Can't spell chameleon without C's
PHILADELPHIA -- Which Boston Celtics team will show up for Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night at Wells Fargo Center? Your guess is as good as anyone else's.
Conventional wisdom suggests that, fresh off a dominating Game 3 effort in which Boston regained both home-court advantage and all the momentum in this Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Celtics would be brimming with confidence and eager to push the 76ers to the brink of elimination.
Alas, it has been practically impossible to predict on a night-to-night basis exactly how these Celtics will perform. When all signs point in one direction, it's not unusual for the team to head the other way.
The Celtics, at times this season, seemingly made things just about as difficult on themselves as possible before making their move. This is a team that slumped out of the gates, then surged late to win the Atlantic Division crown; a team that was on the playoff fringe at times in the second half, before motoring up to the No. 4 seed; a team that throttled the Hawks in Game 4 of a first-round series to take a commanding 3-1 lead, then fumbled away Game 5 to force the series back to Boston.
So how's it going to be this time, boys? Easy way or the hard way?
"We're taking one game at a time; we won the first one (in Philadelphia), now we have another one," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who was forced Thursday to walk the line between maintaining his team's brash attitude that inspired the (rather unexpected) Game 3 thrashing, and preventing an overconfidence that might come with some pundits suggesting this series is all but over after Wednesday's statement game.
Added Rivers, "The key for us is to keep our focus and play with the same energy, not play like we won and now we can relax. You have to win the series, that's the point here."
A new game, another flip of the slightly weighted coin for a Boston team that's been a 60/40 split this season in having won 45 of 75 total games including the regular season and playoffs.
Even the Celtics can't explain their dramatic shifts in play. Like how Kevin Garnett can be so dominant in Game 1, then the team goes away from him throughout Game 2; how the Celtics can make all the brainy plays down the stretch of Game 1, then utterly melt down in the final moments of Game 2.
It's been a Jekyll & Hyde crew at times, one that's testing the patience -- and blood pressure -- of its fan base. Can anyone really explain the ups and downs of this roller coaster?
"It's not that we get away from (ourselves), it's just basketball. Sometimes the game just goes certain ways," said Brandon Bass, revealing the exact sentiments he expressed after Boston fumbled away Game 5 in Atlanta earlier this month. "It's just having the right mindset, the right focus, then we can continue to play like we did (in Wednesday's Game 3)."
Echoed Rajon Rondo: "We're human. There's ups and downs. We're not going to play perfect every night."
No one's asking for perfection; the Celtics don't have to win 16 Game 3s. They just have to win 16 games.
And if Boston is able to carry over even just parts of what it did well on Wednesday night, then it should still put itself in position for postseason win No. 7 on Friday.
But you're naturally left to wonder, will Rondo come out in attack mode again? Can Paul Pierce provide the double-dip of scoring and rebounding that he did Wednesday despite that ailing left knee? Can Garnett continue to dominate this series?
In a way, Garnett has been maybe the only constant. Simply put, the Celtics thrive with him on the court and struggle when he's not.
Our friends at ESPN Stats & Info provide the details: Boston is plus-47 with Garnett on the floor, minus-31 when he's not. They are plus-15 in rebounds with KG, minus-15 without. Boston is shooting significantly better (49.1 percent with, 36.9 percent without) and has a glossier assist-to-turnover ratio (2.44 with, 1.14 without) with Garnett on the floor.
Heck, the Celtics are even a better 3-point shooting team with Garnett drawing so much attention. Boston is shooting 41.2 percent (14-of-34) with him on the court, 7.7 percent (1-of-13) without.
You can pretty much count on Garnett's contributions, as long as the Celtics get him the ball. They didn't establish the post early in Game 2 and suffered the consequences. If nothing else, it inspired them to go out and atone in Game 3.
Can they prevent the 76ers from atoning on Friday?
"You don't want to give a team any bit of confidence," said Ray Allen. "You give them an easy layup, you get a guy that's been struggling going, then all of a sudden that's momentum that creeps in on their side. That's huge. We can't have any letdown. We can't walk into this game thinking that this team is going to bow down to us."
Despite all the highs and lows, Rivers has often talked about his team's mental resolve. While the Celtics have rarely made their lives easy, they're still two wins away from a potential trip to the conference finals. That fact alone speaks volumes when this season could have gone south so many times before.
Asked if this was his most satisfying season as a coach, Rivers joked that the title year of 2008 was "pretty satisfying."
But then he noted, "This group, yeah, in a lot of ways (it's been satisfying). I've said that before. They're just a great group to coach. Because even though we have had a lot of highs and lows, injury-wise, we haven't had a lot of highs and lows in the locker room. Our guys, every day, they just come and compete. That doesn't mean you're going to win, but you know you've got the right group, and that's always nice."
And Rivers has to like that at least one aspect of his team is consistent on a nightly basis.