Saturday, March 31, 2012

Celtics Find First Place

With a 21 point victory over Kevin Love's Minnesota Timberwolves last night, the Boston Celtics (29-22) took over first place in the Atlantic division.  They took an eleven point lead and never looked back, cruising to a 100-79 win at the Target Center.  A resurgent Kevin Garnett led the way with 24 points, drilling 12 of 18 shots from the floor and grabbing ten rebounds.  The Captain Paul Pierce nearly matched the Big Ticket with 21 points and nine boards of his own, while Rajon Rondo facilitated with 17 assists. 

Entering the game Boston had been tied with the Philadelphia 76ers (now 28-23), who got creamed by the Wizards (12-39) in the nation's capitol last night despite an off night from John Wall (nine points on just 4-12 shooting).  Winning the division is critical for the Celtics because it represents the difference between the fourth and seventh seed.  If they can hold off Philly down the stretch, getting the four would probably match them up with either the Pacers or Hawks.  But if the C's falter and end up with the seventh seed, then they will face the Miami Heat and near-certain elimination in the first round.

For Boston's playoff run, it could be the difference between life and death, between a quick exit and a potential (albeit unlikely) championship.

2011-2012 has been an up and down season for the Celtics, marked by alternating winning and losing streaks. Their inconsistency is most likely the byproduct of their weak offense, which ranks 26th in the NBA in offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) with 100.7 and 27th in points per game with 91.6.  Despite having one of the quickest point guards around with Rajon Rondo manning the point, Boston's age has slowed them down and as a result the team ranks 20th in pace (90.4).  They key to their success, as always, is an elite defense.  Although it rated as one of the worst in the league at the beginning of the season, the stingy D has since returned to form and presently rates third in the league in both points allowed per game (90.2) and defensive rating, or points allowed per 100 possessions (99.2).

So with the Celtics clinging to first place in their division, let's take a quick look back and see how they got there:

-Boston opened the season by losing its first three games in four days (all on the road) to the Knicks, Heat, and Hornets. 
-The Celtics notched their first victory against Detroit on December 30th, and then proceeded to take a back-to-back against the lowly Wizards and crush the Nets by 19
-Then came the five game losing streak that triggered a strong reaction by the fans/media.  Trade rumors swirled, talking heads urged Danny Ainge to blow up the Big 3 and fans readied themselves for a disappointing season, even though Boston's defeats came at the hands of four excellent teams; the Pacers (twice), Mavericks, Bulls, and Thunder.  The young season was barely three weeks old, but the masses had seen enough.

Rajon Rondo can't watch as his aging teammates deteriorate around him
-Just when all hope seemed lost, the stumbling C's bounced back with three weeks of quality basketball during which they went 10-2, beating talented teams such as the Pacers, Knicks, Grizzlies, and Magic (twice).  Their run was even more impressive when you consider that Rondo missed over two weeks during this stretch,
-But after seemingly turning their season around, Boston slumped in the two weeks before the All-Star break, managing just one win against seven losses.  Their lone victory came against Chicago, but they suffered double digit losses to the Raptors, Pistons (twice), Mavs, and Thunder, as well as a crushing one point overtime loss to their archrivals, the Los Angeles Lakers.  They entered the All-Star break sitting at 15-17, and had just lost center Jermaine O'Neal (left wrist surgery) for the remainder of the season.  The lesson, as always, is never count on an O'Neal to be your starting center for any period of time.
-The Green looked refreshed after the week-long break when they started the second half with five consecutive wins, the last two of which were overtime thrillers against the Knicks and Rockets.  Then they got blown out by the Sixers on the road, losing by 32 points, but came back to Boston for their final friday night home game of the season and smoked the Blazers by 18 points.
-Follwing their hot streak, Boston embarked on an eight game road trip and went 4-4, beating the Clippers, Warriors, Hawks, and Bucks but losing to the Lakers, Kings, Nuggets, and Sixers.  All of the games except for the losses to the Kings and Sixers were decided by single digits.
-Since then the Celtics have been hot, taking four in a row over the Wizards, Bobcats, Jazz, and T-Wolves, winning by an average of 13 points per game over that span despite losing Ray Allen to a sore right ankle.  Garnett has stepped up and looked like the KG of old, dropping at least 20 points in four of his past five contests, and the always steady Pierce has reached that mark in six of his last seven.  Boston wrapped up March, their best month of the season, with a 12-5 record and seems to be clicking at the right time
KG was fired up last night as he led Boston over Minnesota
The bad news is that Mickael Pietrus, one of the few reliable options off the bench, is out indefinitely with a concussion and may not return until the postseason, leaving an already thin team even thinner as it faces a brutal schedule over the next four weeks.  Only four of their remaining fifteen games are against squads with sub .500 records, and they'll play the Spurs, Magic, Knicks, Pacers, 76ers, and Hawks (twice).  Eight of those games are on the road, where the Celtics have won only 44 percent of their games.  Most importantly, they have to face LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and the Miami Heat three more times starting tomorrow afternoon, and Boston has just one win against them in their last seven matchups including playoffs.  And although the Sixers have struggled mightily lately, going 8-14 since Valentine's Day, their schedule is much more forgiving in terms of opponents, with twice as many games against sub .500 teams.  The silver lining for Celtics fans is that Philadelphia has twice as many road games as home games from now on, and with a .434 winning percentage in away games they are even worse than Boston in that area. Hopefully all the traveling at the end of a tough season can help wear them down and spark losses against weaker teams.

Boston just needs to finish the year strong.  But since they're on a winning streak right now, the next losing streak could very well be lurking just around the corner...

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