The week that could destroy the Celtics

January 04, 2014 - 2:07 am

Gerald Wallace said what was on everyone’s mind: This week will make or break the Celtics.

“We’re going on a West Coast trip and playing some pretty good teams,” said Wallace after a third straight defeat, “and this could pretty much send us in the right direction as far as where we want to go in our season or it could kind of destroy our whole season.”

In a fortnight over the holidays, the Celtics lost six of seven games, the Atlantic Division lead and a playoff seed. And things stand to get worse. The Grinch had a better Christmas.

Starting Sunday, the Celtics play five games in seven nights against a quintet of teams with a combined .665 winning percentage: Thunder, Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors and Blazers. In other words, there’s a very real chance the C’s could be 13-25 when they return to Boston.

Once again, Brad Stevens said all the right things after the 95-92 loss to the Pelicans -- his team’s third one-possession defeat in the last seven games -- but even the Celtics coach admits the schedule doesn’t get any easier, even after they return from the West Coast.

Upon returning, the Celtics host the Rockets (22-13), the first-place Raptors and a Lakers team always game for the rivalry before another three-games-in-four-nights road trip. Considering the C’s currently have just two fewer losses than the Knicks and Magic, who share the league’s second-worst record, the season hangs in the balance this week.

“Guys are going to have to pull together to become as one on the road,” said Wallace. “We’re going to have some tough battles. We’re going to have some battles like we had tonight. The only thing is we’re going to be on the road, and we’ve got to find ways to win these games.”

After winning just once over a comparatively restful holiday break, the Celtics now must steal victories or face the possibility that Rajon Rondo’s return comes too late, which is why the All-Star point guard continues to encourage his team to hold the fort until he’s healthy.

"Sometimes, being on a young team, when you lose a lot of games in a row, you can get down on each other,” said Avery Bradley, “but we've been sticking together because our leader Rondo has been telling us it's fine. We've just got to continue to keep building as a team. That's our mindset. As long as we take steps forward every single game, we'll be fine."

Fine’s a funny word. If the Celtics keep fighting, as they have under Stevens, they will be fine. Fine for the future, but not fine for this season, and that’s just fine with most fans. Forget tanking for a moment. This, right now, is the ideal scenario for Danny Ainge. The Celtics have been competitive, even leading by 20 on a handful of nights, but they’re tumbling down the standings and Rondo’s return hasn’t yet breached the horizon.

It’s not as though we shouldn’t have seen this coming. This Celtics team’s biggest problem, as it was always going to be without one of the game’s great point guards, has been fourth-quarter execution, and that’s what matters most in the NBA, where amazing and holy-crap-it’s-the-fourth-quarter-we-better-start-thinking-about-winning-this-game happens.

The Celtics have played 19 crunch-time games (within five points in the final five minutes) and lost 12. Only a handful of teams are worse. They’ve been outscored by 25.3 points per 100 possessions in those situations. Only the Pistons are worse. The NBA tracks Player Impact Estimate (PIE), weighing a team’s statistical contribution in a given span, and the C’s only influence 28 percent of a game’s events in crunch time. Only the Magic are worse.

To put that in perspective, Rondo owned a PIE of 15 percent all by himself last season.

“It’s our team as a whole,” added Bradley. “Like I said, we’re a young team. We’re learning still every single game. We’ve just got to close games better, and we’re getting there. Every game’s close for us, so it shows that we’re making progress at least.”

But if progress doesn’t start turning into victories before Rondo returns, it might be too late.

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