After finishing with a 1-3 record this past week, the Boston Celtics fell to second place after spending 18 days on top of the Atlantic Division. Is Brad Stevens' young roster on the verge of sliding down the standings? Perhaps, but there are just as many encouraging aspects from last week as there are concerns.
Is Sully Love 2.0?
Last week, Jared Sullinger averaged 17.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in 28.9 MPG. The 21-year-old center has continued to make strides after recovering from back surgery, shooting 50 percent from two-point range, and 4-of-11 from behind the arc.
Due to Sullinger's increased range and spectacular rebounding ability (despite being undersized), he has drawn comparisons to Minnesota big man Kevin Love. Before the Celtics faced off against the Timberwolves, Sullinger said he looks forward to the offseason so he can better himself as a basketball player.
However, Kevin Love offered advice by saying the progression should begin now. "He can shoot the ball, he has a soft touch, he's capable, as far as rebounding the ball goes," said Love. "My advice to him would be: Don't wait until the summer. Start improving now because you always have every day to improve."
Indiana center Roy Hibbert also offered guidance to Sullinger, "He's just gotta keep working. He could be like the Kevin Love of the East," said Hibbert. "He got a back problem last year, so it's gonna be a long process, but he could be a pretty good player in this league."
Fast starts, hard falls
This season has featured a number of disastrous collapses for the Celtics, and this past week was no different. Boston blew a 21 point lead to Detroit and an 18 point lead to Washington on their way to losing both games in heartbreaking fashion.
So, what's the problem? Well, it's hard to pinpoint one specific issue, but the Celtics tend to slip when the bench comes in during the second period. Last week, the Pistons and Wizards took advantage of the Celtics' lack of an interior presence by attacking the rim for easy buckets. Check out the shot charts below, which show what the Pistons and Wizards did during the second and third period of each game:
That success allowed them to develop a dynamic rhythm offensively, and as a result, it sliced transition opportunities for the Celtics. As the old adage goes, "the best defense is a good offense." Jared Sullinger reinforced that belief after Saturday's loss to Washington, "Sometimes our defense is our offense, and we have to understand that, and we have to keep playing."
Perhaps, the Celtics need to revise their half court style since they have become too accustomed to their success by playing fast in transition. When the opponent is scoring buckets, it turns into a half court game, and the Celtics aren't slowing the tempo down like they should. Veteran small forward Gerald Wallace, who has experienced his share of losing, probably recognizes the issue more than anyone on the team. He said, "Instead of slowing it down, trying to get a good one, we're forcing a lot of shots, and we're not making them right now."
Is Steez leveling off?
Jordan Crawford won Eastern Conference Player of the Week for his excellent performance in the first week of December, but his high play has since regressed. In the past seven games, Crawford is averaging a respectable 12.7 points, 5.6 assists, and 2.3 turnovers per game, but he is shooting at a clip of only 35.6 percent. This previous week, Crawford is shooting only marginally better, at 37.2 percent.
To be fair, the box score doesn't look too bad for Crawford, but the underlying issues are discovered when you dig deeper. What first pops off the page is his lack of success from three-point range. Steez was only 4-of-20 from downtown in the last four games after shooting 37.5 percent for the entire season.
One reason for his lack of success from outside could be pinned on his questionable decisions made as of late, especially during his 0-for-7 performance from the third quarter of Wednesday's game. For example, with over 13 seconds left on the shot clock, Crawford pulled up three times from over 25-feet, when better shots were available for his teammates. Crawford, a reputable passer, likely would've had a couple of assists had he chosen to pass in those situations.
Also, lost in Monday's win was Crawford's eight-second violation and crucial turnover with less than two minutes in the game. When the offense isn't run effectively in crunch time, it makes it increasingly apparent that star point guard Rajon Rondo must return in order for the Celtics to have potential success in the playoffs. But until then, it's important that Jordan Crawford does everything he can to weed out these mistakes, while continuing to light up the scoreboard more efficiently.
No Omer, but it's time to win
It looked like the Celtics were about to complete a trade on Thursday night that would've given them disgruntled Houston center Omer Asik. But, of course, like most rumored trades, nothing came to fruition. The Celtics would've likely sent Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass, and a first round pick, but the Rockets decided to wait before making a deal.
That proposed trade likely would've meant the Celtics would be buyers at the deadline, but it's not the only move made that signals that, because veteran big man Kris Humphries received more playing time than rookie Kelly Olynyk this previous week. Humphries was typically first off the bench, averaging 18.5 minutes per game to only 12.3 for Olynyk. The veteran Humphries took advantage of his increased minutes, displaying a pretty mid-range jumper while averaging 8.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.
The change at the backup big position might seem relatively minor, but I believe it indicates a shifting mindset within the organization. Before the season, in my opinion, it was clear that Humphries was a better player than Olynyk, but the rookie got the nod anyway. This was probably because expectations were low, so developing KO was more important than giving playing time to Humphries and his expiring contract. But now, the Celtics are competing for a playoff spot, so maximizing their success becomes paramount.