THE FIVE PACK: BACK TO REALITY

by Jeremy on January 23, 2009

By Jeremy Gottlieb

THE FIVE PACK: BACK TO REALITY

It feels good to know that everything has returned to normalcy in the Celtics’ universe. The high stress that accompanied the seven-out-of-nine losses stretch of a few weeks ago seems like a distant memory. Over the course of what is now a seven-game winning streak thanks to last night’s convincing win at fellow Eastern Conference big shot Orlando, the Celtics have found themselves offensively while displaying a similar brand of energy and intensity to what they featured at the start of the season. Fast starts followed by absolute beatdowns are the norm once more and with that let’s take a look at another bounty of five things that are going on with the C’s as they careen toward the All-Star break.

1. THE OFFENSE IS BACK

One of the most puzzling aspects of the slump was how much trouble the Celtics seemed to have on offense. Individually, pretty much everyone struggled, Paul Pierce notwithstanding. Rajon Rondo suffered through his first prolonged lousy stretch of the year and Ray Allen’s shot stopped falling. In losing seven of nine, the Celtics were averaging nearly 10 fewer points per game than during their 27-2 start. The schedule then did the team a favor, beginning with a home-and-home against Toronto, which was a playoff team and is now an injured-Jermaine O’Neal team (perhaps they could ask the {Pacers what the last three seasons of sub-standard Jermaine were like). The Raptors aren’t exactly the best defensive team in the league, to put it mildly, and Allen took advantage, drilling eight of 10 from deep and finishing with 36 in the streak-breaking win. Toronto hung in there in the rematch but the Celtics put up 115 points in the win and they were once again off to the races. Another home-and-home, this one against the mediocre Nets and featuring two hideous performances by Vince Carter, were when the confidence began to fester (a combined 52-point victory margin in the two games), which was good timing with teams like Phoenix, Miami and Orlando coming up. In running the streak to seven with wins in those three games, the Celtics are posting an average of over 105 points per game and getting what they want when they want it, thanks to more ball movement and less early-in-the-shot clock, one-on-one stuff. Rondo is again fearlessly making plays and even hitting some mid-range jumpers, Allen is shooting to his regular standards and Pierce is blistering. The Celtics have the capacity to endure slumps on offense by some of their guys, but not necessarily almost all of them at once. It’s a safe bet that won’t happen again.

2. THE BENCH IS A LITTLE BETTER

Three weeks ago, Doc Rivers turning to look down his bench was a cringe-inducing sight. It felt like each game brought an even more putrid performance from the reserves than the last. But coinciding with the winning upturn (and yet another injury to Tony Allen), has been some breakout games by the non-starters, Eddie House’s against Miami on Wednesday and Big Baby’s last night in Orlando, standing out the most. Scal, who looks more like the Pillsbury Dough Boy every time I see him, has even had some nice moments while logging starts at center in the absence of Perk last week. What a team gets out of its bench is always important but it is even more crucial for the Celtics because any lightening of the load for Pierce, Allen and Kevin Garnett is helpful. The game against the Magic last night had some moments of uncertainty down the stretch and even though it was ultimately Pierce and KG who sealed the win, it was Big Baby who provided a huge spark when Perk, who is still getting back in game shape after his brief absence, scoring 16 points in a 6-of-8 shooting performance that featured the full repertoire of low post moves and short to medium range jumpers. When House hit six 3-pointers in the second quarter against the Heat en route to finishing with 25 points, it afforded the team to breathe easy that Pierce had a rare off-night. It doesn’t matter if one guy can bring it off the pine every night (which is lucky for the streaky House), it matters that someone does, even if that someone is Bill Walker. Funny how there haven’t been any stories over the last couple weeks about whether P.J. Brown is planning to un-retire, eh?

3. WHITHER LEON POWE?

I guess I couldn’t possibly get through one of these without one little scrap of negativity, which leads us to Leon. I was sure that after his performance in the postseason last year that he would be further up the ladder in Doc’s rotation this year, playing more minutes and steadily improving his game even more. Instead, it’s been nothing but inconsistency for Leon, who has completely disappeared over the past week and seems to have regressed. Last night six and change minute, zero-point stinker was his second straight scoreless outing, a stat that alongside his microscopic rebounding numbers and lack of trips to the line of late looks worse than it should. Leon is by no means a go-to guy on offense – he’s out there to hustle, rebound bang into guys and get himself to the line off of second chances and that’s all. But when a player with such a narrow, defined role isn’t playing it properly, it sticks out. It may be the shifting of his minutes (he topped 16 once during the losing stretch, then played 22+ three time in the first five games of this win streak before playing six and eight-plus in the last two games) that’s got him fouled up or he may just be slumping, as all players do. But of all the people to have potentially been so consistently inconsistent on this roster, Leon was one of the furthest to come to mind.

4. DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS

During the winning streak, the Celtics have allowed an opponent to shoot better than 47 percent twice and once was against Phoenix, which trailed by 30 at halftime. Miami shot just 40 percent Wednesday and Orlando, one of the top offensive teams in the league, shot 38 percent and had leading All-Star vote getter Dwight Howard rendered virtually obsolete in the process, which prompted coach Stan Van Gundy to say, “We’ve had no ball movement because they’ve completely locked us up defensively,” during his in-game interview just before the fourth quarter. Naturally, how the Celtics perform when they have the ball is exceedingly important, but for them, it all starts on defense. They’re ability to exert their will against any opponent at any time last year was THE biggest reason they finished the regular season with the league’s best record. It was a given, both in the first 30 games of this year as well as all of last year, that the Celtics would guard physically and tenaciously and that ferocity was absent over the losing stretch. But since they started to win again, not only have the Celtics put up the stellar opponent’s field goal percentage numbers, they’ve allowed over 90 points once, against Toronto in the second game of the streak, which went to overtime. Their next three games are against Dallas, Sacramento and Detroit, none of which have had an easy time scoring this season, making the likelihood of another double-digit win streak even higher – provided that defensive intensity stays put.

5. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

In the end, it doesn’t mean much. Like we said two weeks ago as every “expert” who had spent the first six weeks of the season drooling over a sure repeat was bolting from the Celtics express with breakneck speed, nothing really matters until the playoffs. It would be ideal, of course, for the Celts to have home-court throughout the tournament again – as we saw last year, such an advantage is absolutely huge – meaning that they can’t afford another bump like the last one if they want to stay ahead of Cleveland and Orlando in the standings. But if it happens, it happens. It isn’t possible to properly judge the product until the games really start to mean something. They are not as good as the 27-2 start or the current 7-0 run, nor are they as bad as they looked throughout the 2-7 stretch. They are a work in progress that will not be completed until the playoffs end for them. If they win it all again, then we’ll have a definitive answer.

{ 1 comment }

1 Narbz January 23, 2009 at 5:48 pm

My thoughts exactly. Wasted!

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