The Boston Celtics are preparing for a bout with murderers’ row, a brutal thee-game stretch against the Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks, and L.A. Lakers.
With a two-game winning streak, the Celtics seem to have finally righted the ship. But the ups and downs the season has already brought beg a couple of questions: 1) What is the Celtics’ ceiling?, and 2) Will they ever reach that ceiling?
First, let’s examine what the Celtics’ ceiling is — the absolute best they could become. With a roster studded with stars at just about every position, the Celtics — when healthy and hungry — are as good on paper as any team in the league. They’ve even shown extended signs of being that good during this regular season, including an 11-game winning streak starting towards the end of November. Even after struggling with injuries that decimated almost half of their regular rotation, the C’s are still holding on to the Eastern Conference’s second seed. With the depths of their recent struggles, to still be seeded so highly shows a lot about how good Boston had been at the beginning of the season.
But even in the wins, there have been some alarming tendencies. Once known as a team that put the pedal to the metal, stomping other team’s throats, Boston has become a team that often lets teams hang around, winning with one or two good quarters rather than complete, full-game performances. People have compared the Celtics to the Detroit Pistons of a few years ago, another team that thought it’s on-off switch would be enough to conquer any opponent. For the most part, the Celtics have been able to turn the switch on often enough to beat a lot of teams. But those wins leave us fans, and Doc Rivers I’m sure, wishing Boston would finally put 48 minutes of effort into a game.
Boston has stretches where they look almost unbeatable, but those stretches remain too short and inconsistent. But will that be a fatal flaw, or merely an obstacle the Celtics will have to overcome to reach their full potential?
Right now, I’m erring on the side of just an obstacle the C’s will be able to pass. Why, you ask, despite approximately half a season of evidence to support Boston’s inability to play hard for a full game at a time?
Because the Celtics are a veteran team that isn’t focused on seeding for the postseason; they just want to be ready to peak come playoff time. They haven’t been healthy – all at once – yet, and should improve once (if) they are. Plus, how can a Garnett-led team continue to play with such spotty intensity for an entire season? Could that actually happen? I hope not, and I don’t think so.
If they can ever get to the point where they bring focus every minute of every game, Boston could be very, very good. They could be improved even on the 2008 version that won 66 games and an NBA championship. Why? The bench.
The bench, you say? But the C’s bench has been outscored by 71 points over the last ten games. It’s been outscored a lot lately, and sometimes in embarrassing fashion. Yes, I will grant you that. But I will also say that injuries have depleted the bench, leaving it without their best playmaker (Marquis Daniels) and often without at least one of the C’s top four big men. On top of injuries, the bench has seen some atypical cold shooting from Eddie House and Rasheed Wallace. What looks right now like a mediocre bench has the talent to be a real difference-maker as the year progresses.
Daniels’ return should help free up the shooters and give them opportunities for better shots. Say what you want about Rasheed Wallace, but to bring a guy off the bench who can impact a game on both ends is a weapon. And to bring Glen Davis off the bench as the fourth big man? A player who averaged 15 points and 6 rebounds per game in last season’s playoffs? That’s almost unfair. Plus, even Tony Allen has contributed some great things.
Once Marquis Daniels gets accustomed to playing again, the C’s second unit could be big, versatile, and scary. Combine that with a starting five that’s possibly the best in the NBA, and Boston’s ceiling is higher than maybe any other team’s in the Association.
Now, will they ever reach that ceiling?
This question is more difficult. With injuries and aging a constant threat, and effort also becoming an issue, it would seem Boston needs a lot of luck and a change in attitude to reach that ceiling.
It’s likely they never will. Unless they can get their entire rotation together for an extended period of time, the Celtics will never gel as great teams do. While this season’s roster is probably more talented than that of 2008, the latter version of the C’s was entirely committed to destroying teams on the way to an NBA title.
Whether it’s because age, injuries, or a lack of cohesion and effort, this year’s edition has never had the same will to steamroll opponents. It hasn’t had the same mindset of dominating and leaving a wake of blown-out, inferior teams behind it.
Could that come along later in the season? Of course.
But, with an injury problem that seems like it may never end and a team seemingly fully intent on coasting, I wouldn’t bet my house that the Celtics will ever stop underachieving.
They are talented enough to make a deep run into the postseason even without ever fulfilling their potential, but it will take health and some attitude changes to make the Celtics as good as they can possibly become.