Analyzing The Boston Celtics’ Slide In The NBA Eastern Conference

On the morning of February 8, Boston Celtics fans—present writer included—were feeling our oats. The C’s had just won the first four games of a five-game homestand, were up to 14-10 and at minimum were in position to be a second-round team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. And we could be forgiven if some thoughts of springing an upset on Miami or Chicago might have briefly skipped through our minds. It’s been all downhill since then, as Boston has lost seven of eight. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the losing streak to see if it’s just a bad stretch or if it’s time to break up the band.

When you review the numbers on the Celtics, the most important ones are these: 36, 35, 34. Those are the ages of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, respectively. And since Garnett came to the NBA straight out of high school there’s four extra years of wear and tear that the college kid doesn’t have on his body. Therefore, for Celtics’ general manager Danny Ainge, the question of whether the slide is reversible is more than about this season and he can’t sit by and passive observer as the question is answered. He’s got to figure it out now, while a contender might still give up something of value for one of his three veterans.

Defense has been the cornerstone of the Celtics’ strong play the last four years, and that hasn’t changed. They are still a top five team defensively, whether it’s raw points or adjusted for tempo. The problem is that they’re no longer rebounding the missed shots they force. The team ranks 26th in rebounding, and an offense that’s in the bottom third of the league can’t make up for it. Depth is a huge issue, particularly up front. Garnett still averages a respectable 14 ppg, but he’s at his best when stepping out to hit the 15-foot jump shot rather than just posting up. Jermaine O’Neal has been a disaster at center, and while forward Brandon Bass has been a nice pickup, he’s more of a sixth man at forward than a true inside player.

Bottom line? This team has not recovered from Ainge’s foolhardy decision to trade center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City last February. “Perk” was a true physical presence inside, a tough defender and rebounder and to top it off, he was loved by the fans. Lest you think I’m second-guessing, all of Celtics Nation cried out in protestwhen he was traded. Ainge got Jeff Green and Marquis Daniels back in return. Green has suffered a heart condition which makes him unable to play, at least this year. Daniels is just flat-out unproductive.

So while the backcourt remains solid—Allen, Pierce and Rajon Rondo combine for 47 ppg, Allen is still lights out from three, Pierce is still a go-to guy in the clutch and Rondo is a better perimeter shooter at 48 percent than he’s given credit for—it’s not enough to overcome the scoring, rebounding and depth issues up front. Let’s take a run through the current 1-7 slide to illustrate that.

It was a home game against the hated Lakers on a TNT Thursday game that started it all. While Los Angeles only hit one trey, they dominated the glass 55-45, with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum beating the Garnett/O’Neal duo in rebounding 31-18. LA won by a point. Two nights later in Toronto, the C’s no-showed it, to the disgust of head coach Doc Rivers, as this time they were outrebounded by the tandem of Amir Johnson and Aaron Gray. The bleeding was stopped on a Sunday ABC game on February 12 when the Bulls came to the Garden without Derrick Rose, and Rondo stepped up with a brilliant 32 points/10 rebounds/15 assists game to hold off Chicago 95-91.

One of the things TheSportsNotebook identified as key in the February 8 commentary was for the Celtics to simply take care of the winnable games during a tough schedule stretch. We’ve already seen them lose to Toronto. The day after Valentine’s Day they dumped a 10-point loss to Detroit at home because Ben Wallace and Greg Monroe owned the glass. Boston was competitive in Chicago on another TNT Thursday game, going even-up for three quarters, but—stop if you’ve heard this theme before—a 52-37 rebounding edge for the Bulls enabled them to pull away. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah couldn’t be kept off the glass and Chicago also nailed ten treys in an 89-80 win.

Still, if Boston was taking care of what should have been the easy games, the ones in Chicago could be overlooked. Instead they went to Detroit and lost again, this time by 15 points. It was the backcourt this time, as the Celts turned it over 22 times, with Rondo and Pierce being primary culprits. Turnovers were a factor again in a loss at Dallas—not that they committed a ridiculous amount, but they didn’t force any and the Mavs’ 16-8 edge in this category was the biggest reason for their win. The absence of Rondo with a suspension and Garnett with a nagging injury didn’t help matters. And just before the All-Star break, Boston mailed one in from Oklahoma City losing 119-104, a game not nearly as respectable as the score makes it sound.

Garnett’s been on-again, off-again in his playing time during this stretch, missing both Detroit games along with the Dallas game. But this is where the depth issue comes into play. No one expects the Celtics to win Dallas without a core player, but a team capable of being top four in the East should be able to beat Detroit with Rondo, Pierce and Allen. If they have any depth on the frontline, that is. Boston doesn’t. And even when Garnett is available, while his rebounding is competitive, there’s no one to help.

If Ainge thinks Boston can still get the 6-spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, he should stand pat. If the Celtics do that, they have a chance to win a first-round series, and as much as Boston fans want more, the opportunity to be among the last four in your conference is a good enough prize that you don’t throw in the towel. If a contender wants to really overpay for one of the vets that’s one thing—Ray Allen could be the difference for Chicago in a series against Miami for example. Garnett would be huge in a place like Dallas. If they offer a competitive player with a first-round pick, go for it. But don’t sell them off cheap if you think there’s a chance to win.

March 7 is circled as the evaluation date for TheSportsNotebook. Between now and then, the Celtics play at Cleveland and then host Milwaukee, the two teams in their rearview mirror for the last playoff spot. Then they go to New Jersey and this coming Sunday it’s an ABC game at home with surging New York. On March 6, Kevin McHale makes a homecoming when he brings in the surprising Houston Rockets. Then on the 7th a road trip to Philadelphia starts a more difficult stretch. If you don’t think you can get in the top six and win a playoff series by that point, then make a deal. Otherwise, go for it. By coincidence, I also put 3/7 in as a key date for the 76ers, making next week crunch time for the Atlantic Division.