“We look at it probably as a failure this year, not winning a championship,” – Rajon Rondo after the Celtics were eliminated in Miami.
You don’t build a team like the one the Celtics had this season to lose in the second round of the playoffs. This is not a developing team and there are no more playoff lessons for them to learn. This team was built to compete for a championship, and in the absence of one it didn’t meet expectations.
This was the fourth season in the big three era and team president Danny Ainge may be lining up a fifth depending on how the uncertain labor climate works itself out. In those four seasons, the Celtics have won a championship, made it to the seventh game of the finals and been eliminated twice in the second round. If the Heat close out Chicago, both of the Celtics second round losses will have been against a team that at least reached the NBA finals.
This hasn’t been a Bird-McHale like run and it’s not even a Cowens-Havlicek string of success, but it’s been a strong four years, ranking just behind the Lakers and their two championships in that span.
In the NBA there is often a steep learning curve for contenders (see the Bulls and Thunder), followed by a window of opportunity – some last longer than others – and then a slow and steady drop from contention. The Celtics are somewhere past the middle and are either on the way down or have enough left for one more fight.
Still, there were several positive developments for the Celtics this season, and as we take one last look back on the 2010-11 season we’ll review what went right and then look at what went wrong in Part II with an eye on next season.
First, what went right in 2010-11:
KEVIN GARNETT RETURNED TO FORM
The lasting image of Kevin Garnett from 2011 is of a man exhausted against the Heat. That’s unfortunate because Garnett’s regular season was a stirring reminder of just how good he can still be, as long as he’s not overextended.
That’s one of the key takeaways from Doc Rivers' final WEEI interview with Dennis & Callahan. “Instead of playing him two stints in a half, which is equal to 32 minutes, you have to play him five-minute increments to let him play with his pure power, give him a rest, bring him back in,” Rivers said. “I think substituting him that way will keep him fresher longer. I thought the longer minutes, even six, seven, eight minutes in a row, over the year caught up to him. So, I want to change that.”
Rivers kept Garnett on a strict minutes count during the regular season, rarely going over 32 minutes total and often bringing him in and subbing him out at the same intervals each night. That was good for 15 points and nine rebounds a night, numbers that look even better when you dig down further into possession statistics. Garnett finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting and had one of his most efficient seasons offensively, while missing just nine games because of injury. The regular season plan worked.
The post-season was a different story. Everyone’s minutes get extended in the playoffs, but Garnett played at least 37 minutes in each of the Celtics’ five games with Miami. After he played most of the second half in their Game 3 win, Rivers was concerned that it may have an affect on him for the rest of the series. He was right. Garnett was never the same in the final two games.
After almost 1,200 games and 44,000 minutes, Garnett has reached the point in his career where he has to be managed even more carefully. Even at a reduced rate, he’s still more valuable than most of the big men in the league and that’s a big reason why they feel they can go one more round.
RAY ALLEN AND PAUL PIERCE STAYED HEALTHY
This is the other reason why breaking up the big three is so hard: They’re still really good. Pierce had arguably the best season since Garnett and Allen joined the team and had a strong postseason (Game 1 ejection and Game 2 Achilles injury aside). Allen had his usual peaks and valleys, but finished with the highest field goal percentage of his career and was lights-out during the playoffs.
The key factor was health. The duo played in all of the first 80 games before sitting out the last two on Rivers’ orders. They each logged around 36 minutes a night and often went more in close games. “There’s more basketball in them,” as Ainge said, but how much more?
“Those vets aren’t regular vets,” Rondo said. “They do a great job of taking care of their body. They work the hardest on the ream as far as conditioning, I’m not worried about their health but it’s the [length] of the season.”
To that end the Celtics have begun formulating plans to reduce the wear and tear on Pierce and Allen. Whether it’s from Jeff Green or a to be determined free agent or trade acquisition, finding talent on the wing (particularly scoring talent) is one of Ainge’s top priorities in the offseason.
The big three – and Rondo – led them to contention, but more help is needed if they are to get back to the finals.
RAJON RONDO PLAYS THROUGH PAIN
It’s not a good thing that Rondo spent most of the season submerged in ice buckets and getting treatment, but it was probably inevitable that he would go through a season like the one he just experienced given the way he plays. Rondo dealt with a severely sprained ankle, plantar fasciitis and a painful hand injury. That was before his left elbow wound up somewhere near his shoulder after a nasty fall in Game 3. All of that may perversely serve as clear signal that he needs to develop other parts of his game.
