As the time wound down on the Celtics big road win last night against the Clippers, I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief. It was over. The win was secured, and on another night without a deep frontcourt the Celtics prevailed. It was encouraging and sobering all at the same time. Partly because I know just how bad the Celtics have been down the stretch this season, and partly because I just expected the road woes to continue.
I'm a bit of a pessimist. If the Celtics win any game this season, then you can bet your bottom dollar that I am enjoying it. I don't take too kindly to casual fans who haven't watched this team night-in and night-out talking to me about how the Celtics are "too old, too slow, too incompetent, and will soon be just like Toronto again in the Atlantic Division." That makes me mad. I refuse to believe it. So, I doubt. I become a pessimist, and take the woes with the "whoa's". It's not healthy, but I don't know any other way. (I'm the same way about every team I support.)
Then again, I know the numbers. I've seen the team play. I know what kind of resiliency the Celtics have, and I believe. No matter how small that sliver of hope and belief is, I remain constant in my belief. The Celtics can still make noise this season. Reality usually sets in, though, when I begin to believe these things whole heartedly. Why? Because it's virtually impossible for an aging team that has been relying on an already shortened rotation. It's rough, and yet the Celtics have still given me some reason to believe.
I know those first two paragraphs probably have you tilting your head sideways like a confused puppy. Allow me to try to clear up some confusion I may have created.
What makes the Celtics struggle so terribly for many stretches both on the road and at home? Well let's try this on for size. The Celtics are 28th in the league in second quarter points per game at 21.8. Oklahoma City sits atop the league rankings in second quarter scoring with 28.2 per game. Why are the Celtics struggling in the second quarter? Well, the first reason I can gather is the bench. Oftentimes, the Celtics are left with a bench rotation of Avery Bradley, Keyon Dooling, Mickael Pietrus, Chris Wilcox, and Greg Stiemsma (when needed).
That's a gritty lineup, but it's also an inexperienced and lackluster lineup, too. Thankfully, Doc has been able to supplement this lethargic unit with placing Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, or Kevin Garnett on the floor for 3-5 minutes at a time during the second quarter. This generally has allowed for a bit more success, because there's at least one "go-to" guy on the floor. Pierce can facilitate (he's averaging 5.2 assists per game -- the highest average of his career), and he's also benefitted from playing only 34.6 minutes per game (the third lowest total of his career). Garnett comes in when needed and anchors the defense, and provides a bit of comfortability for Avery Bradley as he runs the offense through Kevin many times. Rajon comes in and, well, does Rajon things. And for these reasons the Celtics have been averaging 26.7 points per game during the second quarter over their last three games. For reference, the Celtics were ninth in the NBA in 2nd quarter scoring when they won Banner 17. Then again, that bench was a bit more respectable.
Perhaps a bit more telling about the Celtics' woes comes in their fourth quarter scoring statistics. The Celtics are averaging just 21.6 points in the fourth quarter. The league-leading team definitely shows that this statistic isn't solely indicative of success (Portland), but it definitely speaks volumes to the Celtics and their problems closing halves this season. I can think of numerous games where the Celtics have generated nice leads only to see them fizzle away down the stretch. Part of that has to do with the second unit -- the same problem Boston has faced in the 2nd Quarter. The Celtics bench just hasn't been able to sustain or improve leads.
However, I present the thing you've been waiting for: hope. Since Doc Rivers shortened the Celtics' bench rotation after the All-Star Break the C's have won seven out of ten. They've had a bit more consistency from their bench units, and their numbers in each quarter over the last three games have been steadily improving. For better or for worse, the Celtics are playing with fewer players, and finding ways to be successful. Avery Bradley is improving as a point guard. He's doing much better in how he initiates the offense (mostly deferring to Paul or Kevin -- whoever is on the court at the time), and he's hitting his jumper with much more consistency. Hey, even Greg Stiemsma has showed improvements in things other than logging more minutes. His defensive rotations have been better, and he's shown a bit of grit that fits so well into this Celtic team.
But like every Boston team over the past few years injuries have been a plaguing factor. Chris Wilcox is out indefinitely with a heart issue. I know I speak for everyone at Celticsblog when I say I hope and pray that he returns to full health as soon as possible -- no matter what the issue is -- and am very thankful for Ed Lacerte, the team doctors, and everyone else involved in making sure each player's personal health is of foremost importance in Boston. In reality, though, this weakens the Celtics a great deal. Things were already burdensome for the Boston frontcourt, and this doesn't help at all. JaJuan Johnson just isn't ready to contribute big minutes down the stretch, and this means Greg Stiemsma is the main back-up big. Brandon Bass is starting at power forward, and he's been stellar. If and when foul trouble rears its ugly head (and it surely does to at least one player every game), Doc Rivers has tough decisions to make. This is where it will be interesting to see if Danny Ainge decides to add a big-man before Thursday's trade deadline (or sign a veteran or D-League player to a 10-day contract).
Still, Doc has been able to manage the plight set before him. He's been able to use Mickael Pietrus in his own renewed version of the "Posey Lineup", and it has worked pretty well. This means the Celtics gameplan for their perimeter options and play small-ball. The forwards are small -- usually a combination of Pierce at power forward, and Pietrus at the small forward or vice versa -- and Kevin Garnett mans the center position. Doc tried to do this last year with Jeff Green, and it showed varying success. It worked last night down the stretch against the Clippers, and will likely continue to work until teams understand how to counter it.
Finally, the Celtics are still putting up astounding defensive numbers. Let's take a quick look.
- The Celtics have a defensive efficiency of 96.3 compared to the league average of 101.0. That's the 3rd best average in the NBA.
- The Celtics are only allowing 89.9 points per game compared to the league average of 95.5. That's also the 3rd best average in the NBA.
- The Celtics are holding its opponents to a field goal percentage of 42.2% compared to the league average of 44.4%.
- The Celtics tout the league-best opponent three-point field goal percentage -- 31.0%. The league average is 34.6%.
The Celtics offensive woes have been easily countered by their stout defense. This will continue, and you can count on that as it has been one of the mainstays in Boston since the Big Three era began. As long as Kevin Garnett is healthy, and Rajon Rondo is engaged and active (and he has been since the All-Star break, bad games aside), the Celtics will be able to remain competitive in almost every game.
The Celtics are showing life. They aren't "out of it" by any stretch of the imagination. A lot will depend on how well this team jells down the stretch. Will Ubuntu be revealed? If it hasn't been already, it needs to be soon during this shortened season. A shortened season where every team has struggled scoring the ball, every team has suffered numerous injuries, and every team has a chance to make noise if they can make the playoffs. Hey, the Celtics are only 2.5 games back in the Atlantic Division. The Bucks are the current 8 seed. The Knicks aren't a threat at this point, and they're falling quicker than Syracuse's chances of winning the NCAA Tournament. That's pretty fast, you guys. The Celtics are two games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the 6 seed, and 2.5 from the 5 seed that is currently held by Indiana. There is life for Boston. Inhale. Exhale. Of course, this tone could all change by the end of this extended road trip, but for now hope springs (insert synonym for a word not quiet as strong as "eternal", but but not nearly as strong as "death"). So, here's to hoping and believing in this team, no matter how hard that may be for a pessimist like myself.