What’s Wrong With The Boston Celtics?

The Boston Celtics play the New York Knicks tonight (8 PM ET, TNT) at a time when the Celtics are reeling. They’ve lost four in a row, and while they’ve got a three-game margin to make the playoffs, Boston is in eighth place and 2 ½ games back of Milwaukee of even getting to the seventh seed and avoiding Miami. When the Celtics tried to construct their team to beat the Heat in the playoffs, I don’t think they had the first round in mind as the meeting point. It’s hard to believe that Boston beat New York in Madison Square Garden just ten days ago and seemed to be getting it together. Let’s take a closer look at the Celts and see if there’s any hope for revival as the second half of their season begins at home tonight.

Since 2008, which constitutes this most recent era of success in the history of the NBA’s most illustrious franchise, Boston has been built around defense, with rebounding being the key weakness. That fundamental team profile still holds—the Celtics are mediocre offensively, good defensively and lousy on the boards. But the devil is in the details—while Boston’s #8 ranking in the NBA for defensive efficiency is certainly good, the Celtics were second a year ago. The defensive dropoff hasn’t been made up for on the offensive end or with better rebounding. The C’s are marginally better on offense and their bad rebounding has actually gotten a little worse.

Doc Rivers is working with a number of new players this year, from rookie Jared Sullinger to new veteran guard Jason Terry (who replaced Ray Allen), Jeff Green (back from a heart problem that kept him out last year) and Courtney Lee. It’s reasonable to speculate that defensive teamwork is something that’s taking time to develop and that the second half of the season will produce better. This optimistic outlook—which as a partisan C’s fan, I’m banking on—is furthered by the fact that guard Avery Bradley missed most of the first half, but has been back for the last ten games. Bradley is one of the few Celtics’ able to guard coast-to-coast. I think betting on even better Boston defense in the season’s second half is a logical bet.

But that still doesn’t solve the offensive problems. The Celtics have to be disappointed with the play of both Green and returning starter Brandon Bass at the forward position. Neither has stepped up with any kind of consistency. Sullinger hits the boards consistently, though he only plays 20 minutes a night. I think Rivers will have to commit more minutes to the rookie—at the very least his rebounding enables Boston to close out good defensive positions. Without rebounding, the Celtics’ ability to close is about as bad as the Red Sox endured with their bullpen last April.

I haven’t mentioned any of the big-name players here, because I don’t think Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or Rajon Rondo are the problems. You can make a reasonable argument that Rondo needs to score more—he’s shooting well, at 48 percent from the floor, but only averaging 13 ppg. Certainly, ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, has been firm in his belief that Rondo has to take over. I don’t argue with this, but at the same time, Rondo is playing well enough for this team to get the 4-5 positions in the standings. If they get there and you want to talk about what it takes to beat Miami in the playoffs, then let’s talk about Rondo. But he’s not the reason they’re trailing Milwaukee.

Pierce is averaging 19 points a game, with Garnett at 15 points/7 rebounds. These averages come with the knowledge that the veterans have to pace themselves for the bigger regular season games coming up and especially for the playoffs. Rivers is correct in his assertion on yesterday’s ESPN talk show Pardon The Interruption that they can’t expect more from Garnett and Pierce. It’s up to others to step up—that can be Terry, who’s averaging 10 ppg right or it could be one of the underachieving forwards, or it could be a breakout from Sullinger. The latter is what I would take my chances on and upgrade the rookie’s minutes.

It’s hard to believe Boston has played themselves into this type of corner. The win over the Knicks on January 14—highlighted by a skirmish between Garnett and Carmelo Anthony—was the third in a six-game win streak that pushed the C’s record to 20-17 and gave them the look of a veteran team whose new players had gotten used to each other.

Then came a home loss to New Orleans, where the Hornets destroyed the Celtics on the boards and consequently got a big edge on the free throw line. New Orleans shot over 45 percent from the floor, a number that’s a pretty good threshold figure for judging intensity/effectiveness on the defensive end. The same could be said in an ensuing home loss to Chicago last Friday. No one in Boston likely noticed Sunday night’s loss in Detroit, as the city licked its wounds from the AFC Championship Game. Then a Tuesday night loss in Cleveland was followed up by Rivers’ making some pointed comments about changes needing to be made.

We don’t know if the coach meant personnel, playing time or was just scolding his team. We do know that when Rondo has been the leading rebounder the last two games and while you can give the aggressive little point guard all the credit in the world for his ability to chase down long rebounds, it’s clearly a problem if no one else is grabbing any more boards.

Tonight’s game marks the beginning of a very four-day stretch for Boston. They go to Atlanta on Friday, and then are back home on Sunday to play Miami (1 PM ET, ABC). It’s not unreasonable they could lose all three and be up on the wrong creek. Then on Super Bowl Sunday, the Los Angeles Clippers come to town. You pay a price when you lose games to teams like New Orleans, Cleveland and Detroit and now the Celtics face must-win situations against good teams.