His willingness to play in pain, while inspiring, is not an issue. He’s demonstrated that during his career. But his ability to come up with counters when he is not at his best physically remains the last piece of his development puzzle. Rondo’s game is built on speed and awareness. The latter part should ensure a long career filled with All-Star games, but the first part will eventually slow him down after all the injuries take their toll. Rondo even noted that it would be impossible to play at his trademark breakneck speed throughout an 82-game season.
He shot a solid 41 percent from 16-23 feet and took more attempts from that range than at any other point in his career. That’s a decent start, but he still needs to get his free throw shooting up to a respectable level and develop some kind of an in-between game that won’t make him rely on getting banged around under the basket.
While Rondo is letting his body heal, two of his contemporaries – Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook – are enduring their first playoff-levels of scrutiny. It’s a reminder that at 25 years of age, Rondo has already been through 12 playoff series and 73 postseason games. Assuming his injuries heal, this season may have been the one that leads Rondo to expand his game and prolong his career.
GLEN DAVIS FINDS HIS ROLE
In his fourth season, Glen Davis went from playing 18 minutes a night in a reserve role to logging starter’s minutes and often finishing games, while posting career highs in points and rebounds and finishing fourth in the Sixth Man of the Year voting.
That’s what made his disappearing act in the playoffs so inexplicable. Davis’ untimely demise wreaked havoc on Rivers’ rotations and forced him to play Garnett too many minutes. With their best reserve struggling, the Celtics also had little spark off their bench. Leads evaporated and deficits grew bigger. Davis wasn’t the only culprit, but he was the most important one.
Whether it was because he put on weight, forgot his role or let his impending free agency get into his head, Davis was, as he put it, “lost.” That doesn’t mean he can’t be found again. The Celtics aren’t closing the door on bringing him back, but their desire has certainly been tempered.
“I think there’s a lot of mistakes made on players who play well in a playoff series and players who play poorly in a playoff series,” Ainge said. “I’ve seen a lot of teams make mistakes made over the years based on that kind of performance.”
Davis may want a change of scenery but he may also find free agency to be as rough as when he entered the market as a restricted free agent after the 2009 season. No one knows what the new collective bargaining agreement rules will look like, but a stricter cap could prove damaging to midlevel free agents like Davis. If nothing else, he could be a sign-and-trade asset (again, depending on the new rules).
If this was it for Davis in a Celtics uniform, he may ultimately look back on 2011 as the season where he was put in the perfect role for his talents. He may also regret not fully embracing it.
THE DEFENSE DIDN’T REST
For all the hand-wringing over the trade deadline deal that sent Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City, the Celtics defense remained largely unaffected.
They finished second in field goal percentage defense, fifth in defending the 3-point line and gave up the fewest points in the league. In terms of efficiency, they finished mere percentage points behind Chicago in points allowed per 100 possessions.
This was something of a bounceback season for their team defense, especially without Tom Thibodeau on the sidelines. Assistant coach Lawrence Frank provided a relatively seamless transition and Garnett’s health had a lot to do with it, as well.
Defense remains their calling card and as they go into the 2011-12 season, it also remains their biggest strength.
BIGGEST WINS OF 2010-11
Dec. 15 at New York: The stage was set for a classic and the Celtics and Knicks delivered in what was arguably the NBA’s best regular season game. From Rondo returning after a severely sprained ankle to Pierce’s game-winner and finally culminating in Garnett’s vaudeville-like bow at center court, this was the Celtics captured in one perfect moment.
Jan. 5 vs. San Antonio: Unlike the Laker and Heat bloodfeuds, the Spurs offered nothing but great competition and what resulted was a gem. Allen made an astonishing 13-of-16 shots and iced the game with a corner 3 in front of the Spurs bench. In the early part of 2011, a Celtics-Spurs final held real promise, but now both teams are trying to stay relevant after early playoff exits.
Jan. 17 vs. Orlando: In Garnett’s return after missing nine games with a calf injury, he scored 19 points and made the defensive play of the game when he stripped Orlando’s Jameer Nelson at the end of regulation. The Celtics have had more battles with the Magic than any other team in the Eastern Conference over the last four years and this stood out as one of the best.
Jan. 30, at Los Angeles: The Celtics came into Staples Center beat up and drained after a dreadful loss to Phoenix that saw Rivers and Garnett both ejected. It was close for three quarters and then they took the Lakers apart in a fourth quarter dissection that stood as the high-water mark for the season.
Feb. 13 vs. Miami: The Celtics had nine players available – a common theme throughout the middle part of the season – and Rivers played Nate Robinson and Avery Bradley less than five minutes combined. With the Heat looking to finally get a win in Boston, the Celtics mucked it up as only they can in a game that featured two indelible Rondo moments: Guarding LeBron James fullcourt and getting shoved out of the Miami huddle by Dwyane Wade. As it turned out, this was the last great stand the Celtics made in 2011.