Put yourself back in October and try this scenario on for size:
Heading into the All-Star break, the Celtics will win 40 games and have the best record in the Eastern Conference. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen will play every game and Kevin Garnett will avoid catastrophic injury. Rajon Rondo will continue to develop, Kendrick Perkins will come back stronger — and maybe even better than ever than before — and Glen Davis will develop into a top sixth man.
But there are concerns heading into the second half of the season. The schedule lacks high-profile games, but is back-loaded and contains a number of back-to-backs. Due to injuries, the second unit has not developed any kind of consistency and their playoff rotation remains a mystery.
The Celtics have positioned themselves to make a strong postseason run, but there is more to do between now and April 16 when the playoffs begin. Here are five key questions that will be answered in the season’s unofficial second half following the All-Star break.
WILL THE CELTICS MAKE A MOVE?
Almost certainly. As late as early February, the Celtics looked like a team that would stand pat. They would wait for their injured players to return and get the same trade deadline-boost in talent without having to give up any assets.
That changed on Feb. 6 when Marquis Daniels crumpled to the floor in a scary incident that left him with a bruised spinal cord and important medical questions to answer about his long-term health.
Neither Daniels nor the Celtics know the full extent of his condition yet, and that is the first of many complicating factors in their decision-making. One thing is clear: The Celtics need help on the wing, especially a backup to play behind Paul Pierce. Daniels was that player and he may be again, but no one knows for sure yet.
The trade deadline is Feb. 24 and the Celtics are expected to be active. Whether they act is another matter. Once the deadline clears, several veteran players are expected to be bough out of their contracts including Troy Murphy and Rip Hamilton, two players the Celtics reportedly have their eye on.
If the Celtics add a veteran free agent someone would have to go from their 15-man roster. Team president Danny Ainge won’t touch his core players and he would rather not give up any of his younger assets either, but that’s the position he’s in with so much uncertainty swirling around Daniels.
One name who would make a ton of sense is Cleveland’s Anthony Parker. The 35-year-old veteran knows how to play and can still knock down open looks on the perimeter. He’s in the final year of a contract with a $2.85 million salary for the year. Because of the Celtics’ salary situation, it would take a combination of younger players and maybe a draft pick to acquire a player like Parker, who will certainly have interest around the league.
There are no easy solutions for Ainge at the deadline, but it’s hard to imagine the Celtics going forward with so much uncertainty.
CAN THEY STAY HEALTHY?
This is the biggest question of all. The Celtics have lost over 164 games due to injury this season, and as they head into the break they are waiting on Delonte West, Shaquille O’Neal, Semih Erden, Jermaine O’Neal and Daniels to recover from their ailments.
“Stay healthy,” Kevin Garnett said when asked about the second half of the season. “Healthy, healthy, healthy.”
West and Erden are expected to return soon after the break and they will provide valuable depth. Shaq is an unknown. His Achilles injury has lingered longer than everyone expected and Perkins has re-emerged as the starting center in his absence.
Jermaine O’Neal, on the other hand, is a huge X-factor. If he can come back from knee surgery and provide backup center minutes, he could have a huge impact on the second unit’s defense. Even in small doses, O’Neal was a difference-maker on the defensive end.
Their health dictates every other question they have and it’s paramount that Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Rondo stay relatively injury-free over the last two months.
HOW MUCH IS THE TOP SEED WORTH?
According to various respected forecasting models, the Heat remain the favorites to emerge from the pack and gain the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Either way, it won’t come easy for either team.
The Celtics have positioned themselves to get one of the top two seeds in the East, which would give them homecourt advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. While no one will catch San Antonio for the top overall seed, the Celtics also have one eye on the Lakers should the two meet again in the finals.
Homecourt is important and avoiding a second-round matchup with Chicago is another inducement to compete for the top spot. But, at what cost?
The Celtics go out west after the break and then return home for a two-week stretch of five games. That’s when it starts to get hard. From March 13-April 13, the Celtics will play 19 games in 31 days with six sets of back-to-backs, five of them on the road.
There are road games at San Antonio, Chicago and Miami and trips to New Orleans and Atlanta, as well, but the majority of the opposition will come from the vast NBA middle class.
It won’t be glamorous, but this will be the Celtics most arduous stretch of the schedule and will define just how important getting homecourt really is to them. Doc Rivers has maintained that there’s no reason to sit his veteran stars if they’re healthy and they have held up remarkably well during the season, especially Allen and Pierce.
But nothing, not even homecourt, is more important than health.
CAN THE SECOND UNIT DEVELOP?
As Rivers recently noted, the second unit he envisioned back in camp has not played a single minute together. The plan back then was to employ almost a platoon-style rotation with 10 players making up two distinct teams.
If it all comes together, Rivers would employ a second unit of West, Nate Robinson, Davis and Shaq with support coming from Von Wafer, Erden and possibly Jermaine O’Neal.
West holds the key because of his ability to handle the ball and run the team. That would allow Robinson to shift over into a scoring guard and provide a potentially nasty backcourt pressure defense.
The other issue is Shaq who will have to adjust to a reserve role. With 1,206 NBA games under his large belt, Shaq has come off the bench exactly nine times in his career. He has maintained that he will do whatever is asked of him, but it will still be an adjustment.
Davis is the other key figure in the bench’s development. He has had a breakthrough season as a sixth man who can score and play both frontcourt positions. Davis has struggled with his consistency at times, but he remains a potential game-changer every time he steps on the floor.
“Baby’s been pretty good,” Rivers said. “He’s had his ups and downs, but I would say far more ups. I’ve been very happy with Baby over the year.”
The talent is there, and so is the experience, for Rivers to develop a top-flight second unit, but the clock is working against him.
WILL RAJON RONDO BE READY?
One of the underlying subplots of this season has been Rivers willingness to experiment with Rajon Rondo to get his point guard ready for the playoffs.
Rivers has tried various things, including using Rondo at the end of games on final possessions, something he did only occasionally last season. It worked against Philadelphia when he hit Garnett with a gorgeous lob for the game-winner, and it didn’t earlier in the season when Rondo was left to launch a 20-footer against the Mavericks that badly missed the mark.
Additionally, Rivers has encouraged Rondo to take more long-range jump shots to tighten up opposing defenses and Rondo has made those shots at a career-best mark. He has also challenged him to get the free throw line, which has resulted in some encouraging signs such as a recent stretch when he made 19-of-23.
Other experiments have included posting up Rondo at the free throw line to force defenses to play him tight and using him and Robinson in the same backcourt with Rondo playing off the ball.
They know that Rondo will see even more specially designed defenses in the postseason. Few teams can play them effectively as the Lakers, but they will all try to some degree.
Rondo proved that he can take over a series last year in the playoffs. He may have to reach even greater heights if the Celtics are going to reach their ultimate goal.