BOSTON -- They can be agonizingly painful to watch; witness their record-setting performance in Game 5 against Indiana when they went seven minutes without a point, including all five of overtime. They can be bewilderingly proficient as well; witness the very next game when they made 14 consecutive shots, a streak that not even Bob Cousy or John Havlicek had ever seen before from a Celtics team.
This is who they are. The Celtics already have gone further than most self-appointed experts had them going. Their 4-2 dispatching of the Pacers was as surprising as it was revealing -- when the Celtics play like they did in Game 6, they can beat anyone. When they play like they did at the end of Game 5, you wonder why they're not making plans to be in Secaucus on May 22.
The team's very unexpected run to the conference finals last year was based primarily on defense. (It also helped that their first two opponents were either banged up and feuding -- the Sixers -- or basically inept offensively -- the Pistons.) That is what the coaching staff will tell you is now the reason for their advancement into Round 2. I say, hogwash. The reason they're playing the Nets instead of playing the tables in Vegas is because the shots they took all season from 3-point land, the shots that define the team, are starting to drop. And it's not just Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker who are making those shots.
Now, I know what the coaches say. You get stops. That enables you to get out in transition a little more. That opens things up. Well, yeah, maybe. But the next time the Celtics have an honest-to-goodness, fastbreak, Cousy-esque basket will be the first time in a while. When the Celtics start to run, men cover their heads in the loge seats while women and children scurry for the exits in terror.
What the Celtics are doing offensively -- or what they did to Indiana -- is basically what Jim O'Brien had wanted them to do all year. He wanted them to be unselfish. They were. Does nine assists in the first quarter of Game 5 raise an eyebrow? He wanted them to reverse the basketball, which is coach-speak for passing it back to the other side to a presumably open man. They did. But here's what they did against Indiana -- and what they'll have to do against the Nets -- that was quite different: they actually made their shots. Specifically, they made their threes to the point where even Charles Barkley couldn't rip them.
The Celtics, of course, were Secretariat-in-the-Belmont leaders in 3-point attempts this season, setting an NBA record of 2,155, or 26.3 per game. O'Brien unashamedly defended such a practice, even though the team finished 21st in 3-point shooting percentage. Only two Celtics -- Walter McCarty and Tony Delk -- ranked among the top 50 most accurate 3-point shooters. And McCarty was 42nd. The Celtics' most prolific 3-point hoisters -- Pierce and Walker -- were nowhere near the top 50. And Walker led the loop in attempts with 582. Pierce was 10th with 391.
Only 13 players in the league shot 40 percent or better from beyond the 3-point line during the regular season. Needless to say, none of them played for Boston. Then how do you explain four Celtics shooting 40 percent or better against Indiana and the team's 3-point percentage rising from the unremarkable and unimpressive 33.4 percent over 82 games to 38.3 percent against Indiana? Better defense?
The weedy McCarty emerged to play the role of Unlikely Killer during the Pacers series; Reggie Miller went so far as to dub him the Most Valuable Player. Miller also offered up the following observation: If the Celtics continue to make their shots the way they did against Indiana, they can go far. He's right. The big question is whether they can continue. Was the Pacers series an aberration based on their numbers from the regular season? Or is it a sign of things to come? If it's the latter, the Nets have their hands full.
McCarty knocked down 41.2 percent of his 3-pointers against Indiana, including a signature pair to open Game 6. He was open. He took 'em. He made 'em. Pierce, Walker and Delk also shot better than 40 percent, but it was the vivid memory of McCarty spotting up on the perimeter which will give Isiah Thomas nightmares for the summer. McCarty is a free agent-in-waiting and you have to wonder if his play in the post-season is going to attract interest from teams other than Boston. Then again, after seven years in the league, players generally are what they are. That's not to say they don't improve, but you don't usually see breakout seasons in Year 7. If McCarty is something different, something better than what he was for six years, then it's either his fault or his coach's fault. But you have to think some team -- the Lakers come to mind -- won't mind forking over some cash for an energetic role player who understands exactly what he's there for.
Officially, McCarty is a role player, although he had a leading role against the Pacers because of the way he played. So, too, is Delk. So, too, is anyone not named Pierce or Walker.
Against Indiana, McCarty was the most consistent contributor from that heretofore motley crew, but others had their moments. Eric Williams' 18-point submission in Game 1 helped the Celtics get out of the blocks by winning the opener in Indiana. Delk shot 65 percent from the field in the final two games -- and there might never have been a sixth game if his teammates had looked for him more than once in the final seven minutes of Game 5.
The Celtics' center combo of Tony Battie and Mark Blount doesn't scare anyone, but they came through in Game 6 with big blocks and rebounds. Rookie J.R. Bremer continues to have rookie moments, but he can also knock down threes, an imperative for any Celtic perimeter player. Bremer took the point guard job away from Omar Cook during last July's summer league in Boston; one of the reasons is because he can shoot and Cook cannot.
The pressure will be on these fellows to continue producing against the Nets, who are better and stronger defensively than the out-of-sync Pacers. But as long as Pierce and Walker attract attention, and as long as they give up the ball, there are going to be chances for McCarty & Co. to once again rise to the occasion.
If they do, the Celtics have a chance. But don't expect O'Brien to be crediting the team's shooting. It will all be because of their commitment to defense. That's his story and he's sticking to it.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.