Since December 27th, the Celtics only know streaking. It has been a volatile and unpredictable stretch of ups and downs, returns from injury (Bradley and now Wilcox) and devastating injury news (Rondo and Sullinger out for the year). Collecting all the pieces, while rumors of Pierce’s departure and KG’s uncertain future swirl in the trade-deadline ether of the internet.
In case you haven’t been following the Celtics over the last five weeks, here’s what you’ve missed:
Four straight losses, three of which were blow-outs, to end a miserable west coast trip.
In retrospect, the only game of the four these Celtics should have won was the final game of the trip (at Sacramento). This was their third game in four nights, and Rondo played through a hip injury (which may have exacerbated the strain on the ACL). The way in which they lost to the Clippers, Warriors and Kings was the main issue. All three were discouraging blow-outs, made more discouraging by the fact that they came on the heels of demolishing a discouraged Nets team on Christmas morning. Bradley’s return came in the last of those losses, a 93-83 decision to Memphis.
Six straight wins, four of which came against above-average opponents. The Celtics were seeming to find their defensive identity with Avery Bradley’s return. After the Memphis game, Bradley’s presence in the starting lineup mercifully moved Jason Terry and his attempts at defense back to the bench. The six wins occurred over a stretch of four home games (two worthwhile opponents Indiana and Houston) and two seemingly meaningful road victories (New York and Atlanta). The Celtics allowed a mere 85 points per game over these six, forcing their opponents into awful shooting percentages (high 30′s and low 40′s) and seemed to gain confidence with each win.
Six straight losses, the wave of despair overcame Celtics fans at the end of these six, with a double-OT loss in Atlanta (where Rondo played the end of the 4th and two overtime periods with one functional ACL.) The fact that Boston blew a 27-point lead in the 3rd Quarter is about all you need to know about this stretch of futility. This run of losses included three heart-breakers (100-99 in OT to Chicago, 89-86 to New York, and 123-11 in 2OT to Atlanta). During this 11-day period, Paul Pierce has one of the ugliest stretches of his career. Not only was Pierce shooting 32% over these six games, he fumbled away important possessions on a routine basis. The closer the game in the 4th, the more we watched Pierce fall apart. Some described Pierce as having “tired legs.” Those legs were wobbly, beyond tired, beyond okay. I was hoping he’d be rested for the week following the All-Star break. He just looked wrong.
Which leads us to…
Five straight wins, all without Rajon Rondo, the team’s best offensive player. The Celtics have managed to win three close games in these five wins. But here’s the catch: two of those wins (Sacramento and Orlando) came at home against C-league competition (not quite D-League, but close); the first win (Miami in double OT) was great, but coming off of six-straight losses and without Rondo, Ray Allen’s return to Boston was not exactly a big deal as it came at what will probably be the low-point of the season (six straight losses and the news that Rondo was out for the year); beating the Clippers at home was a solid win, but without Chris Paul, the Clippers have been struggling (losing to Toronto and the rejuvenated Wizards on the same trip).
So…today the Celtics record sits at 25-23, two over .500 and threatening Atlanta and Milwaukee, who sit in the 6th and 7th spots in the Eastern Conference.
The Rondo debating that has cropped up since his season-ending-knee injury seems to highlight how expectations rise with each great player’s memorable performance. For Rondo, maybe he raised the bar to such a high level with those playoff triple-doubles, that an off night where he doesn’t seem mentally engaged, against a lowly road opponent allows a fan to point most of the blame on him, rather than accept that the playoff-dominant-level may not be sustainable over an 82-game regular season. Or maybe the wizard is just human…or inconsistent.
A few angles to consider in the Rondo debate:
- Rondo’s skills are obvious, but Doc Rivers essentially handing Rondo the keys to the offense seems to have had a negative impact. Maybe part of the problem is that Doc doesn’t call enough plays or have enough variety in place to keep guys like Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, and Barbosa to get enough touches and feel involved.
- Courtney Lee’s defense is excellent, and when paired with Avery Bradley, is especially tough on opposing backcourts.
- The roster was shooting guard heavy, which would have been useful before Bradley’s return if Jason Terry and Courtney Lee had been able to adjust to new surroundings and specific roles.
- This team, without Rondo in the playoffs, will struggle to score.
Looking ahead, the Celtics will still play enough defense to win many regular season games, perhaps avoiding the 8th seed and Miami in the first round. However, their hopes of winning a playoff series are heavily dependent on match-ups. A bad rebounding team became a horrendous rebounding team without Sullinger. Can a newly-inspired bench (Green and Barbosa especially) play as well on the road as they do at home?
Should they trade Pierce? Garnett?
In a word, no. The return on any trade is bound to be a lot less than the casual fan might guess. Late first round draft picks or decent role-players are all that most of the competing teams would be willing to give up. It is possible that a handful of young players who are both finding their potential and soon-to-be free-agents (Eric Bledsoe) would be available, but there is no guarantee of the ability to sign these guys as soon as they become free-agents.
Even if they could land Bledsoe and change for Garnett, they’d be without any interior defense at all for the next two years. Fab Melo would need to rapidly age (and improve everything) over the summer for that trade to make sense. Bledsoe is kind of like a combination of Bradley’s defense and Rondo’s penetration, but he’s an in-between guard without a great jump shot. Not really a point guard, but one of the more physical defensive guards in the league and with the ability to start the break.
The new luxury tax restraints are keeping many teams from adding big contracts. Memphis trading Speights and Gay for less than they’re worth allowed them to save on the cap and avoid the penalty next year. It’s a bigger concern than it has been in the past. Aside from the financial aspect, there’s the fact that whichever team is considering Pierce or Garnett would have to ask themselves: How much desire would be left if Pierce suddenly finds himself in…Utah…or Golden State? Would Garnett’s influence be the same on a defense that has known him for 25 regular season games, and where the system might be different?
The Celtics have enough left to make the next three months interesting. And they aren’t being offered a chance at a top 5 pick. Why would Ainge force a trade and “blow it up.” This team is already “blown up,” when you realize how many players are left from 2010′s Finals run. They will play hard, they will win games, and they’ll give us at least playoff series in mid-April. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a second series, where we meet Miami or Chicago or Indiana, possibly New York. Chicago and Indiana would create match-up nightmares for this extremely short Celtics team. Miami and New York are less dominant, and more three-point-based. If you’re a genuine Celtics fan, you should be thinking…”Let’s just see what happens” and stop looking for the “eject” button.