Exactly 4 weeks ago today, it was announced that Rajon Rondo would miss the rest of the NBA season with a torn ACL. A little more than 2 weeks later… Well, we all know what happened to our own star player down in Gainesville. Prior to those major injuries though, both the Cats and the Celtics had been heading down similar paths.
Like in Lexington, expectations were high in Boston before the season kicked off. The C’s had completely revamped their bench in the offseason, adding Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Leandro Barbosa and Jared Sullinger, plus starting lineup additions in the form of a healthy Avery Bradley and Jeff Green, to a nucleus that had come within a hair of the NBA finals. It didn’t matter that one third of The Big Three was headed to Miami, or that unheralded emotional leaders like Mickael Pietrus and Keyon Dooling were no longer around. The roster was great on paper, and it was the Celtics, so expectations were high. And when a franchise has won 17 titles, the only types of high expectations involve hanging banners. Hmmm… Sound familiar?
There’s no real need to get into the preseason expectations heaped on our own young squad– the number 1 recruiting class, the top 5 ranking, ESPN All Access– We lived it, and we’re reminded of it all every time we play on national TV. But the similarities when compared to the situation in Boston do bear mentioning, in my opinion. The mystique of the Celtics locker room is such that there is an assumption that you can just plug in pieces to surround KG, Pierce, and Rondo, and Doc Rivers will make it all work. Similarly, at UK, the common opinion has been that a number 1 recruiting class + Coach Cal = a National Championship contender. The fact is, it’s not that easy– as we, and Celtics fans, learned the hard way over the course of the first half of this basketball season.
Before the Rondo injury, the Celtics were 20-23 and had lost 6 in a row. Rondo was playing like an all-star, but the rest of the roster looked relatively human. Even KG and Pierce, while putting up decent numbers, seemed to be a shell of their former selves. They just weren’t a good basketball team, and the preseason expectations seemed to haunt them. Then Rondo went down. At first, most assumed the injury would all but end Boston’s season. After all, Rondo had not only emerged as the team’s star, but he had been given the reigns to the franchise on and off the court. He was the Boston Celtics. But, somewhat amazingly, the opposite happened. Internally, the rest of the Celtics circled the wagons. The message was made to clear to underachieving players like Green, Terry, and Lee that their play to date was unacceptable. Brandon Bass was told to earn his paycheck. KG and Pierce acknowledged that Rondo could cover for their underwhelming play no longer. Immediately following the Rondo injury, the C’s won 7 in a row, and are now 9-3 overall A.R. (After Rondo). They’re not a better team without Rondo in the lineup, and to say so would be silly. But they are a different team without him. And, given their play of late, one could argue that that team is better equipped to make a playoff run this year.
So, what does this say about our Cats? Before last night, this post probably would have ended with my saying that they lacked the veteran leadership of the Celtics to turn it around like Boston has. But now? I’m not so sure. Given the rejuvenated play of Archie, Alex, and Harrow, we might be witnessing a Celtics-like reemergence. It’s clear that the wagons have been circled. Whether it was the humiliating defeat in Knoxville, the dodgeball game, or just the metaphorical lightbulb going off, I’m not sure. But last night was special, and the team that we watched last night was just that– a team, maybe for the first time this year. Are we better without Nerlens in the lineup? Absolutely not. But maybe, MAYBE, his injury will be a wakeup call for our underperforming players. And maybe that wakeup call will be the catalyst to a late season push and tournament run by the Cats. One can hope, right?