Sunday, December 30, 2012

Celtics Sputtering

After dropping six of their past eight games, the Boston Celtics stumble into tonight's tilt in Sacramento with a 14-15 record.

The last few games have been downright ugly. After enjoying a big win in Brooklyn on Christmas Day, the Celtics flew out to California for a three game set but apparently left their A Game behind on the East Coast. On Thursday they were blown out of the Staples Center by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers. Boston mustered just 77 points, its lowest scoring output of the season, while allowing the Clips to pile up 106. Last night's tilt against the Golden State Warriors didn't go much better. Minus Rajon Rondo and Leandro Barbosa, the shorthanded C's managed 83 points against Golden State's much improved defense and lost by 18.

Why is Boston off to another sluggish start? How come the Celts aren't just losing, but losing badly (in two-thirds of their losses they were outscored by at least ten points)?

Well, they're old, but you knew that already. The simple answer is a lack of rebounding, especially on the offensive end. Boston ranks second-to-last in the Association in offensive rebounding and total rebounding, and routinely gets crushed on the boards. It's telling that Kevin Garnett leads the team in blocks and rebounds with 0.8 swats and 6.9 rebounds per game. The starting five has ample size with KG and Brandon Bass, but the second unit is woefully undersized (especially with Chris Wilcox sideline by a sprained thumb) and gets eaten alive by bigger, stronger teams.

The defense is still good but has been undermined by this lack of size as well. Last year the Celtics had the stingiest defense in the league, one that allowed the second fewest points per game and boasted the best Defensive Rating. So far this season the defense is letting up eight more points per game and ranks near the middle of the pack. I haven't been impressed by the interior defense, but fully expect the perimeter D to improve once defensive stalwart Avery Bradley returns from shoulder surgery.

The offense has been underwhelming as well, despite great starts from Rondo and Paul Pierce. Newcomers Jason Terry and Courtney Lee were expected to fill the void left by Ray Allen but have been disappointments so far. Neither one looks comfortable in their new digs yet. The Jet's usage rate is way down, from 23.3 percent last year to 17.5 percent this season, and his field goal attempts have dropped by one-third. He needs to look for his shot more and not be afraid to pull the trigger. As for Lee, he's struggled with his outside shot, converting fewer three-point attempts than ever before. Doc Rivers gave him a lot of run last night--a whopping 40 minutes--and he responded with 18 points. Hopefully that performance inspires confidence in Lee and gets him back on track.

It's still too early to panic. Last year Boston got off to a similarly sluggish start--15 wins and 17 losses--before turning it around and going 24-10 to close out the season. I expect the Celtics will start to gel soon enough once the newcomers settle in. This year's squad has been plagued by inconsistency and underperformance early on, but it's only a matter of time before it turns the corner, gets on a roll and plays like the team that came within one win of a Finals appearance last spring.  Danny Ainge would be wise to trade for another big man to bolster the frontcourt, but I don't believe a major shake-up is necessary.

Tonight, in their final game of 2012, the Celtics finish up their West Coast swing with a favorable matchup against the Kings. Look for the Green to end the year on a high note.

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