THE FIVE-PACK: WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR
By Jeremy Gottlieb
13 games down, 15 percent of the schedule complete and the Celtics are right where we thought they would be: in first place.
But how good are they? Good enough to survive missing Kevin Garnett for a game? Yup. Good enough to continue to have Eddie House as their backup point guard? Perhaps. Good enough to continue to let inferior teams give them the early jump only to play five or so minutes of tough defense come the third quarter and/or rely in Paul Pierce to explode down the stretch and subsequently carry them? Um…
So with all that in mind and with another stretch of five games in eight days beginning tonight in Minneapolis, here are another five observations on the defending champs.
The Celtics are Targets
As the defending champions, the Celtics are getting each opponent’s best game. Teams like Milwaukee, Toronto and the Knicks, none of whom are going anywhere further than maybe the first round of the playoffs this season, have put big scares into Boston over the last couple of weeks. This, of course, is completely normal and completely predictable. And the Celtics have responded properly, taking their opponents best punches, then countering with enough power of their own to be left standing at the final whistle. But how long can they keep it up? Talent will get you far in the NBA, but not every night. And if the Celtics are faced with playoff-type intensity on the part of the opposition night in and night out from now until April, how fresh will they be when the really important games come around? Doc Rivers did a fine job managing the minutes of his Big Three last season and it paid off as the season and the postseason wore on. But with the opposition being tougher this year, will that minute management cost them? The schedule has already done them no favors (needing overtime to beat the Bucks playing without two of their best four players said as much about the Celtics being in their fifth game in seven days as it did about the talent or effort level), and neither will their opponents. It’s a situation that bears watching as the season progresses.
Does Gabe Pruitt totally stink?
I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows outside of the Celtics’ training facility. What I do know is that Eddie House is not a point guard. He wasn’t one last season, either. But Rivers continues to use him as one, bringing him off the bench as the chief backup to Rajon Rondo. This can create problems in that a) House can’t dribble which means that when the slightest amount of defensive pressure is put on him, he immediately becomes a liability, b) he can’t guard anyone, which means that the Celtics have to hide him on the defensive end, be it through a zone or a variety of switches or double teams, and c) he can’t invest his maximum energy in the reason he’s on the team in the first place, which is to provide instant offense via his jumper. The Celtics got around these problems last season, primarily because they were so far ahead so often that they could afford to play House out of position. But so far this year, things haven’t been quite as easy, which is why it’s time to see what Pruitt can do. House will still get his minutes, especially when the Celtics go small. But with Sam Cassell in mothballs while training to become a coach and with no other real point guard on the roster, now is the time to get Pruitt at least enough minutes to see if he deserves any more.
Tony Allen or no Tony Allen?
Before I go any further, I have to offer a disclaimer: I am not at all a Tony Allen fan. I don’t think that he is smart enough in a basketball sense to understand how to harness his ability either for the good of his team or himself; his major knee injury suffered while performing a showy dunk after the whistle had already blown during a stretch in which he was finally looking like he was beginning to get it in a game two years ago the most obvious, egregious example. That being said, he is a key to this team and it would be quite satisfying for him to prove me and other naysayers wrong about him. His performance in the 98-80 drubbing of Detroit last night certainly helped: 13 points on 6 of 7 shooting to go with six boards, three steals and a couple of blocks in a team-high 28 minutes. But the 13 points were two more than he had scored in the previous four games combined, while averaging just 14 minutes per game over that stretch – hardly inspiring totals. The team is also hoping/praying that he can pick up some of the defensive slack left with the departure of James Posey, but really, has he ever done anything to inspire confidence that he can at least make a top-shelf shooting guard or small forward earn his points during crunch time? The Celtics are going to need something both solid and consistent from Tony Allen at some point this year; at several points, actually, and the fact that they re-signed over the summer at least intimated that they have confidence in him to do so. But over four years into his career, the jury’s still out.
I’m Being Very, Very Nitpicky
Look, I’m well aware that everything discussed above is small potatoes. If anyone knows how to handle adverse circumstances from game to game, it’s the Celtics. If Gabe Pruitt gets banished to the D-League again, it probably won’t hurt the team. If Tony Allen remains a knucklehead, it will hurt, but not fatally. Such is life with the Celtics these days. They are 11-2 and have won 9 of 10. They are getting positive contributions from everyone in the lineup, even Scal. Leon Powe and Big Baby Davis continue to develop and look to be huge factors off the bench. Rajon Rondo still looks like he’s on the threshold of stardom. Ray Allen continues to appear fresh, Garnett is as intense and focused as ever and Pierce has shown several times already that he is unarguably one of the top 10 players in the league. Their success up to this point is not as pronounced as it was at this juncture last year because it’s no longer new and a championship can go a long way toward making a fan base feel relatively fat and happy. I probably could have written this four paragraphs ago, run a spell-check and filed this piece. But then, this wouldn’t be a five-pack, it would be a one-pack and what fun is that?
A Lot Can Happen in Four and a Half Months
It’s true. Important people can get hurt. Other teams can make acquisitions to improve themselves. Young, up and coming teams with hope (Portland, Atlanta, New Orleans, the Knicks) can get on a serious roll and really start believing in themselves. Older, washed-up looking teams (San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, Detroit) can realize it’s time to flip the switch and start looking their vintage selves. The Oklahoma City Thunder can break the double digit win barrier by season’s end if they get every break. The point is, making predictions at this point in the schedule is a fool’s paradise – there’s just too little time gone by and too many events that have yet to occur. All we can do now is observe and in observing the Celtics, one can’t help but feel that things are not only healthy, they’re going to get healthier.