When even the coach is admitting some Celtics may be mailing in the remaining five games, it’s hard to ask a serious question without receiving quips like, “Is it possible for them to go 0-6?” or “Can they sign Walter McCarty to a 10-day contract?”
Like it or not, the Celtics have to play out the final 10 days of the season, and there are a handful of reasons to still watch besides hoping they catch the Magic for the NBA’s third-worst record. (Although, those 37 extra ping-pong balls would be nice.)
If you’ve made it this far through a 23-54 season and you’re not a fan who leaves the building early, here are five things to watch as the Celtics close out the season against the Hawks, Bobcats, Cavaliers, 76ers and Wizards by April 16.
Will Jeff Green mail it in?
Or, rather, has Green already mailed it in? If he couldn’t get up for the most emotional game of the season -- Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett’s homecoming on Jan. 26 -- what should we expect when there’s nothing left to play for this season?
The first three games since the Bulls officially eliminated the C’s from playoff contention on the final day of March have not shown Green in the best light.
Even if Green’s game-to-game scoring statistics have been wildly inconsistent, his month-to-month numbers have been slightly steadier. (Although, he hasn’t shot 40 percent from the field since January.) But defense reflects effort, and the C’s defense with Green on the floor has been atrocious in recent months.
Before the All-Star break, Celtics lineups including Green played opponents to a standstill, and since then they’re being outscored by 12 points per 100 possessions. The C’s are allowing 124.6 points per 100 possessions with Green this month, and that number had steadily risen from 100.3 in November to 110.6 in March.
Green’s performance in Rajon Rondo’s absence offered a reminder that he’s no top-flight star, and his effort since Rondo’s return suggests he’s no second-tier talent, either. He’s now 27 years old, and both coaches in his Celtics tenure have openly discussed his inconsistency. Perhaps it’s time to accept he’s plateaued.
His contributions to the Thunder and last year’s Celtics suggest he can be the third- or fourth-best player on a playoff team, but the C’s don’t play for early exits. They desire championships, and titles require a will to compete. If a guy with Green’s talent lacks that gene, then what good is he as a building block for the future?
Has Brad Stevens lost his team?
Following their ugly home loss to the 76ers on Friday night, the coach conceded some Celtics might have already checked out for the final two weeks of the season.
“That may be the case,” said Stevens. “I hope that’s not the case. I said in there, 'I’m going to swing hard until 10 or 10:30 on April 16, our last game, and I want whoever’s going to swing [with me]. Let’s go. Let’s play. Let’s get after it.' ”
While the Boston Herald suggested Monday there have been “whispers” Stevens might return to the college ranks, there’s simply no way that’s happening anytime soon -- not after the six-year commitment Danny Ainge made to him this past July.
So, depending on which Celtics are tuning out Stevens, the lack of fight will have more bearing on their future than his. But it’ll be awfully hard for Stevens to develop a winning culture if he returns to camp with a bunch of players who quit on him.
Which Celtics are still swinging?
While Green can rest comfortably with two years and $18.9 million remaining on his contract, a handful of Celtics have something left to play for as individuals.
Phil Pressey, Chris Johnson and Chris Babb all are vying for roster spots next season, since their deals are not guaranteed beyond June 30. As a result, all have made a noticeable impact on the team’s energy level in their limited minutes.
In Rondo’s shadow, Pressey has improved throughout the season, averaging 9.1 assists, 7.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per 36 minutes since the All-Star Game. His scoring ability (38.4 TS%) seriously limits his potential, but he seems like the safest bet to stay with the Celtics next season as a backup point guard.
While Johnson played with a vengeance in his first 10-day contract, his numbers have come back to earth over the past two months. Still, he’s proved enough to show he belongs in the NBA, especially as an affordable wing on the end of the bench.
Babb’s future, though, is a bit murkier. Stevens lauded his defense as “outstanding,” but Babb must start knocking down shots if he wants to stick around.
Meanwhile, Jerryd Bayless and Kris Humphries are competing for their next NBA contracts as free agents come July 1. The Celtics may consider re-signing both, but at what cost? How each finishes the season could help determine that figure.
The C’s defense has struggled mightily with either Bayless or Humphries in the lineup since the All-Star Game, as it has for pretty much everyone at the top of the rotation. Still, Bayless is shooting 44 percent from 3 after the break, including a handful of 20-point performances in Avery Bradley’s absence, and Humphries has averaged 16.6 points and 10.3 boards per 36 minutes over that same stretch.
We’d be remiss without mentioning Brandon Bass in any conversation about effort this season. Quietly, he has submitted a consistent year in line with his past performance, and his workmanlike effort in the latter half of a lottery-bound season speaks volumes about his potential value as a building block or trade chip.
What becomes of the Rondo-Bradley combo?
As Bradley limps into restricted free agency, we may never know whether or not he and Rondo can recreate the backcourt duo that outscored opponents by 14.7 points while holding them to 88.0 per 100 possessions during the 2011-12 season. But maybe, just maybe, his return for these final five games can offer one final glimpse.
As Bradley mentioned in his ESPN.com diary, “The ankle I had hurt is feeling great. I’m going to be back on Wednesday. It’s important to be able to get back and play some more games with Rondo to build our chemistry. It’s amazing playing with him. We just understand how to play with one another.
“It’s been unfortunate that we haven’t played a lot of games together. But we still have that chemistry because we play so hard. We want to win every single game. We’ll do whatever it takes to win games. How hard we play is what makes our chemistry so good, that and our love for the game.”
The tandem’s inability to stay on the floor has been discussed at length. Rondo’s knee surgery and Bradley’s shoulder, ankle and Achilles injuries has limited them to roughly 250 minutes together each of the last two seasons. For perspective’s sake, Jason Terry and Courtney Lee totaled more minutes as a pair last year (648) than Rondo and Bradley combined the past two seasons (507).
While five games may not seem like a whole lot, another 100-150 minutes of sample size may help Ainge decide how much he’s willing to spend to keep Bradley.
Can Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk finish strong?
In terms of plus/minus, Jelly Sullynyk is the most impactful tandem on the roster this season. They are plus-103 in 535 minutes, and no other duo is within 30 points.
The starting frontcourt for much of the last six weeks -- Bass and Humphries -- has played 10 more minutes together and submitted a minus-129 rating. Stevens finally swapped Sullinger for Humphries in the starting lineup on Saturday, and maybe it’s time to start Olynyk alongside his fellow Rising Star for the first time since Nov. 22.
Sullinger has superior numbers as a starter, averaging 17.0 points and 11.2 boards per 36 minutes over 42 appearances. Likewise, Olynyk has averaged 17.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per 36 minutes since the All-Star break. The latter’s numbers are inflated by his production late in blowouts, but he’s the rare player that has the C’s outscoring opponents when he’s been on the floor since late February.
There’s nothing left to lose by pairing Sullinger and Olynyk as much as possible in the final 10 days. Unless, of course, by playing the two youngest Celtics together they start winning games. In which case, there’s everything left to lose.