Let's play a game.
I'm thinking of a word that starts with 'i', ends with 't', and rhymes with 'nonexistent'. Feel free to get your friends in on this one. I'll give you a minute...
...Okay, time's up. Inconsistent. That's the word. If the 2009-2010 NBA season ended at this very moment, that is surely the word we would use to describe the Boston Celtics. The end-of-the-season yearbook's summarizing article would have a headline like, "Inconsistency Reigns" with a picture of either one of the players gasping in pain on the floor in the wake of his most recent injury or Doc Rivers with his head sunk in his hands, staring hopeless at the ground from the bench.
Fortunately, the season does not end at this very moment, so, believe it or not, there's still time for the Celtics to turn this thing around. And someone once said, 'There is no time like the present.' I don't know who said it, but I know it was definitely said, and the Celtics would be wise to heed his or her words. As of today, only two of the Celtics' next eight opponents are over .500 (Milwaukee and Memphis, and just barely so), so if ever there was a stretch where the Celtics could develop some form of consistency, this is it surely it.
Realistically, many of us have expectations for how these next eight games should go. Nothing is guaranteed, but the Celtics, even without Paul Pierce, should be able to overcome the Nets, Pistons, Bobcats, 76ers, Wizards, Bucks, Grizzlies, and Pacers. With that in mind, it can't be enough that the Celtics simply win these games. They need to win by playing for 48 straight minutes, not suffering through the highs and lows that have infected their play lately. Again, they have to develop consistency, for if not now, when? Time is running out. There are only 26 games left, making this next eight-game stretch the best opportunity this team will have to start playing the way they'll need to play once the playoffs arrive.
What was so encouraging in the win over the Portland Trailblazers a week ago was the fact that the Celtics defeated them the way they were supposed to. Portland, also riddled by injuries, was far from being 100 percent, and the Celtics should have won by 20 points, which they did. But it was the first instance in a long time in which the Celtics, clearly the superior team, defeated an inferior team like the Blazers in a convincing fashion.
What stuck out most throughout that win was the fact that the Celtics played at a high level for the entire game. They were aggressive from the start and didn't ease back at any point, even when Portland tried making a run late in the third quarter. The Celtics extended their lead, as opposed to relinquishing it. That's the thing about consistency: It starts in a single game. A team cannot build consistency over several games if it cannot stay consistent over the course of one, 48-minute, game.
That's what's so frustrating about all of this. With the exception of the occasional game, the Celtics haven't been able to play a game the same way from start to finish for months now. And you simply wish they would, even if that meant losing. If the Celtics are going to be terrible, they should just be terrible all night long, as opposed to torturing us with two great quarters of basketball, reminding us all of the team they could be, before spontaneously combusting four minutes into the third quarter. At this point, not even Sherlock Holmes and John Watson could unravel the mystery that is the Boston Celtics.
Part of the answer is realizing what works during a game and sticking with that, regardless of what the other team is doing. The Celtics were in attack mode through the first two quarters on Thursday night, yet the second the Cavaliers made a run in the second half, the Celtics' game plan seemed to evaporate into thin air, like the water in a puddle that's suddenly drenched in sunlight. The NBA is a game of runs. The Cavs were bound to make a run, but that did not give the Celtics an excuse to ball up into the fetal position and wait for the storm to be over. And if it's a matter of the Cavaliers making adjustments to combat what the Celtics were doing so well in the first half, then it's Doc Rivers' job to play the chess game and adopt another strategy that allows for his team to continue to play the way that resulted in success in the first place. And then it's the job of the players to actually go out and execute that strategy.
It's interesting how these things typically come back to playing defense. In the first half Thursday night, the Cavaliers shot 43.2 percent, and all of the missed shots gave the Celtics plenty of opportunities to run and remain in attack mode. But once the second half hit and the defense went slack, the Cavs started scoring at will and Boston's chances of continuing the pace that helped them garner so much success in the first half were suddenly eliminated.
The same thing happened against Denver last Sunday. The Nuggets shot 72.7 percent (!) in the first quarter and outscored Boston 37-19. Then, once the second quarter hit, the Celtics clamped down and essentially cut off Denver's uptempo game. By the end of the second quarter, Denver's shooting percentage had dropped over 20 points to 52.4 percent and the Celtics were within seven heading into halftime. Is it a coincidence that defense has so much to do with it? Absolutely not. The last three opponents the Celtics have faced all average over 100 points per game, yet the Celtics entered the games allowing just over 93 points per game on the season. Well, if you look at the final scores of those games, the opponents' score certainly favors their offensive numbers as opposed to the Celtics' defensive numbers.
Injuries have made it difficult for the Celtics to find consistency, for it's incredibly difficult to replicate performances when, you know, the same group of guys can't even find the court together. But with only Paul Pierce missing this time around, the Celtics can at least get the ball rolling in the right direction over the next handful of games for when he returns.
And it starts today, against the Nets. The next eight games are a combination of homework assignments, practice tests, and review sheets, leading up to the next big exam - a rematch with the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Sunday, March 14. Even if the Celtics win these next eight games we can't pronounce them as "back", only because it won't mean anything if they can't carry the consistency that they will hopefully develop over that stretch into the Cleveland game. The Celtics have much to prove right now, mainly to the fans, who are steadily losing faith with each passing blown lead. And if there is to be reconciliation, the path towards it must be a consistent one.