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The Celtics finished the 2009-10 regular season 50-32. This season, they finished 56-26. The 2010 Celtics finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, beating the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic before losing in seven games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. The 2011 Celtics finished third, and will face the New York Knicks in the postseason starting Sunday.
Will these Celtics surpass the 2010 squad? Will they hang banner no. 18 next fall? Or will the Celtics’ weaknesses doom them? What even are those weaknesses? Perhaps if we clarify them, we can figure out how likely they are to derail Boston’s playoff run.
Last year, the Celtics’ .500-run after Christmas could be attributed to a conscious choice by Doc Rivers. The Big Three needed rest so they could be fresh in April, and Rivers’s reliance on the bench cost the team many late-game leads and games. But that strategy paid off, with a veteran squad healthy and rested for when it mattered.
The Celtics have not used the same strategy this year. Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have all averaged more minutes per game than they did last season. For the most part, this strategy has worked, as all three players have shot better, rebounded and scored more. It has even paid off on defense, with both Allen and Garnett stealing more often. This has directly led to the Celtics holding opponents to fewest points per game in the NBA.
The physical liabilities of last year’s team seem to have disappeared, even as the Celtics’ primary scoring apparatus has gotten a year older. So without physical issues to blame their struggles on (especially during their final 20 games, where they went 10-10), the issue must be mental.
Taken as a whole, the collective of teams that beat Boston during the regular season doesn’t seem so bad. The 21 teams (five of which beat the Celtics twice) combined to finish the season with a .506 winning percentage. On average, they finished better than eighth in their respective conferences. It would seem the Celtics mostly lost to around-.500 playoff teams.
But did they really? Don’t be so sure. Of their 26 losses, 11 were to sub-.500 teams. Seven of those games were against teams that finished in the bottom third of the NBA. Four of those losses came at the hands of the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats, who combined to go 57-107.
It seems the Celtics had a problem with bad teams this year. This was never more evident than on the second night of back-to-back games. Whereas on the first night they went 8-1 against sub.500 teams, on the second night they went 5-8. On the road against sub-.500 teams, they went 1-7. The Celtics handled their business on first nights (15-4), but could never match the intensity the next night (8-11). This suggests that the team would overplay game one, then be dead for game two.
Mental focus and pacing issues plagued the Celtics all season, but of all the problems a team could have, these are oddly not so bad. The Celtics will enjoy the extra time off between playoff games, and their competition will never slacken. The team will have to take their opponents seriously, and their own play will improve to match it. Who would you rather have the Celtics lose to: the teams they’ll see in the playoffs, or the teams they won’t?
Of course, losing twice to Chicago and once each to Miami and Orlando doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, either.
Many have argued the Feb. 24 deal that shipped Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City and brought in Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic hurt the team by killing its interior toughness. But the reality is that of all the current Celtics to start at center for this year, Krstic is just 0.1 rebounds per game behind leader Shaquille O’Neal. And while Perkins averaged 8.0 boards this year, much of that can be attributed to five 10-plus rebound games with the Thunder.
Krstic is not the best option to rebound, but this team’s best rebounder has always been Garnett, not Perkins, Krstic, O’Neal or anyone else. Come the playoffs, the main job of the centers will be to foul Orlando’s Dwight Howard until he loses all rhythm. The Celtics need bodies more than they need centers. Krstic is certainly good enough to do that.
Jeff Green, meanwhile, has done exactly what the Celtics hoped he would: give Pierce a break. Since Green joined the team, Pierce’s scoring has increased as his minutes have decreased. Both of these changes are relatively small (18.84 points per game to 18.99, 34.7 minutes per game to 34.5), but those couple extra breaks here and there may pay off in the postseason.
Pierce has the singular ability to carry an offense when no one else is contributing. Rajon Rondo may call the plays and run the floor, and Garnett may scream and curse, but Pierce is the true leader, the one who really makes it all go. Having him as fresh as possible will mean far more than whether the Celtics allow an extra rebound or fail to amp up for the competition.
When the team absitively, posilutely needs a basket, there is no substitute for the Truth.