The Celtics are in pain at the moment. Most of the pain resides in the upper part of Jae Crowder’s right ankle. I’ve yet to read an in-depth profile of Crowder that takes the reader into the psyche of the new-found heart and soul of the Celtics, probably in part because he is not yet seen as an All-Star, mostly due to the fact that defense is really complicated to quantify. If putting the ball in the basket equals two or three points, how much credit goes to the individual defender that stops the shot from going up in the first place, without stealing or blocking the ball? How do you measure the impact of the man that can switch every screen and is strong enough not to get backed down by power forwards in the post? Draymond Green, Boris Diaw, DeMarre Carroll, and Jae Crowder. This is the era of versatility on defense, leaving pure shot-blockers out in the cold if they can’t slide their feet.
Every good team needs more than one individual stopper. The Celtics have three: Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley. This is why their defensive rating is still tied for 4th in the NBA, after a blowout loss to Oklahoma City. It helps that Brad Stevens’ schemes have emphasized individual player strengths (Amir Johnson’s pick-and-roll defense and rim protection, Kelly Olynyk’s mobility, Jared Sullinger’s lateral movement and bulk, Isaiah Thomas’ low center of gravity, Evan Turner’s switch-ability). It also helps that the Celtics were mostly healthy for the first 65 games of the year. Mostly healthy includes the absence of Marcus Smart for a month in December, Avery Bradley for a brief spell, and Jae Crowder for the last three games. In terms of actual games missed due to injury, the Celtics were the 8th healthiest team through March 13th.
The timing of the Crowder injury is rough for Boston. Crowder left midway through the Rockets game on March 11. The Celtics 14-game home win streak ended that night, as Harden had his way with the Crowder replacements. Small fowards Paul George, Kevin Durant and DeMar DeRozan all reaped the benefits of Crowder’s absence as the Pacers held on 103-98 at home, the Thunder annhilated Boston 130-109, and the Raptors pulled away easily on Friday night, after the Celtics put together a solid third-quarter, finally settling into some kind of rhythm, before the Raptors rained threes upon their heads in the 4th. Forward Jonas Jerebko, who adds another versatile defender and corner-three specialist to the roster, went down with an ankle/achilles injury mid-week. After losing Crowder and Jerebko, the Celtics’ depth is being seriously tested, and the lack of tenacity is evident. Jerebko is likely to return on Monday against Orlando.
On Sunday, the Celtics ended the losing streak, beating a sad Sixers squad behind much better performances from Evan Turner and Marcus Smart (both of whom have been given more minutes and responsibility since Crowder’s injury). Since returning from a month-long absence due to a strained shoulder, Kelly Olynyk is 5 of 22 overall and 1 of 10 from deep. As Olynyk works the rust off, Turner and Smart absolutely have to step up for the Celtics to keep from sinking into the lowest rung of the Eastern Conference playoff battle.
With a dozen games left, the Cavs and Raptors have all but wrapped up the top 2 seeds in the East.
The second rung of the East ladder consists of four teams:
- Atlanta Hawks (41-29) only one of their final 12 opponents are bottom-10 teams (PHX). Atlanta faces a suddenly warm Wizards-team three times in the final 12 games. Boston faces ATL in game 80 (April 9th)
- Miami Heat (40-29) without Chris Bosh, the Heat have played better lately, thanks to Whiteside, Deng, and a healthier Dragic. 4 of their final 13 games vs bottom-10 opponents. Three games left against Florida-rivals, Orlando. Miami is a strange team to game plan for, with several dynamic players, but not enough spacing without Bosh. Whiteside is learning how to take advantage of the roll toward the rim, with his insane wingspan.
- Boston Celtics (39-30) 3 of final 13 games vs bottom-10, final three games of season will determine seeding: (@ATL, home vs CHA and MIA). Boston desperately needs the spacing of Crowder, Olynyk, and to some degree, Jerebko. The grit of Crowder, Smart, and Bradley’s physicality, and Isaiah Thomas’ ability to finish in traffic, make them a serious threat.
- Charlotte Hornets (39-30) Torrid Hornets just finished a 6 games in 9 days stretch with a turd of a loss against Denver. Blame the schedule. Five of final 13 games vs bottom-10 teams. Charlotte, having won 9 of 11, and healthy with Big Al, Batum looking like they’ll finish in the 4 vs 5 match-up.
After these top 6, the three Midwestern teams: Indiana, Chicago, and Detroit are battling for the final two spots, with the Wizards inching closer to the pack by the day.
Of course, if Jae Crowder isn’t on the court within the next ten days or so, the Celtics chances of avoiding a first round series with Cleveland or Toronto will diminish. Of their next 7 games, only @PHX and @LAL seem like obvious wins unless the Celtics regain their confidence and get healthy quick.
Monday 3/21: vs ORL
Wednesday, 3/23 vs TOR (I finally see a game in Boston this year!)
5-game road trip starting…
Saturday, 3/26 @ PHX
Monday, 3/28 @ LAC
Thursday, 3/31 @ POR
Friday, 4/1 @ GS
Sunday, 4/3 @ LAL