No matter what happens in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday night, a pivotal game that both teams desperately want, many people will consider the season a success for the Boston Celtics. This is the fifth year of the new "Big Three," era in Boston, an era that was originally anticipated to run its course after three years, so the Celtics are essentially playing with house money at this point. Even with a lockout-shortened regular season, this was a team that was not expected to make it deep into the playoffs and, after losing sixth man Jeff Green for the year because of a heart condition and a 15-17 start, there were questions about whether the Celtics would even make the playoffs. But make the playoffs they did, and now find themselves two wins away from eliminating Miami and locking up their third NBA Finals appearance in five years while simultaneously avenging their defeat to the Heat during last year's failure of a season. Anything less would make this season a failure as well.
With Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose knocked out of the playoffs with injuries, the skids were greased for the Celtics to make it to the conference finals and, to their credit, they beat the teams they had to. You can only play who is on the schedule and it's not Boston's fault that the teams they had to defeat to get to the finals were the underwhelming duo of the dysfunctional, talon-less Atlanta Hawks and the happy-just-to-be-here Philadelphia 76ers. That said, for an organization that prides itself on hanging championship banners, not division title pennants, another series loss to the Miami Heat, in the conference finals or not, is not acceptable.
Sure the Celtics are old and banged up but they also have a roster with three surefire Hall of Fame players on it and another rising young star, Rajon Rondo, who is playing like one. They have showed grit and heart and passion and perseverance and any other cliched term you can think of to describe when a team plays hard and gives it their all. For some teams that would be good enough, but not this one, not this year. With the way they have played in the last three games, winning two of them, the Celtics showed that they are not only capable of beating the heavily-favored Heat, but that they should.
The Celtics three most important players, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rondo are all healthy as can be expected at this time of the season and Ray Allen appears to be breaking out of the funk that his bad ankle has immersed him in for much of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Heat are still without the services of Chris Bosh (although he may return in game five), leaving the bulk of the load on both ends of the court to be shouldered by Dwayne Wade and Lebron James.
James has been an absolute monster in the series, averaging 32 points, nine rebounds, four assists with two blocks and a steal per game, but has also shot horribly from the line and done his patented fourth quarter vanishing act to perfection, scoring just 16 points combined in the fourth quarters of the past three games. (James did hit a clutch three-pointer on Sunday night before fouling out in overtime.) James has all the ability in the world but the jury is still out on whether he has the other intangibles that make a player not only great, but also a winner. The Celtics got in his head and exploited this when he was in Cleveland and he may have brought those ghosts, along with his talents, with him when he headed for South Beach.
On the other side, Rondo is not being consumed by the demons that have long been whispered to be floating around him, he's exorcising them. Putting aside off-season and trade deadline rumors that had him leaving Boston and reports of a temper tantrum during last season's series loss to Miami, Rondo has been James' equal in terms of dominance. Averaging 24 points, seven rebounds and more than 10 assists per game whle inexplicably out-shooting James from the field, the foul line and three-point territory, Rondo is proving (once again) that not only can he play with the league's elite, he can beat them.
With Rondo playing out of his mind, Garnett really knuckling down and playing as if this is his final season in the league (and indeed it might be according to multiple reports), and the franchise's second all-time scoring leader Pierce always having the potential for a breakout game, the Celtics clearly have the talent to beat Miami. As has been evident throughout the playoffs, they also have the balls. Now it's just a matter of putting those two things together so they can win the series and beat the Heat, something they were unable to do last year.
Their win on Sunday night put the pressure back on the Heat and, more importantly, back on James. Pressure bursts pipes and the Celtics have seen him crack before; they are making it happen again. Based on the way the Celtics have raised the bar for themselves with their play and their resolve, anything short of a series win against the Heat will be a failure. After that, who knows?