Which Way Will They Go: Celtics Causing Mass Confusion

After losing four straight games to open the season, the Boston Celtics have won three in a row. This would be cause for celebration in a typical Celtics season. Three straight! With two very winnable games coming up this week — home against Orlando and Charlotte. Yet, this is not a typical Celtics season. This is a transition season, without their exceptional point guard for the first month or two, and with a roster full of players that is far from guaranteed to remain in Celtic green for this entire season, or into the future. However, a win in Miami feels like cause for celebration. Especially when it comes on a falling-out-of-bounds, corner three from Jeff Green, as time expires. After Miami could have iced the game with two Dwyane Wade free-throws less than one second earlier.  We should celebrate. They are on a roll. To get back-to-back wins on the road is great for any NBA team. For Stevens and his staff, it should build confidence. For the young players who will make up the future core (Green, Bradley, Sullinger, Olynyk) this should boost their belief in themselves and each other. However, we shouldn’t start thinking this team will do damage in the playoffs because of this win. Particularly, because Miami didn’t bring their “A” or even their “B” game. More like their “C” game. This is what happens during the regular season: teams (especially older teams) cannot sustain their energy level on an 82-game basis. A look at the NBA Standings as of Monday morning, November 11 will tell you all you need to know. The Philadelphia 76ers, who are currently giving up 107 ppg (30th out of 30 NBA teams) are 4-3. One of Philly’s four wins came against the Heat. The Brooklyn Nets are 2-4. The Chicago Bulls are 2-3. In the Western Conference, another lottery-bound team — the Phoenix Suns — are 5-2. What do the Celtics, Philadelphia and Phoenix all have in common? They are young, athletic, and playing for brand new NBA head coaches. They have nothing to lose, as all are expected to finish with less than 30 wins.

I wouldn’t be shocked if the NBA’s front office sent a memo to those three teams (and the refs) explaining how important it is that they collect some early season wins so as to mask the fact that they are willing to lose many games this season. Consider the impact that a widespread “tanking” effect would have on ticket sales and public relations. The season is too long for any team to flat out “try to lose” every game. The commissioner’s office (Adam Silver, starting in February) would be breathing down their necks if any team were 1-20. Fans would stop showing up at arenas. The insane ticket prices would become a PR nightmare. No franchise is actively trying to lose games (especially at home). However, they realize that those top 5-7 picks are extremely valuable and winning 35-40 games doesn’t benefit their franchise long-term. With the new collective bargaining agreement, securing top young talent has become and will increasingly become, paramount.

Could the Celtics finish the season as a playoff team? It’s possible. They could scratch and claw their way to upwards of 40 wins, and finish with a 7th or 8th seed. Is that in their best interest? Probably not. Though it’s possible they could add a scorer through a trade or free-agency (Boston is rarely on the top of a free agent’s destination list), the Celtics will probably be looking to add two key pieces this off-season: a shot-blocking big man and a scoring wing. A top 5 or at worst top 7 pick would certainly give them a legit chance at adding one of those two pieces through the 2014 draft.

Remember, the standings start to matter in mid-to-late December.

What We Have Learned: Seven games in, 75 games left
1. Development over Outright “Tanking”
Though the Celtics are not actively tanking (see above), they are willing to absorb lots of losses, and are still focused on 2014-15 and 2015-16. The long-term is what matters, while developing young assets (Sullinger, Bradley, Olynyk, Faverani, Pressey) and figuring out what we have. Getting the players on the same page with the new staff is also critical.  Minutes will continue to be juggled (more for Pressey, less for Lee if they want to win now, less for Pressey, more for Lee if they’re looking to highlight Lee’s talents in December or January). The rotation will never be certain. Trades will probably happen in January. Stevens will continue to use the word “process,” to describe what is happening. Continuing to think long-term means that everything else is secondary.
2. All wins over Miami are nice, but don’t all carry the same weight
The Heat lost to Philadelphia on the 2nd night of the season, after dispatching the Rose-led Bulls on opening night. They will have lapses throughout this season, especially defensively, especially following “big” games. They have nothing to prove, so how do they stay hungry when the games are supposed to easy wins? They beat the Clippers pretty convincingly on Thursday night, probably expending a little extra energy in a physical game. Also, they should have won the game last night. Wade’s free-throw violation (trying to slam the ball off the front rim to end the game) and a great clutch shot by Green probably happen in combination one out of 30 times.
3. Positive Play from the Point
In the three wins, the Celtics are getting some genuinely positive minutes at point guard from Jordan Crawford and rookie Phil Pressey. Pressey’s speed (3.13 3/4 court sprint time at the draft combine, which placed him 3rd) have given the Celtics a nice change-of-pace. The offense has played better with anyone other than Bradley at the point. They’re trying to make some kind of progress so that Bradley can spell Rondo at the point in the future, but Bradley really can’t even be called a backup point. He will always play better off-the-ball, which will be his role once Rondo returns. In the three wins, Pressey’s plus/minus is at +10 in 54 minutes, while Crawford’s is at +3 in 86 minutes. It doesn’t hurt that Utah and Orlando have some awful point guards.
Coming up this week:
Mon: vs. Orlando
Wed: vs. Charlotte
Fri: vs. Portland
Sat: @ Minnesota
Orlando and Charlotte are certainly winnable games, though Charlotte will be getting old-friend Al Jefferson back this week. Expect Friday and Saturday to bring the Celtics back down to Earth. Portland and Minnesota are both very talented offensive teams who struggle on the defensive end. The Celtics will be put to the test defensively. Let’s enjoy the positives while they last.
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