The Boston Celtics kick off the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the New York Knicks Saturday at 3pm. What can we expect?
The Big 3 era Celtics have always been a bit of a “box of chocolates” team when the playoffs roll around.
In 2008 they entered the playoffs as a juggernaut; winning 66 regular season games and posting a per-game point differential of +10.3. When the playoffs started, they struggled to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, needing the full seven games to dispatch both the Atlanta Hawks and Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. Of course, that first round series against the Hawks wasn’t as close as it seemed - it may have been the least competitive seven game series in NBA playoff history - the Celtics outscored the Hawks by 101 points in their 4 wins (including a 34 point drubbing in Game 7) while dropping 3 games by a total of 17 points. The Celtics finally rediscovered their Ubuntu in the Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons and eventually rolled to their 17th NBA Championship in the Finals against Los Angeles Lakers.
The following three seasons all seemed to follow a similar script. Fast, even dominating starts – they started the season 27-2 in 2009, 23-5 in 2010, and 23-4 in 2011 – that gave way to lack of depth and inconsistent, even indifferent play. The C’s were afterthoughts when those playoffs started, but managed to reestablish themselves as significant threats.
The 2009 and 2011 playoff runs ended in the Conference Semifinals – limited primarily because of injuries to Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. In 2010, the Celtics earned their identity as the prideful and ultra-competitive veteran squad that could never be counted out. They led by 13 points midway through the 3rd quarter of Game 7 at the Staples Center and were poised to earn their 18th NBA Championship before falling just short.
Last season proceeded very differently than the previous four. The Celtics struggled through the first half of the lockout-shortened season before Avery Bradley ascension into the starting lineup reenergized their defense. They closed out the season on a 24-10 run but entered the playoffs with a thin bench and with Avery Bradley and veterans Paul Pierce and Ray Allen significantly hampered by injury. They advanced to a Conference Final showdown with the Miami Heat after competitive series against the Hawks and the Philadelphia Sixers. At that point, most observers considered the Celtics fortunate to make it that far and expected them to be nothing more than a token obstacle to Lebron James’ first title.
The Celtics shocked the NBA world with their stirring performance against James and the Heat. They took a 3-2 series lead with a gritty Game 5 win in Miami and had a lead early in the 4th quarter of Game 7 before succumbing. That series cemented the reputation of the KG/Pierce/Rondo/Doc Rivers core as gamers that can be counted on to rise to the challenge of the playoffs.
Entering this season, the Celtics were the presumptive threat to Miami’s dominance of the East based largely on that reputation and the depth added by offseason acquisitions Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, and Jared Sullinger as well as the return of Bradley and Jeff Green from injury.
Then the season started and the best laid plans appeared to have gone awry.
Through nearly three months, the Celtics sat at 20-23 and it was impossible to get a read on who they were. They put together a couple of impressive wins against the Pacers and on the road against the Hawks and managed to run off a six game win streak. That run was presumed to be a glimpse of the future, but it was immediately followed with a six game losing streak including disheartening losses to the Hornets, Pistons and Cavaliers.
When Rondo tore his ACL during a double-OT loss to the Hawks a lost season seemed inevitable. After half a season of uneven, uninspired and underachieving performance and with the trade deadline rapidly approach, the loss of their floor leader (soon to be followed by season-ending injuries to Sullinger and reserve guard Leandro Barbosa) seemed insurmountable. Fans and media called for a tear-down effort, positing that with short-term success out of reach, trading Garnett and Pierce would improve the team’s fortunes in the long run. Some even suggested that it was time to end the Rajon Rondo era.
The next six weeks flipped the script.
The Celtics ran off 14 wins in the next 18 games. Veterans Pierce and Garnett put the team on their shoulders offensively and defensively. Bradley rounded into form after his return from offseason shoulder surgery. Previously disappointing complementary players like Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, and Jason Terry found their game when asked to shoulder a greater offensive load in Rondo’s absence. Most importantly, the team rediscovered their identity on the defensive end and established a new identity as an uptempo, unselfish, ball-moving machine on offense. Their new style of play reenergized Celtics nation and led even the harshest media critics to rethink their positions and give the Celtics at least a sliver of chance in the playoffs even without Rondo.
