtics secured the top seed -- a stated goal of theirs early in the season -- not only would they have locked up home-court advantage, but they would have avoided the second-round showdown with the Miami Heat that resulted in the end of their season. Even if they had played the Indiana Pacers instead of the New York Knicks in the first round, the Celtics still most likely would have advanced, and would have had to contend with the Atlanta Hawks instead of the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Despite the trouble Atlanta gave the Celtics back in 2008, it's safe to say the Hawks were a more desirable second-round opponent than the Heat. Such a matchup would have left the Bulls and Heat to hammer things out in a physical second-round brawl.
And if you think the first seed wasn't an achievable goal, let's talk about the second seed. The Celtics would have had to fight through a scrappy Philadelphia team for the right to face the Heat, only the first two games would have been played in Boston instead of Miami, which could have made a world of difference for the Celtics in terms of getting off to a good start in the series. And had the series gone the full slate, the C's, without question, would have rather had that seventh game in Boston than in Miami.
There's no guarantee any of these changes might have made a difference in how the season played out. Heck, you can make the case that things could have gone worse than they did. But it's something to think about over a long offseason.
Greg Payne is a student intern for ESPNBoston.com