EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 1, 2008

Celtics finally — and luckily — found themselves

Bill Burt

To steal the theme from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who said she found her "voice" in New Hampshire, the Boston Celtics found their "voice" in the Eastern Conference championship.

After belly-flopping their way through series against the Atlanta Hawks — remember that motley crew? — and then LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, probably surviving both because of their regular season record and Game 7s in Boston, the Celtics became a champion over the last few days.

Whether they win the world championship remains to be seen, but at least now we know that the Los Angeles Lakers are going to have to earn every Kobe Bryant possession over the next two weeks.

Before wondering what took so long for games like the one played Friday night in Detroit, wonder no more.

The regular season and the playoffs are different animals. Maybe even different species.

The games in late April, May and June are different. The pace is slower. The fouls are harder. The bench is shorter (fewer players are used). And the fans are louder.

When you add in the fact that these Celtics, the oldest team in the Eastern Conference with an average age of 28.8 years, led the league in new additions from the season before, you have a little more understanding.

Every newly assembled team in every league suffers some sort of growing pain, except, we figured, the 2007-08 Boston Celtics.

They jumped out of the box with eight straight wins in November. By the time they had lost their fourth, on Jan. 9, they had already won 29. By April they were drawing comparisons to teams led by Bill Russell and Larry Bird.

All of the accolades were deserved. They swept the state of Texas twice (6-0). They dominated the "better" Western Conference (25-5). And they took care of their home court (35-6).

"I thought we would really be good," said All-Star forward Paul Pierce. "But I just didn't see it so soon."

Why the great start?

Maybe it was the Italian food. And I'm not talking about the North End.

"I really believe it was the trip to Italy," said injured Celtic Scot Pollard, of the Celtics preseason trip to Rome. "We had just gotten together and then we travel overseas. We had to hang around each other. I can't tell you how much that trip meant."

The playoffs, though, started and much of the positive that happened during the regular season disappeared.

The Celtics couldn't figure out Joe Johnson who, while an All-Star caliber player, is not to be confused with LeBron James. They couldn't figure out Atlanta's youth. They couldn't figure out former Celtic Delonte West. And, most of all, they couldn't figure out where Ray Allen's jump shot went to.

In fact, Allen was the biggest question mark. His slump was of the "epic" variety. The fact that Wally Szczerbiak covered him like a blanket was enough to be concerned.

He averaged only nine points a game over a nine-game stretch beginning with Game 7 against Atlanta and going through Game 1 in Detroit.

While he was getting kudos as a decoy, his driving to the basket and his defense, he was killing the offense he was here to create with his 3-point prowess.

Apparently, he had enough and in Game 5 in Boston against the Pistons he threw 'em up from everywhere.

"It's amazing what Ray does for this offense when he hits those threes," said point guard Rajon Rondo. "He makes it easier for everybody because then everybody focuses on him."

The Pistons series was the test. Maybe Detroit's Game 2 victory in Boston was a blessing. It made the Celtics force the action. They couldn't rely on the hometown fans being the sixth man.

Whatever the real answer is it doesn't really matter any more. The Celtics are not only in the NBA Finals, but they are better than ever.

They have grown immeasurably in a few short weeks into cagey veterans they professed to be during the regular season.

As for their roles for the upcoming championship series, the Celtics had better be prepared for anything.

Basically, be prepared to win. It might be Eddie House one night and Sam Cassell — God, bless him — the next.

The Lakers are the favorites, according to Las Vegas, but that doesn't really matter. Doubting the Celtics has been in vogue for much of the last six months, particularly the last few weeks.

The Celtics are back and better than ever thanks to Detroit. I wouldn't bet against them.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com. You can also check out his blog, "Burt Talks Sports," at blogs.eagletribune.com/sports.