Over the final 20 games of the seasons, the team reverted to its earlier struggles going 7-13. In contrast to the sometimes inexplicable inconsistency and underachievement of November, December and January, the end of the season performance reflected three distinct characteristics:The attempt to evaluate and integrate several newcomers into the team framework - Terrence Williams, Jordan Crawford, Shavlik Randolph and DJ White all joined the team in the late February/early March time frame. Injuries to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Avery Bradley destabilized the rotation that had been established during the six-week stretch of great play. Team leadership resigned themselves to a lower-bracket seeding in favor of getting veteran players healthy and rested and experimenting with different lineups in preparation for the playoffs.
With the playoffs commencing tomorrow at 3pm in Madison Square Garden, which Celtics team can we expect to see?
Will it be the underachieving and inconsistent squad that stumbled through the first three months of the season as it tried to piece together the old and the new parts into a cohesive whole?
Will it be the tough-minded and exciting crew of February and early March that surprised the NBA by successfully integrating the championship-hardened core with the talented and athletic newcomers?
Will it be the injury-saddled and fragile team that struggled to the finish line and scrambled to find the most effective combinations of players before the real games started?
Here are four keys to look for that will go a long way towards answering that question.
The health of Kevin Garnett and his role in leading the defense
Simply put:The Celtics will not be a factor in the 2013 NBA Playoffs unless they consistently capable of exerting their will defensively in every series they play. The Celtics will not be capable of doing this unless Kevin Garnett is healthy and focused in his role as the defensive centerpiece.
In due deference to Avery Bradley’s impressive defensive capabilities and credentials, KG is still the focal point of the team defensively. His positioning, communication and intensity set the tone and create the beautiful “five guys on a string” mastery that marks the Celtics defense at its best.
This will be particularly critical in the first-round matchup with the Knicks. The team must be capable of bothering the Knicks spread, three-point shooting attack, while still successfully defending against Carmelo Anthony post-ups and ISOs.
The health of Paul Pierce and his role as the focal point of the offense
Offensively, the Celtics inspired midseason run was driven by a commitment to playing uptempo and sharing the ball. At the center of it, was Captain Paul Pierce. Pierce, as he so often does, recognized the importance of ‘giving the game what it needs’ in the absence of Rondo and took on a significant responsibility for facilitating the offense in the half-court.
Starting with the thrilling overtime victory over the Heat that kicked off the run, Pierce recorded three triple-doubles in Rondo’s absence. He still looked for his own offense but increased his assist numbers over the second half of the season and made a renewed commitment to rebounding. Injuries, games off due to rest, and an inconsistent rotation limited his ability to perform in that role over the 6 weeks of the season. Pierce will need to reestablish himself in that role, while also focusing on cutting down on turnovers, if the Celtics are to generate enough offense to be successful in the playoffs.
At least a couple of the complementary players having a reliable impact on both ends of the court
The most obvious candidate is Jeff Green. After Rondo’s injury, Green’s play improved dramatically and he turned in some impressive performances on both ends of the court. His scoring and rebounding steadily increased each month and his 3-point shooting percentage improved dramatically. He also began to display the type of defensive impact that the coaching staff has long claimed he was capable of.
He’s shown flashes of being the type of impact player that the Celtics will need alongside Pierce and Garnett:31 points with 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 blocks against Phoenix on February 22nd 43 points with 7 rebounds and 4 blocks against the Heat on March 18th 34 points on 19 shots with 4 blocks against Detroit on April 3rd.
Unfortunately, he’s also had more than his share of single digit scoring games and games with little impact outside the points column. If Green can provide a consistent two-way effort and impact throughout the playoffs it will make the Celtics a much more serious threat.
