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On Christmas morning the Celtics dismantled the Brooklyn Nets with such ease that owner Mikhail Prokhorov fired head coach Avery Johnson. Not only did the Celtics play their most complete game of the season, but did so under testy road conditions.
The victory allowed Boston to keep their heads above .500 and gave fans hope for the remaining season. Now it looks like that was more false hope. The Celtics are on a four game losing streak—three on the road by 18 points or more, making last night’s 10 point loss at home to Memphis look like a nail biter.
These Celtics aren’t exactly soft, but they sure aren’t the blue collar defenders we have come to expect, and yet the offense is the same lumbering enigma it’s been the last few seasons. The Celtics are a team searching for identity, and wins.
The start to 2012-2013, at least in terms of wins and losses, has almost mirrored last year’s eventual charge to the Conference Finals. If the Celtics manage a win at home against the Pacers on Friday (far from given) they will sit at 15-17, good for ninth in the conference, exactly where they stood at the All-Star Break last year. However, as Sam Gardener of Fox Sports noted last week, the stats do not bear further comparison between the two slow starts.
Last year’s 15-17 Celtics went 24-10 over the second half of the season, but note the minuscule differences between those two stretches: Boston finished the year holding teams to 41.9 percent on field goals and 30.8 percent three point shots, both league lows. Before last season’s All Star break, Boston already ranked 2nd and 1st in each category. In the first half of the season Boston allowed 88.5 points per game on 41.8 percent shooting and during the second half they held opponents to 90.1 points per game on 42 percent. Defensively, the Celtics were masterful all year, and actually regressed slightly during the 24-10 streak.
The offensive numbers are the same, with Boston improving their field goal percentage by only 1 percent during the latter half of the year, emphasizing the fact that last year’s team had its offensive and defensive identities from the beginning.
This season, Boston is allowing 97.9 PPG, ranking in the bottom half of the league (almost 10 points more than last year). The Celtics have allowed 99 points or more in eight of their last eleven contests. The Christmas day win saw Boston allow fewer than 89 points for just the second time in December. The Kings, who average 97 points, scored 118 against Boston.
It’s safe to say this year’s slow start and last year’s have little in common. One thing is clear: if Boston doesn’t find their identity on defense, the only late season charge they will be making is to the lottery.
The Celtics are led by Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett in virtually every individual category. Outside of the big three, no one has carved out an identifiable role on this struggling Celtics club. Well, almost no one. After a career game of 16 points and 7 rebounds against Brooklyn (most coming in the second quarter to break the game open), Jared Sullinger averaged almost 9 points and 6 rebounds during the West Coast losing streak. Sullinger shot 60 percent during this stretch
Sullinger’s on court professionalism is matched by his insight: “[Pierce, Rondo and KG] draw so much attention and everybody leaves No. 7 alone, and so I just capitalize on that and try to find open spots,” Sullinger says of his recent success.
Doc Rivers is notorious for benching rookies for most of the season, so Sullinger’s 20 MPG is encouraging on its own. The fact that Sullinger is one of four players on the team who seems confident in his role is unbelievable.
Avery Bradley‘s return to action Wednesday night was highly anticipated by fans and teammates alike, despite Rivers repeatedly stating “Bradley is not the savior.” Bradley’s stat line was not impressive (-12 in plus/minus with 4 points and 1 steal) but he has not lost a step on defense.
“Relief,” Memphis point guard Mike Conley said of being defended by someone other than Bradley. “Like I could breathe a little bit.”
While Bradley is no savior, he can help the Celtics find the identity they have been sorely lacking. Perimeter defense has been a huge problem for Boston, which in turn increases the burden on Kevin Garnett. Bradley will often handle opposing point guards, alleviating some of the demands on Rondo as well.
The most important thing Bradley brings is consistency to the rotation. Bradley at starting shooting guard allows Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing when and in what position they will be entering the game on most nights.
No one enjoys watching their team “tank” a season to secure a top draft pick, and the Celtics have too much talent and pride to take that route, but as of now they are in an even worse position this season than last, and until Boston rediscovers their defensive identity, that’s where they’ll stay.
A challenging stretch against Eastern elites (Pacers, Hawks, Knicks) will give us a glimpse as to what effect Bradley and a confident Sullinger can have on the currently faceless Boston Celtics.