Shoals Unlimited: Celtics' Quest for Immortality

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week.
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The stirrings are not so faint anymore. The 2008-09 Celtics went very quickly from a team hungrier than before the rings to one that, on numbers alone, was gunning for the 1995-96 Bulls. Sitting at 23-2, a quarter of the way through the season the Celts have the Bulls' best-ever record of 72-10 in sight. It's absolutely amazing -- not only did Kevin Garnett and company win a title their first year together, they came back determined to prove that it wasn't a fluke, that they are worthy of being a lasting part of the Celtics saga. ↵

↵But while we may hear plenty of comparisons between these two records in the coming months -- I expect at least a few clever graphics to crop up in the realm of print and beyond -- you've got to wonder, will people actually be comparing these Celtics to those hallowed Bulls? Or is this just about the numbers? ↵

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↵First, let's get one thing straight: When you're talking about so few losses, "pace" becomes more or less irrelevant. Two loses in a row, like the Bulls sustained at one point, can set the whole math reeling. It's encouraging, though, that the Celtics are in the midst of a colossal 15-game win streak, since you kind of need those to put together a season with 10 or fewer losses. It's just not mathematically possible to sustain that pace without long streaks. For their part, the 1995-96 Bulls had streaks of 13 and 18 wins. The Celtics' current streak, not their overall record, might be the most telling statistic. Well, that or their Garden-heavy schedule thus far. ↵

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↵However, back to the first point. We'll spend as long as we can comparing the records of these two great teams. But at what point do the Bulls, not just their numbers, enter the picture? Greatness is about wins and losses, but it's also a question of perception. And with all due respect to these Celtics, it'll take a ring this year, and the record, before they can really, truly enter the pantheon alongside the Bulls. ↵

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↵I'll wait a second for Boston fans to stop hurling rotten tomatoes and car parts at me. Look at it this way, though: The 1995-96 Bulls, in addition to mining the buzz of MJ's comeback, already had three championships to their name. Pippen was a superstar in his own right, and Phil Jackson had become the first name in coaching genius. If ever there was a team destined, or at least groomed, to enjoy a dream season, it was this one. What's more, they were up against the 1971-1972 Lakers—not just their 69-13 record, but the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, and even a few honorary games with Elgin Baylor before his early season retirement. ↵

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↵When it comes to this level of immortality, it can't just be about the bottom line. To wit: Remember the star-crossed Lakers of 2003-04, who were supposed to give the Bulls a run for their numerical money? Phil, Kobe, a revitalized Shaq, and future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton. However naively, this assemblage had a lot of fans and journalists whispering about a 73-9 season. Obviously, this team wasn't nearly the equal of the Celtics. But had they put together that record, and won a fourth title for Shaq/Kobe/Phil, all the pieces would've been in place for Bulls-like sanctity. It's something like star power, but deeper, more lasting. You don't just wedge your way into the pantheon with numbers. That's why, with all due respect, if Kevin Martin scored 80 points in a game, there'd be some serious soul-searching. ↵

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↵That's not to say that the Celtics won't get there, or aren't already on their way. To be sure, their pursuit of this record is a big part of a larger legacy. For now, though, let's not mistake these raw numbers for a referendum on "best team ever." Everyone -- both the Celtics and us fans -- have a ways to go before we can really start seeing things that way. So while we can't help but closely monitor their record, let's not get too caught up in it, at least not as an arbiter of greatness. ↵

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↵This isn't cynicism, or anti-Boston sentiment, on my part. More power to them if they reach that historic mark. I'd just prefer we hold off a coronation until it means something, until we're ready to not only celebrate a record as great, but also all those players and coaches who contributed to it. Let's see them really demolish the East in these coming playoffs, not getting tested by the Hawks; have Ray Allen definitively assert himself as a third star, a force to be reckoned with; watch Paul Pierce pick up where he left off in last year's postseason (he's been disappointing thus far); and see cats like Rajon Rondo or Kendrick Perkins once and for all mature and shine. Doc Rivers needs to eclipse Bill Sharman. And yeah, it's a problem that no one from the Celtics has a serious shot at this year's MVP, unless LeBron James gets called on to solve an international crisis. ↵

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↵At this point, pretty much everyone but Garnett has to do a little bit more -- like win another title in convincing fashion -- to have the image to match this kind of on-paper accomplishment. Then, as backward as this sounds, there's enough mythology to back up the facts. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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