The Celtics find themselves in a uniquely strange position this week. All around them, they watch as the Spurs and Magic fight for their playoff lives, and the Lakers look to find that elusive switch -- while also trying to turn off an electrified Chris Paul. The Bulls and Heat will join them soon in the second round, but not yet, as they still have more work to do.
The Celtics are free and living right these days, which is in direct contrast to the way they usually do things. Over the last four years, whenever they have found themselves at a crossroads, they seem to take the road most difficult. And while they have proven their toughness and mettle, a little time off is no doubt good for the mind, as well as their aging bodies.
When they return to work on Wednesday at their training center in Waltham, they won’t even know their next opponent, although you can be sure they’re already thinking about Miami who has a chance to close out its series with Philadelphia later that night.
The Celtics aren’t likely to play again until Sunday and they have the rare opportunity to get in long practices and work out a few left-over kinks from their opening round sweep against the Knicks.
Here are a few items on their to-do list:
STAY IN RHYTHM
It’s a funny thing about this veteran team. Rest is good, but too much rest can be trouble. The magic number in last year’s playoffs was two. Any more of a break between games produced some of the worst performances of the postseason. The Celtics were 1-3 last season when they had three or more days between games and with the exception of a Game 3 blowout win over Orlando in the conference finals, the results were sometimes frightening:
In the third game of their semifinal series with the Cavaliers, the Celtics came back to Boston full of expectations after stealing Game 2 on the road. They went out and lost by 29 points.
With almost a full week before the start of the NBA finals, the Celtics turned in a rough offensive performance -- 43 percent shooting, 1-for-10 from 3-point range -- in a loss to the Lakers.
This is a different team of course, but it speaks to how the Celtics play. They are a rhythm team, both offensively and defensively and they tend to lose the beat with too much time off between games.
It will be interesting to see how Celtics coach Doc Rivers lays out the agenda for the next three days. He has to keep them sharp, focused and injury-free.
It’s no secret that the Celtics biggest weakness against the Knicks was the play of their reserves. There were some glimmers of hope in Game 4 when Glen Davis, Jeff Green, Delonte West and Nenad Krstic delivered their best postseason performance by far.
Toward the end of the regular season Rivers noted that there simply wasn’t time for the second unit to develop any kind of consistency in terms of playing time. They have now had four games together and if the week off benefits anyone, it’s them. They have certainly been tested already, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Adversity is good,” Rivers said after Game 4 in New York. “We’re going to have it. It’s not an if. Be prepared for it. Embrace it. It’s a good thing. Enjoy the adversity and you find out who handles it well, who doesn’t. Even the ones who were not at times, you hang in there with them and eventually they’ll come through for you.”
Assuming the Celtics wind up playing Miami, no one will be tested more than Green, who will be tasked with helping Paul Pierce defend LeBron James as well as being the linchpin against several of the Heat’s position-less lineups.
This is an invaluable week of prep time for that crew.
REBOUNDING AND TURNOVERS
There are two statistics in the box score that often tell how the Celtics did in a given game: turnovers and defensive rebounds. The turnovers have long been their worst trait offensively, but the rebounds play an even bigger role.
By now everyone knows the drill: When they get stops, rebound and run that allows Rajon Rondo to break into the open floor and create transition baskets. “When we rebound and play defense the way we play we’re a tough team to beat,” Paul Pierce said.
In their late-season loss to Miami, Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony and Zydrunas Ilgauskus destroyed the Celtics on the offensive glass getting 13 offensive rebounds between them. Considering Miami missed only 37 shots, that was a recipe for disaster. The Celtics gave up 58 offensive rebounds in their series with New York, including an awful 20 in Game 2 that helped keep the score close.
Beating Miami will be difficult enough without allowing easy second-chance points to role players. Outside of Kevin Garnett, the Celtics big men really struggled on the defensive glass against the Knicks. They will need to tighten that up.
As for turnovers, Miami lives to turn them into easy points. Like second-chance points, the Celtics will be putting themselves at a tremendous disadvantage if their sloppy play leads to quick baskets at the other end of the floor.
Will he or won’t he, and does it matter if he does? The Celtics have insisted from the very beginning that Shaquille O’Neal will play whenever he is ready. There is no secret conspiracy to hold him out until an emergency arises.
While Miami lacks a notable center, the Celtics feel that O’Neal is just as valuable against teams that may be vulnerable inside. He’s a matchup weapon for them, not a counter.
Will he play? That’s another question entirely. Be prepared for daily updates on his condition whether there’s a change in his status or not. His injury, which stems from an Achilles strain that has lingered since early February, does not require surgery, but does require time. As long as there is any left on their schedule, Shaq remains a day-to-day possibility.
While we’re on the subject, don’t waste your time wondering if this is a distraction. This has been happening for the last two and a half months and for every O’Neal-related question, that’s one less about the bench, or the rebounding or whatever mini brushfire has to be extinguished that day.
The Celtics aren’t waiting for Shaq to save them and that’s a big difference between this situation and the Garnett chronicles during the 2009 playoffs.
As to whether they need him, as long as Jermaine O’Neal is able to play 20-25 minutes a night then, no, they don’t need him. Additionally, against Miami the Celtics can get away with playing Davis alongside the other four starters. But if he can play, he can absolutely help.
This is an important week for the Celtics. They’ve earned the right to sit back and let the playoffs come back to them. How they use this time may ultimately tell how the rest of the postseason plays out.