The All-Star game is over and the Jabberwockeez have gone back to wherever it is Jaberwockeez hang out. Phoenix is starting over, Orlando is hurting, the Los Angeles Lakers are thriving and the Celtics and Cleveland are locked in a sprint to finish the 82-game marathon in first place.
Boston’s season is two-thirds over and it’s almost time to start seriously thinking about preparing for the postseason. But before they get there, five questions need to be answered in the remaining 27 games.
1. How important is homecourt, really?
The Celtics have said it over and over again this season: Having homecourt advantage in the playoffs last year was the difference between winning and losing a championship. Getting there this year will be much, much harder.
The Celtics enter the last third of the season with 44 wins and the best record in the league by percentage points against Cleveland and Los Angeles. As we pointed out two weeks ago, they have a much easier schedule than the Cavs or the Magic, the latter almost certain to drop off the pace without point guard Jameer Nelson. With 27 games left to play, how many wins will it take to get there?
Probably between 20 and 22, so the question for Doc Rivers becomes: Does he extend the Big 3’s minutes — particularly Kevin Garnett’s — beyond what he would like? Especially if it would mean the difference between playing Game 1 in Cleveland where the Cavs have lost exactly once, or in Los Angeles as the sandwich part of the dreaded 2-3-2 Finals format?
Garnett has averaged a little less than 33 minutes per game this season, the lowest mark of his career since his rookie year, and Rivers has admirably refused to mess with his KG rotation. He comes out at the two-minute mark of the first and third quarters, and comes back at around the six-minute mark of the second and fourth (give or take).
Rivers is slightly more liberal with both Ray Allen and Paul Pierce’s minutes. If Pierce was an NFL running back, he’d be Corey Dillon, a workhorse who gets better with more carries. Allen is probably the bigger concern. He went for 40 minutes or more in five straight games in January when Tony Allen was hurt, and that’s not a pattern Rivers wants to repeat.
Doc has mostly resisted the KC Jones 1986-87 nuclear option — namely, to play the starters until they drop, ut he has employed it judiciously (think the win in Toronto that got them back on track). With fewer back-to-backs and more time between games it’s certainly a card Rivers could, and probably should play.
2. Is Kevin Garnett slipping?
This has been mentioned in a couple of places, but in his 14th NBA season and at the age of 32, Garnett is slowly beginning to show signs of slowing down. Not huge glowing neon “Chris Webber in 2006-07” signs, mind you, but subtlely, Garnett’s numbers are down in two key areas.
The first is free-throw attempts, where he is averaging just 2.5 attempts, or exactly half his career average. The other number is offensive rebounds, and his offensive rebounding rate is the lowest of his career. Those two numbers are interesting but here is the key one. According to 82games.com, Garnett is taking almost 72 percent of his shots from the outside — swingman numbers.
So, by hanging around the nail instead of the post, KG has finally completed his transformation from an upper middle class version of Hakeem Olajuwon to a full-time version of Bob McAdoo. There are good and valid statistical and schematic reasons for Garnett’s penchant for playing on the perimeter, but is his game getting too stilted to the outside?
To begin, the Celtics are not an inside-out, post-up team. Pierce and Rajon Rondo are great at slashing to the basket, and a big man hugging the low post just complicates matters. Also, the whole getting back on defense thing is easier when you’re not battling for tips under the offensive glass.
Plus, Garnett is a very good shooter from the outside, and it’s not like he never sees the low post. He and Rajon Rondo have made great use of the give-and-go/alley-oop game from that position. He also still has that mini Dream Shake turnaround jumper, off the glass move.
Finally, there is the question of how much do you want to ride Garnett in the regular season? It seems likely that Garnett will spend more time in the paint once the playoffs begin and the games become grind-it-out affairs, but this is the player he is now.
3. Has Rajon Rondo finally developed a jump shot?
Anecdotally, it sure seems like Rondo has been knocking down jumpers with more confidence and more regularity. As it turns out, not so much.
Rondo is still shooting about the same from the perimeter as he has all season, but there has been a shift. In the month of February, he raised his scoring and assists and significantly improved his rebounding. The only number that is sagging a bit is his field goal percentage, but the Celtics will take that in exchange for everything else.
One measure of how far Rondo has come is his play against the Lakers and the Mavs. Rondo very quietly put up 16 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds against that “box and nobody” defense the Lakers like to play against him with Kobe Bryant.
Rondo then had his absolute Fat Lever-like masterpiece against the Mavericks when he went for 19, 15 and 12 against Jason Kidd, a big guard who is still regarded as one of the better defenders at the position. He still has to do it consistently in the playoffs, of course, but it sure looks like Rondo has recovered from his mid-season slump.
You will notice that outside of staying healthy there are not many questions for the other starters. Pierce has firmly established his role as bail-out guy on offense and designated fourth-quarter killer, while Allen is continuing to have a phenomenally efficient season. Kendrick Perkins, meanwhile simply needs to keep the shoulder healthy, the fouls down and the low-post moves confident.
4. What will the bench rotation be?
As we sit on Feb. 16, the Celtics have 11 players who have contributed meaningful minutes, and one who hasn’t played a second but may be an important part of the playoff roster (or not).
The leaves out Patrick O’Bryant who is big man insurance and the two rookies, Bill Walker and JR Giddens, who are not likely to be ready to contribute at this point.
So, between Gabe Pruitt, Eddie House, Tony Allen, Leon Powe, Big Baby Davis, Brian Scalabrine and Sam Cassell, Rivers will need to settle on four primary reserves. With the exception of Cassell, all have had their moments this year and there’s no guarantee that the rotation at the beginning of the playoffs will be the same as the one at the end.
The only player who seems assured to have some kind of a role is Allen, whom Rivers is still talking up as a potential defensive stopper. “It hasn’t happened yet,” Rivers said a couple of week ago. “That’s on me. That’s my fault.”
It’s been a struggle for Allen to stay healthy and consistent as it has been for most of his career, but the Celtics still have faith in him, and he gives them a dimension of athleticism that they simply don’t have anywhere else on the roster (besides maybe Walker).
House will almost surely have a role, but which one? Backup point guard or designated bomber? The latter is the preferred choice, of course, but then who takes those minutes? Pruitt? Cassell? Tony Allen? There is no easy answer right now, but there are options.
Then there are the big men. Rivers would rather not play Powe and Davis together. Their skills just don’t compliment each other, and like the bench as a whole, both are a little undersized. What’s more, whenever Powe or Davis get the minutes, the other seems to respond and play better.
Scalabrine’s emergence as a floor stabilizer and defensive pest has made that possible. Provided he is over his concussions, Scal should be a bigger part of the playoff equation, and his presence also aided House’s mid-season 3-point barrage.
At this point a combination of House, Allen, Scalabrine and either Powe or Davis makes the most sense, but the bench has undergone numerous subtle shifts over the last month and a half and that is likely to continue through the spring.
5. Will there be a move?
This is the toughest one to answer, because no one really knows. It doesn’t seem likely that the Celtics will be much of a player at the trade deadline because they simply don’t have the contracts to get in the game.
But between Thursday’s deadline and March 1 when rosters need to be finalized for the playoffs all sorts of scenarios could take place. Does Stephon Marbury finally get bought out, for example? Does Joe Smith, if he’s not traded first? Or do they stand pat?
From a numbers perspective, the Celtics are very close to last year’s team, but the competition has improved dramatically, particularly in the Eastern Conference. Which brings us back to the original question about homecourt advantage. In what is shaping up to a series of epic playoff confrontations, homecourt would seem to be very big indeed.
Paul Flannery is a regular contributor for WEEI.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.