Except when Shaquille O'Neal is involved, good things happen in threes when it comes to NBA title runs. In the '90s, the Chicago Bulls won six titles with a combination of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and a stellar rebounding forward (Horace Grant from '91-'93 and Dennis Rodman from '96 -'98). In the last five years, the San Antonio Spurs have won three titles, led by the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
It was widely thought that the Boston Celtics would join that elite company this season after the summertime acquisitions of all-stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce, a top player who has spent his entire career in Beantown. The regular season simply confirmed this perception, as the Celtics won 66 games and, more impressively, outscored their opponents by whopping 841 points; that differential put them among the elite of basketball's most mythic squads. No team had sported that kind of differential and led the league in wins and not won a title. In fact, those other championship teams all stormed their way to the title with only minimal interference in the early rounds.
That's what has made Boston's postseason so troubling. The Celtics lost three games to the Atlanta Hawks, a team that won only 37 games during the regular season and finished with the 19th best record in the NBA. Now they've lost a pair of games to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who won just 45 games in the regular season. Throughout New England, if not all of the basketball world, folks are wondering, What's up with this? The playoffs figured to be full of mystery and surprise, but Boston struggling was not supposed to be part of that narrative.
Part of the Celtics' woes is simply their inability to win a game on the road, something that has infected nearly every team in the 2008 playoffs. As of Thursday afternoon, only one team, the Detroit Pistons, had won a second-round road contest. The Pistons also won two road tilts in the first round. Otherwise, some of the drama in the playoffs has been eliminated by the dominance of the home teams. Admittedly, the home court can swing the advantage in fairly evenly matched contests, but Atlanta was a 37-win team, Boston won 66, yet the Hawks won three games at home from the mighty Celtics. Home court has never been thought to be an equalizer on that level.
I'm starting to suspect that Boston may be suffering from what I call "Detroit Pistons syndrome." In each of the last two seasons, the Pistons have roared to the best record in the Eastern Conference then struggled in the postseason, failing to make it to the finals. One of the key culprits in their early playoff exits was fatigue. The Pistons rode their talented starting lineup hard through the 82-game regular season; when trouble arrived in the playoffs, they had little left in the tank and few options on the bench to make changes.
This year's team is different. The Pistons have cultivated third-year forward Jason Maxiell and rookie guard Rodney Stuckey to handle key minutes, and both are coming through. When the Pistons' all-star point guard Chauncey Billups went down with a hamstring injury, Stuckey stepped into the starting lineup and guided Detroit to a road win in Orlando on Saturday and the series clincher at home on Tuesday night.
The core Detroit players have all played three or four minutes less per game than in previous seasons, which over the course of 82 games saves about 10 games' worth of wear and tear. Consequently, the Pistons will be rested and ready for the Conference Finals, which start either Sunday or Tuesday, depending on how long the other semifinal series go.
The Celtics also rode their big three hard during the regular season, and it looks like that is having some impact on Allen, at 32 the oldest of their trio of all-stars. Allen averaged 35 minutes of playing time per game this season. That is his norm, though it's also a high number for a player with reasonable expectations of playing hoops in June (Spurs players typically average 31-32 minutes per contest). Allen has slowed down considerably in the postseason. After shooting 44.5 percent in the regular season from the field and 39.8 percent from behind the arc—numbers that are right in line with his career averages—he has managed only 39.5 percent overall in the playoffs and 34.4 percent from way downtown. Through his first five games against Cleveland, the numbers are even worse: 34 percent from the field and only 21.1 percent from long range. His scoring average has dipped from 17.4 points in the regular season to 10.4 in the second round against Cleveland. Boston's Big Three has become a big two.
Allen's ineffectiveness has enabled opponents to disregard the Boston long-range game and pack the middle, making it hard for Garnett to score at crunchtime and nearly eliminating the drive from Pierce's arsenal. It's too late to make any changes now, but Boston does have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Celtics will simply have to hope that Allen regains his shooting touch or that their rugged, league-leading defense and home crowd are enough to guide them to a title.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.