Every team in the NBA goes through a stretch where it appears that all is hope is lost and whatever’s wrong can never be fixed. The problem the Celtics are having is that their stretch is happening on the eve of the playoffs instead of in the dead of winter. And while the Celtics of 2010 also limped down the stretch, this is a different team with different circumstances.
The level of concern has ranged from skepticism to outright panic, owing mostly to the fact that team president Danny Ainge shook up their well-established equilibrium with a series of trades that turned over a third of the roster.
Opinion on the trade – and there really is one worth considering, the deal that sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson away for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic – has gone from “Love the trade” after a five-game winning streak following the deal to, “This will haunt Danny forever” after going 5-7 in their last 12 games.
Either way the trade has lived on as all-too-convenient millstone in discussing the Celtics current problems. Most, although not all, of their struggles have nothing to do with the loss of Perkins. Rather, they are about the players on the court who have either underperformed or struggled through the transition. Putting all that on Perkins is giving him way more credit than he ever received while playing here.
While he is certainly missed as an interior defensive presence, the Celtics’ defense has remained good enough to win games on most nights.
When it hasn’t -- as in Monday’s loss to the Pacers where Roy Hibbert went wild and Darren Collison attacked the basket without fear -- Perkins’ absence is all too obvious. But that’s been the exception, not the rule.
The Celtics’ main problems lie on offense where they rate at about league average in efficiency (104.5 points per 100 possessions) and have been much worse than that over the last three weeks. Rajon Rondo’s struggles have been well-documented and perhaps his play against the Pacers when he went for 22 points and eight assists will get him back on the right track.
Aside from Rondo, the Celtics have some other issues to work through. Here are five of them:
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SHOOTING?
Back in January when the Celtics were burning through the cold winter months, shooting 50 percent as a team became something of an every-night occurrence. They scored in the paint and rained down long jumpers with equal effectiveness.
There was some question about whether those lofty percentages could sustain them. They shot very few 3-pointers, for example, and didn’t get to the free throw line as much as other teams. Add to that a high turnover-rate and an allergy to the offensive glass and the Celtics offense was functioning on one particular strength: their shooting, particularly on long jump shots.
Without a player who regularly creates offensive chances for himself, the Celtics rely on their ball movement, motion and Rondo’s penetration to set up their offense. Those things have been noticeably absent during their slide.
While they live on their defense, they still need the offense to perform at a respectable level and it hasn’t been close to that lately. (One area that has notably improved since the trade has been their ability to get the free throw line, which at times has been the only thing keeping them from completely collapsing.)
The player most prominently affected by this downturn has been Ray Allen who has been getting fewer shot attempts and has seen his shooting percentages tumble. Allen has especially been hurt from 3-point range where he is hitting on 36 percent of his attempts, down from his season-average of 45 percent.
He’s far from the only one. Paul Pierce’s problems from long range go back even further. Since February, he has attempted 101 3-point shots and made just 28 of them.
Pierce seems to be playing out of his funk and has averaged better than 21 points a game in his last five. Allen reportedly left the locker room in a huff after getting just 10 shots against the Pacers, the fourth straight game he has had 10 or less attempts.
This isn’t all on Rondo, but it’s pretty clear that they have a hard time functioning when he plays as poorly as he has. The team’s assist rate is down across the board and more and more players are either forced to create their own shot, or wind up forcing the issue.
Considering the amount of time the big four have played together over the years, this should be one area that can be fixed before the playoffs begin.
WHAT TO DO WITH NENAD KRSTIC?
Doc Rivers has labeled the problems Krstic has been having, “paralysis by over analysis” and Krstic himself noted that the Celtics are asking him to become a different player than what he was in Oklahoma City. The numbers bare that out. While he’s getting roughly the same amount of shots, he’s working in a totally different place.
With the Thunder, Krstic took over half his shot attempts from 16-23 feet, making him a classic pick and pop big man. With the Celtics, it’s been the complete opposite. He’s doubled his attempts inside, while cutting his amount of long 2 attempts in half.
Overall, Krstic has actually been quite solid. He’s shooting a higher percentage and rebounding at a higher rate than when he was in Oklahoma City, especially on the offensive glass. But over the last half-dozen games, Krstic has noticeably struggled. Without a legitimate backup center (read: the lack of O’Neals) to take some of the pressure off him, those struggles have been magnified.
