Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Don't Panic Celtics Fans

A week or two ago on Sportscenter, as the Boston Celtics scuffled out of the gate, ESPN analyst Jalen Rose was asked if he thought the C's were contenders in the NBA East.  Could they make another championship run, or had age finally caught up with them?

He froze for a second to gather his thoughts, to make sure that his response wouldn't create any controversy.  He wouldn't run the risk of stepping on any toes or hurting anybody's feelings.  Rose didn't want to offend anyone.

So once he had mapped out what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it, he answered that he thought the Green were a "dangerous team." Of course he did.  That's what he's supposed to say, isn't it?  In other words, they have ample talent and could go deep into the playoffs if everything breaks right, much like Dallas last year, but nobody is expecting them to hoist an eighteenth championship banner anytime soon.

So even though Rose took the easy way out by giving a neutral answer, he's right.  Despite their panic-inducing 4-8 start, they are still a very dangerous team as long as Paul Pierce, KG, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo can stay healthy.  That's simply too much talent for this team to continue playing at a 22-44 pace.  We knew the compressed schedule would adversely affect older teams, and the Celts definitely fall into that category.  And while the media and fans are freaking out about their record and their current five game losing streak, the longest of the new Big Three era, they forget that the majority of these defeats have been inflicted by great teams.  They've lost to the Heat, Bulls, Mavs, Pacers, Thunder, and Knicks (I know they're six and seven, but any team with Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler is a tough matchup), a formidable group that are a combined 57-25 heading into tonight's action.  They were close games, too, as five of their losses have been by single digit margins.  The only head-scratcher was a blowout 97-78 loss to the 3-10 Hornets on December 28, when Boston looked exhausted after a grueling game with the Heat the night before (and was still without Paul Pierce).  Otherwise, they've won the games they were supposed to win against the sub-.500 Wizards, Pistons, and Nets. 

But I'm not making any excuses at the end of the day; this Celtics squad is still a very flawed team.  The ship has leaks that could send it to the bottom of the Atlantic (Division) if they aren't plugged soon.  Strangely, Boston's once air-tight defense is ranked 21st in the league, but has never rated lower than fifth since the Big Three came together.  Age, Kevin Garnett's continued regression and the departure of Kendrick Perkins are the most likely culprits, but stellar defense is vital to the C's success because they just aren't good enough on offense to compensate.  They can't afford to be an average defensive team--they need to be elite--but I'm not sure that the level of commitment from the 2007-'08 season is still there. 

I am also concerned about the paper-thin bench, a collection of mediocre players (Sasha Pavlovic, Marquis Daniels, Avery Bradley) who aren't capable of holding the line while the starters take their breathers.  They flail on offense and can't make stops on defenseThis team lacks depth, and it's painfully obvious whenever somebody needs to take a night off.  The bench isn't completely useless, though; Brandon Bass fit right in, and Greg Stiemsma has been a pleasant surprise but is probably overachieving.  The unheralded addition of Mickael Pietrus is already paying dividends, too.  But they need swingman Jeff Green, still recuperating from heart surgery, to return to the court and provide the skills he displayed in Oklahoma City.  The current roster needs some repairs, and GM Danny Ainge will definitely do his best to bring in some reinforcements at the trading deadline. 

But that's two months away, and these Celtics are still finding their sea legs.  Pierce, their leader and most potent offensive weapon, missed the abbreviated preseason and is playing his way into game shape.  It's too early to start dangling his name as trade bait, especially since Boston likely won't receive full value in return.  I'm not too worried about their slow first quarters, either.  I think rust has more to do with them than anything else, and believe this trend will fade away as the season progresses and the players hit their stride.  Guys are still rounding into form, and I think we need to give this team another couple weeks before we can make concrete evaluations about where they are headed. 
Boston needs Rondo's youth, energy, and talent more than ever before
I say they'll finish a few games over .500, somewhere around 35-31 record-wise with a five or six seed.  Tonight they face the 4-10 Raptors, who will probably be without their best player Andrea Bargnani, at the Garden.  That sounds like a good place to start on the road to recovery.

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