Reading the Tea Leaves

Jared Wickerham

Next Tuesday night in Cleveland will be the 41st game of the season, the half way point. So it is a good time to look at where we are and where we might go.

Do we have enough to make the playoffs? The current record suggests that the Celtics are on pace to win 43 games which is probably good enough for the 8th spot in the East. Many fans gush that as long as we make the playoffs, the team will turn it on. History is not on our side. The 1999 Knicks are the only team to make the finals from an 8 spot, and that was in a lock out shortened season.

Perhaps a more telling stat is the differential. I wrote about this in a previous post. In case you missed it, the differential is simply the difference between the average points a team scores and the points it allows. Since the 2005-06 season, there have been 14 teams that managed to make the playoffs with a negative differential to end the season. Of those, only four made the 2nd round and none went further. If the season had ended yesterday, Jan. 17, the Celtics would be going in with a -0.6. Is there still time to turn it around? Sure, but they need to quit taking nights off.

As for the winning the championship, in that same 2005-06 season, the Heat won with a differential of only 3.9. Since then; 06-07 Spurs 8.4, 07-08 Celtics 10.2, 08-09 Lakers 7.6, 09-10 Lakers 4.7, 10-11 Mavs 4.2, 11-12 Heat 6.0. (all are season end differentials) More often than not, the highest differential does not ensure the crown. This is where the intangibles or x-factors such as heart, grit and balls, referees, injuries, and so forth come into play. But it also appears that a team needs to finish with a positive differential of at least 4 to have a realistic shot.

What Can be done to improve the differential? The answer is simple although the method and process is complicated. Either the Celtics need to give up fewer points, score more points, or some combination of the two. Personally, my feeling is that as long as they maintain it on a nightly basis, the defense is possibly good enough. Consider this; for the champs since 05-06, the 07 Spurs ranked 1st in defense, the 08 Celtics ranked 2nd, the 12 Heat ranked 4th. But, the 10 Lakers and the 11 Mavs were 10th, the 06 Heat and 09 Lakers were 13th. Currently the Celtics are 7th in defense at 95.7. For it to be good enough though, the scoring needs to increase to an average of about 99-100 points per game.

So what does it mean? Right now, the balance is not there. One can argue all day long that the defense needs to get stingier, the team needs to score more, better shot selection, score more in the paint, make the free throws, trade for this guy or that guy, and on and on. The solution is probably some of all or almost all of these as the key is the balance between offense and defense which equates to a positive differential.

For what it is worth, in my opinion we have all the necessary pieces to make Banner 18 happen. What I don't see is a killer instinct, a throwback to the Larry Legend era. You could call it a "get them down and keep them down attitude." Even in the recent win streak, the Celts keep letting the other team back in. Maybe it is selective memory, but I don't remember any games where the other team was clearly superior and put a thumping on us. I do remember several games where the Celts just appeared to be going through the motions. I would feel a lot more encouraged if they will at least clean up that part of their game.

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