The question for the Celtics is whether they want to continue working him in the post or incorporate some pick and pop plays for him with Rondo. That was never an option with Perkins who lived on put-backs and dunks. In theory, an offensive player like Krstic should be able to do this even better than Perkins with the added benefit of a legitimate post-up game.
Instead of adjusting for Krstic, the Celtics have kept their offensive hierarchy the same, which might have something to do with the ongoing wait for Shaquille O’Neal. In other words, why change part of the offense when you will only wind up changing it right back.
Krstic is far from a lost cause and in the right setting with the right help behind him, he can be an effective part of a big man playoff rotation.
HOW SHOULD THEY USE JEFF GREEN?
Jeff Green is a talented offensive player who offers a new dimension to the Celtics bench. He can create his own shot and is comfortable working in isolation on the high post. He has also shot the 3 well since coming to Boston. Green is basically the offensive version of James Posey, whose versatility came from his defense.
But where does he play and in what lineups? Rivers has used him as everything from a big guard to an undersized four and while he’s performed better offensively as a four, he’s had some problems there defensively.
According to 82games.com Green has worked effectively in a couple of different lineups with Garnett, but really struggled on the defensive end playing alongside Glen Davis. (Again: paging the O’Neals.)
On offense Green has had some terrific performances – dropping 10 points in 20 minutes against the Knicks and scoring nine in 19 against the Wolves – but he’s also had games where he’s had little impact.
A shortened rotation and a more defined role from series to series may help him in the playoffs, but right now they are still in the experimentation phase. Unlocking his potential will be an important part of the postseason run.
WHAT CAN JERMAINE O’NEAL GIVE THEM?
Before P.J. Brown became Playoff Folk Hero P.J. Brown, he played 18 regular season games and averaged 2.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 11 minutes a night. There were few people who considered him an important part of the postseason equation. Then Brown emerged as an invaluable reserve big man with an uncanny ability to make huge shots at just the right time and play tough, rugged defense.
Before Jermaine O’Neal shut things down because of his arching knee, he played 17 games and averaged 5.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 18 minutes a night. O’Neal is no savior, but becoming P.J. Brown Redux would be just a tick shy of the absolute best-case scenario for him and the Celtics. Just suiting up and playing would be more than most people thought he would be able to do after he elected to have knee surgery.
What he gives them – and for how long -- is anybody’s guess, but who thought he would have returned before Shaq? If he can provide 15-20 minutes of rebounding, shot blocking and interior defense, those worrisome points in the paint numbers will start to look a little better.
Relying on injured veteran players has always been the riskiest part of the Perkins trade, but until they return there’s no real way to fully judge the deal. Unless, of course, they don’t.
WHAT ABOUT THE SCHEDULE?
One of the biggest reasons for the Celtics’ struggles has been the matter of playing 12 games in 19 days. This part of the schedule was always going to be a problem for them, no matter who they had in their lineup.
There have been times when they have looked slow, old or disinterested and Rivers has responded by cutting minutes in spots for Pierce, Allen and Rondo. Garnett’s have remained constant as they have all season.
The Celtics are enjoying their first two-game break since early March, but things don’t get any easier. Beginning with Thursday’s matchup against the Spurs, they will finish the season with nine games in two weeks and three sets of back-to-backs, all on the road.
They have red-letter games with the Bulls and Heat remaining that will go a long way toward determining seeding and homecourt advantage. Courtesy of ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the team with homecourt has won their second round matchup 79 percent of the time since 1984 when the playoffs expanded.
Rivers has said all season that he doesn’t want to repeat last year’s postseason run that had them playing starting three series on the road. The fact that the Celtics are one of the 21 percent of the teams who have pulled it off has given pause to anyone who wants to write them off at this point.
How will the coach play it? There have been nights when he’s had no choice because of the lack of available bodies on the roster and the lack of contributions from players like Troy Murphy and Sasha Pavlovic.
Balancing the need to strategically rest his veterans with the very real benefit of getting at least the second seed is one of Rivers’ most important calls down the stretch.
Adding to the anxiety is that these are uncertain times for the Celtics. With several key pieces to assimilate and more injured players coming back, there may not be enough time to get a proper read on this team heading into the playoffs.
For now, simply playing a solid game from beginning to end would be a nice start.
(Statistical information was pulled from HoopData and basketball-reference.com)