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Residual Road Trip Reflections

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A Daily Babble Production

In the 21st century sports climate, fans hover somewhere in the neighborhood of eighth-class citizens.  As a result, I'm not a big believer that we fans owe too much of anything to anyone in this business most of the time.  But this piece is a bit late in coming because this Celtics team deserves at least an attempt at rationality from me.  When a team wins a championship, gets off to the best 29-game start in the history of its sport and wins 75 percent of its games that counted in one calendar year, there isn't a need to go off half-cocked at the first rough patch in the road.

So I gave it an extra day or two.  Because, like many of you, I saw that road trip going a bit differently in my head.

The loss in Los Angeles was disappointing but not stunning.  That's the best team in the Western Conference, and at 19 straight wins and on the road across the country for Christmas, our boys were due for one that didn't work out.  The Golden State game was frustrating but again, not the biggest surprise of all time.  Back to back games on the West Coast, some zapped energy levels after the game in Los Angeles, no Perk due to injury: not a good combination.  The Sacramento game looked like a nice bounce-back.  The Portland game was downright agitating.  The Blazers were without their best player, their bigs out-muscled the Celts' bigs underneath, and (sorry, Blazers fans) listening to Mike Rice made my ears bleed. 

By the wee hours of Wednesday morning, I was more than a tad peeved.  So I decided to hold off for the day on too much commentary about the trip (choosing instead to watch "The Dark Knight" for the first time, quite an impressive picture).  One Gotham City adventure later, it was time to finally do some calmer thinking about this forgettable trip. 

The takeaway from it all for me is that I'm not so sure this team got exposed, so to speak, over the past week, so much as it got bitten by its previously evident imperfections.  But what I'm also not sure about is whether that's a good or bad thing under the circumstances.

What all that means is that we didn't learn much new about this team, particularly as far as its flaws are concerned.

It wasn't as though the Celtics went out west and the folks out there had somehow unearthed a way to break down Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers' swarming defense once for all.  Or that the offense suddenly sputtered for some unknown reason.  Or one of our players indicated that he isn't as good as we thought he was.  For the most part, none of that happened.

What did happen was that the same flaws that were evident in this team during the 27-2 start bit just hard enough at the wrong times against the wrong teams. 

Turnovers.  The Celts have been among the league's worst in taking care of the ball all season, which is best encapsulated by their dead last ranking in turnover ratio.  The green gives the ball away on 27 percent of its possessions.  In the first two games of the road trip, the Celts turned the ball over a combined 40 times.  The offensive fouls (especially illegal screens), the sloppy passes in transition; it all adds up.

The bench.  The biggest reason this team got off to as good a start as it did wasn't because of improved bench play but because it got not one, not two, but three improved starters.  Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins have deservedly gotten plenty of press for the leaps they have made thus far this season.  But not to be lost is the increased contribution of Ray Allen.  He who made the greatest sacrifice of the big three last season but finally seems perpetually in rhythm in the offense, and he is putting up his 18 points per game on a criminally good 63.3 percent true shooting. 

The bench, however, has not been better.  During the big win streak, it consistently blew leads against bad teams.  Despite the high-margin wins in many of those games, there was plenty of discussion about the lack ball movement and the defensive troubles on the second unit.  It didn't take losing to the Lakers or Golden State or Portland to make it apparent that the Infuriated Infant is a foul machine or that the team needs more leadership on the floor with the bench or that the reserves didn't have the requisite punch to be successful at either end of the floor.  It simply followed logically that against better, deeper opponents than usual (such as the Lakers and even Portland, a legitimately good team, no matter how much the Blazers were compromised without Roy) the effects of these problems would be more illuminated in the final outcome of the games.

The same goes for all the other smaller stuff as well: the occasional over-reliance on jump-shooting (not the problem late against Portland), Rondo's continued lack of confidence in his jump shot, the confusing on-court absence of Gabe Pruitt (not because I think he's the next coming of Michael Jordan but simply because he appears to have a skill set that could be useful down the stretch), the length issues.  These were all problems that were present during the 27-2 start.  They just had a bigger impact on the final score this past week, perhaps because the team played a couple of better opponents, maybe simply because the Celts were on the road, particularly across the country out west.

All of the above is observation about which I feel fairly confident.  It's judging the meaning of those observations that is causing me some trouble.  To some extent, these realizations seem encouraging to me because it isn't as though this team needs to go back to the drawing board after experiencing some shock to the system.  The offense and defense don't need to be redesigned.  The starting five is still quite possibly the best in the league.  The problems are all issues that the team has presumably been aware of and working on over the course of the year, simply areas of focus that need more work.  With 49 regular season games remaining, there is plenty of time for more work.

But the flip side is that nagging feeling that if these problems have indeed been evident, then perhaps the team won't be able to fix them for the time they will really matter: the playoffs.  It's been my presumption (and that of many Celtics fans, so far as I can tell) that Danny Ainge knew the limitations of his team's bench and would be preparing to make a move down the stretch if and when it was necessary.  In less than a week, Dikembe Mutombo (definitely) and P.J. Brown (apparently) have left the board of availability.  Joe Smith and Alonzo Mourning seem the next logical choices, but if they can't be obtained, then what?  What if Danny isn't able to make a move to boost the bench?  How much better can we expect the current group to play by year's end?  Is the bench a fatal flaw if left unchanged?

I don't have answers to those questions, but I'd be lying if I said they didn't make me  a bit nervous.  For the most part, I'm content to push myself toward believing the former reasoning pattern, that it's good that this rough patch came early, and that it's even better that said rough patch didn't expose any new weakness on this team.   I've believed all season that this team hasn't played its highest level of basketball, that it has the coaching staff and the on-floor leaders to push itself to better all-around performances, and I maintain that line of thinking.

The road trip was four games out of 82, and it is over now.  Even the 66-win Celtics of a year ago had a few rough four-game stretches (the three straight losses out west after the All-Star break come to mind).  As member cordobes notes, the 27-2 record was better than the level this team was playing at.  That's no insult.  Exactly zero teams in the history of the game have played .930 basketball over the course of an entire season.  This Celtics team is winning nearly 85 percent of its contests (that's plenty to write home about), and even on a day that isn't its best, it remains one of the best this league has to offer, one of the few legitimate contenders for a championship this coming June.  That the few issues brought forth above still seem to be the only potential impediments (health issues excepted) to giving this team maximum potential for a repeat is a good thing. 

Our boys in green return home tonight.  Let's hope they return to takin' names and kickin' rear ends.  Here's to enjoying every second of it, all the while keeping the concerns about fixing those other issues fresh in our minds.