Before this road trip from hell began, the feeling around the Celtics was that the next four games would tell a lot about who they are and where they are headed. They had played 19 of their 28 games at the Garden and hadn’t been on an extended trip since the first week of the season.
“Maybe sometimes the team needs a little road trip to get it together,” Paul Pierce said before their departure. “Maybe it’s the trip that we need.”
So much for that theory. Instead of coming together as a team, the Celtics came apart at the seams. They spent the trip dealing with injuries, Rajon Rondo’s suspension and Kevin Garnett’s leave of absence. They lost all four games by decisive margins and seemed to choose a different method each night.
They were pushed around by the Bulls, outworked by the Pistons, offensively-challenged against the Mavericks and finally, done in by their vaunted defense in a 119-104 loss to Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. It was the first time in 29 games that the Celtics allowed more than 100 points, but that’s what happens when you allow a team to score a rather incredible 72 points in the first half.
Other than the sobering reality that the Celtics are now two games under .500 and sitting dead last in the Eastern Conference playoff pool, there isn’t a whole lot that they can take from this trip. At no point did they have their top nine players available and they were often missing as many as three of their rotation players. Consider what team president Danny Ainge had to say last week on The Big Show.
“We've shown signs of playing very good basketball against very good teams periodically, but not consistently,” Ainge said. “Our team, as it is right now, is not a team that we feel like is a contending team the way we're playing. And they have to step it up. This road trip will be a very good test for us.”
Here’s the problem in two parts.
First: Playing without their freshly-minted All-Star point guard and three of their top four big men, the Celtics trailed by 27 points and allowed Oklahoma City to shoot 57 percent in the first half and make 8-of-12 3-pointers.
Second: Playing without their All-Star point guard and three of their top four big men, the Celtics cut 21 points off that deficit and held the Thunder to 42 percent shooting in the second half and 1-for-7 from behind the arc.
Somewhere in between lies their true ability, and while it’s not championship-caliber, it's also not nearly as bad as it’s been lately.
They were able to mount that comeback by playing their starters almost exclusively in the second half. Garnett looked fresh, scoring 23 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. Pierce had a Pierce-like 23-8-5 line, Ray Allen shot 50 percent for the first time in more than two weeks and Avery Bradley looked like a competent NBA point guard. (He also threw down on Kevin Durant in one of the highlight dunks of the season).
Contrary to prevailing pessimism, all hope is not lost for the Celtics to turn back into a reasonably solid basketball team. If, and it’s a huge if, they can get healthy. As they head into the All-Star break and what will undoubtedly be three weeks of constant trade rumors, here are three areas of focus:
Can Rondo and the Big Three get back on track?
The best stretch of the Celtics season coincided with the eight games Rondo missed with a wrist injury. When Rondo returned there was the inevitable transition that felt more than a little bit awkward.
His favorite target on the break was Chris Wilcox for the simple fact that Wilcox is one of the few players who can up with Rondo on the break. Pierce’s game seemed to suffer without the ball in his hands and they have not integrated Allen as seamlessly as they once did.
It’s too early to say that Rondo has outgrown his veteran teammates, but it’s not too early to say that their run is coming to an end. The key question -- maybe the only question -- that really matters for Ainge and the Celtics is whether they will go forward with Rondo or move in another direction.
Can the bench find some consistency?
This has been a constant problem and it reached unfathomable lows on Wednesday when the Thunder reserves outscored their Celtic counterparts, 27-4 in the first half. Not coincidentally, 23 points was the halftime margin as well.
The bench, frankly, is a mess. Marquis Daniels played five minutes on Wednesday and was a minus-17. Greg Stiemsma was a minus-12 in four minutes. They have been unable to run a functioning offense whenever Rondo is out of the game.
Bradley has played well with the starters and not so well with the mishmash collection of talent in the second unit. That’s not surprising. What has been surprising, and a major disappointment, is that Keyon Dooling has not been able to provide that long-sought answer at the backup point.
Brandon Bass and Mickael Pietrus have been solid. Wilcox, when he’s been able to play, has provided some athleticism for a team that desperately needs all it can get. Those three and Bradley make up a solid nine-man rotation and any contributions from JaJuan Johnson are welcome. The bench doesn’t have to be a difference-maker for this team to be successful, but it can’t be a liability.
Can Garnett continue at this pace?
He hasn’t received the attention that Rondo and Pierce have, but Garnett has very quietly put together a solid first half of the season. He’s missed only one game because of the injury and the much talked about 5-5-5 plan has actually proven quite successful.
Garnett is shooting 50 percent and at 19.6 he has the highest player efficiency rating on the team. With a week between games, Garnett scored 23 points and had 13 rebounds in 38 minutes of work and looked fresh. There’s life in those old bones, yet.
The problem, of course, is that Garnett won’t get a week between games and when he’s out of the lineup, the Celtics defense suffers. Their rebounding, weak to begin with, is practically non-existent. Managing Garnett to the finish line remains one of Doc Rivers’ top priorities.
After the All-Star break, the schedule goes from hectic to insane highlighted by a West Coast trip that will have them play eight games in 12 days. If Garnett is unable to play for any significant length of time, things could very ugly, very quickly.
This has been the season of discontent for the Celtics and the first half of the season was one they’d rather forget. If they’re going to turn it around, they’ll need more cohesive play from their starters, a more consistent bench and lots of injury luck. They may be at their low point, but the All-Star break couldn’t have come at a better time.