We're less than two weeks away from opening night, hoop fans.
On that night, there is bound to be plenty of emotion coursing through the veins of every member of Boston—who was one win away from eliminating Miami last summer, only to see the Heat take Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and go on to win a title.
Wafting through their clenched teeth, though, should be a sense of optimism—a true glimmer of hope.
This is because the Celts reacted proactively to that bitter defeat, so much so that they remain as big a threat to the Heat's supremacy in the East as any other team in the conference.
The key to this, of course, is Rajon Rondo.
Whether you believe he is in fact the Celtics' only star or not (and if you do, Pierce and Garnett would likely beg to differ), the point is that the Celts will need a lot to go in their favor if they are to dethrone Miami.
And it all starts with the point guard.
If Rondo gets hurt, doesn't continue his development the way the team would like, clashes with his teammates or Rivers, the C's are finished.
Ideally, what the Celtics need from Rondo, his future Hall of Fame co-stars and those who fall in behind them, is a continuation of the transition of leadership that began a couple of seasons ago, and has been consistently remarked upon by all of the principals involved.
When Pierce, Garnett and Rivers are asked about Rondo, none of them fail to point out that he is their "leader" or that the Celtics are "his team."
Rondo has made a point of becoming more open about his leadership style. Suddenly, stories pop up about him organizing team bonding sessions, shootarounds, trips to the movies or restaurants and so forth. He's becoming a more vocal, visible leader than the quiet, reserved, almost enigmatic player he's been for the majority of his six years in Boston.
This evolution could go a long way for the Celts. If everyone didn't necessarily have each other's backs last season (hello, Ray Allen), it wasn't clearly evident.
But this outpouring of examples regarding Rondo's more outward commitment to being a leader only enhances the idea that if the franchise is going to raise its 18th championship banner any time soon, it will do so on Rondo's back.
On the court, there is no one more important to this team's success.
Garnett remains the anchor, the center of the C's suffocating defense and should be able to continue to thrive while creating mismatches at the center position, as he did in the second half of last season.
Pierce is still the captain and the No. 1 scoring option. And don't dismiss the fact that he's in the final year of his contract. Already a super competitive player, the chance to prove to the Celts and the rest of the league that he can still play—in an effort to sign one last deal before retirement—should help to fuel the Truth.
Additionally, all of the Celtics' role players must chip in.
Brandon Bass has to prove last year was no fluke. Jeff Green must do more than flash his considerable talent and live up to the expectations that come with being the 5th overall pick in the draft. Avery Bradley, when he returns from injury, must continue to develop into a solid, two-way NBA shooting guard. And Jason Terry must live up to his reputation as the ultimate offensive spark plug off the bench.
Still, how far the Celtics go this year ultimately rests on Rondo's shoulders. We all know what he can do, what his skill set is, how capable he is of taking a game over at the drop of a hat.
But how much better is he? Is he equipped to truly be the man? Can he shoot mid-range jumpers more consistently? Will he be a mediocre free throw shooter as opposed to a lousy one? Can he control his temper and not bump or throw the ball at any officials?
The answers to these questions remain to be seen. But if they skew toward the positive, don't be surprised to see the Celts right back in Miami (as they will be on opening night) come next June.
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