THE FIVE-PACK – HOME STRETCH EDITION
by Jeremy Gottlieb
There, now that’s more like it, eh? A nice, tidy, four-game winning streak and with 72 games down and 10 to go, the Celtics seem to have returned to their happy place, or at least something that resembles it. KG is back, Ray Allen shook off his tender elbow and is still shooting lights out, Stephon Marbury has yet to take a blowtorch to the locker room and Tony Allen is still a ways away from returning. It would seem that entering the regular season’s home stretch, the Celtics are right about (or near) where they need to be. And with a crucial, playoff-esque showdown with Orlando on the schedule for tonight and the postseason just three weeks away, what better reason is there to examine the state of things for your defending World Champs? So with that in mind, let’s take a look at five issues at the forefront of the final days of the regular season.
1. THE SWAGGER IS BACK
All it took for the Celtics to at least slightly resemble their old selves was (HELLO!!!) the return of Garnett. When it was reported that he was on the team plane down to San Antonio last weekend, it was a foregone conclusion that he’d be getting some run against the Spurs – the guy can’t even sit on the bench at home games when he’s out due to his competitiveness so how much sense would it make for him to fly to Texas only to stay at the hotel? Anyway, even though he only played a handful of minutes (and will apparently continue to do so for at least a few more games), his mere presence made the Celtics look like a different team than the one that had been staggering through the previous several games, mixing and matching lineups, displaying zero defensive intensity and generally looking lost. Sure, the Spurs were/are struggling without their sparkplug Manu Ginobili, but they still trotted old standbys Tim Duncan and Tony Parker out there to play at home against Garnett at half speed and Paul Pierce suffering through a dreadful shooting night and still lost (of course, it helped that they missed so many foul shots down the stretch). That win, coupled with the win against Miami last week propelled the Celts to two blowouts over doormats Memphis and the Clippers, no small feat considering that just weeks earlier, without Garnett, the Green either were beaten or made to sweat profusely by both. So, headed into tonight’s game, another winning streak has been borne and just at the right time. Even if KG only plays 20 minutes tonight, as he pretty much has for the last three games, those are 20 minutes in which the Celtics will be the better, more intense defensive team, will be more cohesive on offense and will be 20 minutes in which rookie Bill Walker and foul machine Mikki Moore don’t have to be out there as much. That gives the Celtics the edge, even in Dwight Howard’s house.
2. PIERCE IS STILL THE MAN
Since Garnett’s return, Pierce is 8-29 for 24 points. That’s three games worth of stats. In the final game prior to KG coming back, a thrilling overtime win over Miami in which Pierce was forced to completely take over in the fourth quarter and OT despite the fact that the Heat were playing without MVP candidate Dwayne Wade, he scored 36 points on 14-23 shooting. It should also be mentioned that in the St. Patrick’s Day game at Chicago (you know, the one in which the Bulls inexplicably wore green), which just so happened to be the night before the Miami win, Pierce went for 37, again hoisting a slew of shots just so his team would have a chance. The point to all of this, of course, is that he expended so much energy in those two games (with Ray Allen hurt against the Bulls and out against the Heat) that he’s stepped on the brakes somewhat since then. There is no need to be alarmed, however. He did go 3-16 in the San Antonio game, but took six and seven shots respectively against Memphis and the Clippers, both blowout wins. With the Celtics nearly at full-strength (the only key contributor missing is Leon Powe), Pierce can afford to kick back a bit when the situation deems fit, especially against powder puffs like the Grizz and Clip joint. There has been not a whisper about any kind of injury, he’s simply a bit spent, as coach Doc Rivers confirmed after Monday night’s contest. This is completely understandable given the hits the Celtics have taken since the all-star break. It seems like everyone except Pierce has missed at least some time over the past month and that, combined with mixing in the new guys who are trying to learn the system without actually practicing it, has put an onus back on the captain’s shoulders not seen in these parts since Al Jefferson/Ryan Gomes days. Pierce will be fine. He is fine. It’s only a matter of time before he explodes in the final quarter of a close game and leads the team to a win again. It may even happen tonight. You can count on it.
3. THE BENCH? STILL???
Is anyone else starting to get bored with seeing the horrors that occur in almost every game around the beginning of the second quarter? That’s bench time, folks, and you know what that means. It means fasten your seatbelts. In the Miami game, with Eddie House, Marbury, Gabe Pruitt, Walker and Moore on the floor to start the second, everything went into complete vapor lock. A 15-point, first quarter lead was a two-point deficit within nine minutes and the Celtics would eventually be outscored 33-15 in the period. It was completely predictable that Rivers then left the starters in throughout the third quarter and Pierce and Rajon Rondo for the fourth. Then in the Clippers game, most of the same crew surrendered a 19-5 run in the second, this time allowing a 31-18 first quarter lead to be whittled to two at the half. One has to think that by the time the playoffs come around, having been here for nearly two months, that Marbury and Moore will have learned enough to be more consistent on both ends of the floor than they have been over the last three and a half weeks. Given that they both were needed to contribute immediately upon arrival thanks to all the injuries the team has suffered, it is completely reasonable that they’ve had their fair share of tough moments, but such things can’t happen in the postseason. It would be nice to see Moore make one rotation on defense without fouling someone; hopefully, it’s only a matter of time. The fact that he was signed means he must have something to offer, right? And now that Garnett is back and Big Baby has willed himself into a valuable weapon at both ends, the need for Walker – who it says here will be a very solid pro someday – to do anything more than clean up is gone. Still, the issues the Celtics have had all season with their reserves continue to linger and it’s getting awfully late.
4. SAINT STEPH
Um, yeah, so I was wrong on this one. So far. Actually, I take that last part back. I was wrong about what Marbury would bring to the team and I’m pretty happy about it. For all of the apparent insanity over the years, Marbury has never been dumb, which is why he must realize that this is his last chance. If he flips, as I incorrectly predicted he would, he’s gone right away and every other team in the league wonders, “If he can’t step into line there, how would he possibly step into line here?” It’s perfectly plausible to assume that he’s seething about being a reserve, averaging 17.6 minutes a game. But he has to know that making a big deal out of it, or shooting off his mouth, or pouting, could mean the end of him. And on the court, he’s shown flashes of his former, all-star self, enhancing the possibility that he could really be a big help in the playoffs. I hope it turns out that way. And then, when he signs a multi-year deal with Milwaukee or Memphis or Golden State in the offseason, he can do all the freaking out he wants.
5. HOME SWEET HOME
The Celtics don’t seem to outwardly care that they probably have no shot at home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. I’ve read several quotes from Rivers and some players unequivocally stating that it doesn’t matter where the games are played, they can win anywhere. Of course this is what you will hear and read, but do they really feel that way? Remember last season when no home court would have meant losing to Atlanta in the first round? Or to Cleveland in the second round? Of course, they figured it out by the time the Detroit series came around, winning twice at the Palace, including the clincher. And the huge comeback that turned the Finals came in L.A. But even with those wins under their belts and a 25-12 road record thus far this year, there is enough doubt to suggest that having to win a Game 7 in Cleveland instead of here won’t be so easy. Just the same, the Celtics would probably much rather not have to play an elimination game in Orlando either, lending more importance to tonight’s matchup, with only one game separating the two teams in the standings. Repeating as champs is hard enough. The Celtics will need every advantage they can get their hands on if they want to do it, the home court advantage the most important one.