The next most likely candidate is third-year guard Avery Bradley. Bradley’s defensive impact is unquestioned. The Celtics have been the best in the league at guarding against the three since Bradley returned from his injury and his intensity and ball pressure at the point of attack are a huge part of the Celtics defense. Unfortunately his defensive impact is mitigated by his inability to consistently provide an offensive threat. The Celtics are limited enough offensively to begin with that they can’t afford to play 4-5 at that end for meaningful stretches. Bradley must be, at least, a token threat from the perimeter, especially since his effectiveness at a cutter has been hampered by the absence of Rondo’s court vision and passing.
Fellow reserve guards Courtney Lee and Jason Terry also have the opportunity to expand their games and have a big impact on the Celtics fortunes in the playoffs. Both have been wildly inconsistent throughout the year with Lee probably having the better overall regular season. Terry is a fundamentally limited player at this point. He’s best suited for making his unique offensive contributions as a pick-and-roll creator and clutch shooter in limited minutes and in specific situations. He needs to maximize his effectiveness in his role and in those situations to have a meaningful impact in the playoffs.
Lee has a better chance to have a more expansive impact on the Celtics playoff performance. He is a solid two-way player able to contribute in both the open floor and the half court. His ability to guard on the perimeter will be critical in the first-round matchup with the Knicks. The challenge for him, much like Jeff Green, is to get comfortable with being assertive about his own game while meshing with Pierce and Garnett. It will be interesting to see if Doc Rivers’ game plans include running some plays for Lee early in the game to get him established and in his comfort zone.
In the frontcourt, Brandon Bass has been an enigma for much of the season. Coming off a solid performance against the Heat in last year’s playoff, Bass seemed to be knocking on the door of the Celtics core. He demonstrated a deadly mid-range shot and sometimes surprising ability to get to the basket against bigger front-lines as well as being a willing, if limited defender. Through much of the season, he was unable to provide any type of consistent contribution and never really found a comfortable place in the rotation. Most surprisingly, his normally reliable mid-range shot disappeared for most of the season. While the team generally struggled down the stretch, Bass regained his shooting stroke (his FG% was 55% in March and 57% in April compared to low-mid 40% for most of the season) and may be poised to provide consistent level of play in the playoffs.
One member of the end of the bench crew stepping into the regular rotation
Even with all of the previously mentioned players playing at or near the top of their game, that still leaves the Celtics with a relatively thin seven-man rotation. If they are going to advance more than one round, someone else needs to step in as reliable contributor to the rotation, even for 10-15 minutes a game.
Preferably, this would be one of the reserve bigs. Chris Wilcox shows flashes and perhaps is still affected by the recovery from his offseason heart surgery. He has the body, skills, and athleticism to provide consistent contributions on the boards and for the interior defense but his focus and effort waver too often to be counted on.
Shavlik Randolph has shown the ability to contribute on the boards and defensively when given the opportunity but has had difficulty staying on the floor because of fouls. If he can limit his fouls and give the Celtics a reliable 15 minutes a game off the bench it will help their interior depth, particularly if they advance to face Indiana in the Conference Semifinals.
DJ White has shown much in his limited opportunities and would seem to be Ryan Hollins-esque measure of last resort.
In the backcourt, Jordan Crawford has shown an intriguing degree of assertiveness and creativity offensively and a willingness to play hard, albeit undisciplined at times, defense. He is probably the biggest wild card for the Celtics in the playoffs. He could potentially swing a game with a big offensive quarter or big play here or there, but his ability to provide a game in and game out contribution will be measured by his focus and willingness to stay on the same page with everyone else, especially Doc Rivers.
Terrence Williams has some interesting playmaking skills but it is hard to see a specific role for him in the rotation. Like White, if he’s called on, it’s likely because of an injury and that certainly wouldn’t bode well for the Celtics longevity in the playoffs.
All that’s left is to see how things play out Saturday. The Celtics probably need all four of these factors to play out favorably over the next couple of months if they want to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for another showdown with the Heat. If that happens, perhaps momentum and confidence will build to the point where they can seriously challenge or even beat the presumed favorites and get another shot at Banner #18.