|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2009||[Print without images]|
|Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce both are looking forward to another season.|
BOSTON -- Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce has never been one to mince words. And after the injury-plagued Celtics became the former NBA champions following a season-ending 101-82 loss to the Magic in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday night, he issued a straight, no-chaser warning to his NBA foes about next season, with injured teammate Kevin Garnett in mind.
"If we keep the core together, get him back next year, we'll see what happens," Pierce said. "Hopefully, we can stay healthy next year in the playoffs and see what happens. I honestly believe we are the best team in the NBA still with a healthy group of guys. I remember before the season when people would ask me if we would repeat, I said, 'Yeah, we have a great chance to repeat, but only if we're healthy.'
"Truly, that's what it's all about in the NBA. You have injuries that happen. It [stinks]. Hopefully, next [season] we will be healthy. I still feel like we're the team to beat."
If Boston is healthy next season, the Celtics star nicknamed "The Truth" just might be speaking the truth.
Garnett averaged 15.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks this season in a career-low 57 games. The 6-foot-11, 250-pounder missed 24 regular-season games due to injury, one game due to suspension and all 14 postseason games. Despite Garnett's missed time, Boston finished with the third-best regular-season record (62-20).
The NBA showed how much respect it had for Garnett by naming him to the All-Defensive First Team despite his lengthy absence. Without Garnett, the Celtics were 7-7 in the postseason and allowed 102.1 points per game. With Garnett, it's hard to imagine Boston not playing right now with a much better and focused defense and a smoother-running offense. The Celtics were also without forward-center Leon Powe for most of the postseason after he suffered a season-ending left knee injury in Game 2 of the first-round series against Chicago.
"Before [Garnett] went down we were the second-best team in basketball recordwise," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "But I didn't think it was just Kevin, guys. I thought it was a combination of Kevin and Leon that hurt us.
"Obviously, we missed Kevin. He was the Defensive Player of the Year last year. But I thought it was a combination of those two. That was a big blow for us."
Said Pierce: "It's only natural to think, [what if?] Of course, you would think that after a loss when you ponder about the season and the playoffs. That's something that people around the world are going to think about with the way we fought without him. But you can't cry over spilled milk, and unfortunately we didn't have the big fella for this run. Hopefully, the main thing for him right now [is] to get healthy."
The good thing for Boston is that while Garnett was out, center Kendrick Perkins and forward Glen Davis improved, got more confident and matured as players.
Davis averaged 15.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in 14 postseason games and hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer in Orlando in Game 4. Perkins averaged 11.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in the postseason and made it tough for Orlando All-Star center Dwight Howard to score in the post. Perkins is only 24 and will be back next season. The 23-year-old Davis is a restricted free agent this summer and hopes to return.
"I want to be here," Davis said.
The way guard Rajon Rondo played in the postseason, the Celtics might have to change the Big Three to the Big Four. The 23-year-old Rondo averaged a near triple-double with 16.9 points, 9.8 assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.5 steals in the postseason. The 6-foot-1, 178-pounder could sign a five-year contract extension this summer, and his agent, Bill Duffy, is hoping it happens.
"It would be hard for me to look around to find anyone more valuable to their team, being an elite team, than Rajon," Duffy said recently to The Boston Globe. "I further believe he can be the key member of their team if you look over the next 10-12 years."
Pierce, Garnett and guard Ray Allen were all All-Stars in 2008 and Rondo could be one next season. Now imagine an improved and maturing Rondo, Perkins and Davis, all invited to take part in USA Basketball's Select Team workout this summer, on the Celtics' roster next season. Sharpshooter Eddie House, forward Brian Scalabrine and guard Tony Allen will be back, too.
While rookies Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens and second-year guard Gabe Pruitt (affordable team option) didn't make an impact this season, their athleticism and versatility are expected to play a role next season. Time will tell if Powe (expected to be healed by the All-Star break), along with guard Stephon Marbury and forward-center Mikki Moore (both free agents), will be back.
The Celtics were hampered with a short summer after winning the championship in mid-June last year. But now, with lots of time to rest, heal and build a chip on their shoulder, the former champions seem fired up already to regain their lost throne.
Rivers said that Garnett's surgery for bone spurs in his knee isn't expected to sideline him long. Garnett wouldn't have played in an East finals if Boston had made it.
"I look forward to seeing you guys next year," said Garnett, in one of his few words as he left TD Banknorth Garden with a noticeable limp.
Marc J. Spears is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and covers the Boston Celtics and the NBA for The Boston Globe.