The "Big 3" aren't done just yet.
A lackluster 13-13 start to the season might have some wondering about the direction of this Boston Celtics team. However, it would be unwise to dismiss a team that’s only a couple steps away from making another successful postseason run.
To sum it all up, the Celtics will be that team no one wants to face come playoff time.
While it may come off outlandish now, it was a thought that would not surprise anyone in October. Back then, Boston was a consensus top-five team in the league.
ESPN’s Marc Stein said it best during his preseason Power Rankings:
“Open to suggestions on who else you think we should tack onto the short list of teams capable of actually beating the Heat and winning the East. For the Celts to even be on the list—though they got undeniably deeper over the summer—everything has to go right.”
Move over, Mayans. Say hello to the new forecaster in town.
Everything had to go right for the Celtics to contend. So far, almost nothing has.
For starters, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were supposed to play fewer minutes. They would be used cautiously throughout the season, then let loose during the playoffs. That was the plan.
However, that has not been the case.
How will the Celtics finish this season?
While Garnett’s minutes per game have gone down this season—29.5 per game—they have only slightly decreased from the 31.1 per game he registered last season. To make matters worse, the number only seems to be increasing. Garnett has averaged 30.7 minutes per game in 10 contests this month.
On the other hand, Pierce’s usage has actually gone up.
After averaging 34.0 minutes per game last season, Pierce is currently clocking in at 34.5. Like Garnett, his minutes only seem to be on the rise. Pierce has averaged 37.7 minutes per game in the last eight outings.
Second, the team expected Courtney Lee to provide solid coverage for Avery Bradley, while he recovered from injury. An offseason acquisition, Lee certainly had the resume to accomplish the task.
Instead, through 26 games this season, Lee is averaging 6.4 points per game, while shooting 28.2 percent from three-point range. Not exactly the production you’d want from the successor to Ray Allen.
Finally, the re-signing of Chris Wilcox, the two first-round draft picks and the acquisition of Darko Milicic were all supposed to help Boston’s struggling interior presence.
Only one of those players will be suiting up in a Celtics uniform this week.
Draft pick Fab Melo has been assigned to the D-League, Milicic is no longer with the team and Wilcox is set to be out for a month with a thumb injury. That leaves Jared Sullinger to pick up the slack.
However, Sullinger’s 4.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in 17.1 minutes a night won’t be getting the job done anytime soon.
Boston ranks last in the league in rebounding, averaging 38.5 per game. They also rank No. 23 in the league in opponent points in the paint, allowing 42.9 points per game.
All in all, the Celtics have been quite disappointing thus far this season.
However, there are two reasons to believe that the Celtics shortcomings are only temporary.
The Big 3 Aren’t Finished Yet
Whoever told you that last season was the swan song for Boston’s Big Three provided you with some misinformation.
If anything, they’re playing at one of their highest levels yet.
Rajon Rondo is having a career year, averaging 13.5 points, 12.2 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. He currently leads point guards in each category except points.
The leadership Rondo has displayed this season has been second to none. It’s a large part of why the Celtics are 13-13 and not 5-21.
The most surprising aspect of the 26-year-old’s performance this season is the improvement of his jump shot.
Last season, Rondo shot 44.8 percent from the floor. This season, he’s increased that mark all the way to a career-high 51.2 percent. More specifically, after shooting 64-of-163 (39 percent) on mid-range jump shots last year, Rondo is currently shooting 46-of-87 (53 percent) from that range.
Now as a dual-threat, opponents will have to be more cautious when defending him.
Pierce too is having a sensational campaign, averaging 21.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He has not had higher numbers in each category since the 2006-07 season—the year before the arrival of Garnett and Allen.
Moreover, Pierce has been on fire in his last two games, averaging 37.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. He’s shot 26-of-39 (66.6 percent) from the field and 9-of-14 (64.3 percent) from downtown.
But, in the clutch is when Pierce really shines.
Pierce is a 39.1 percent shooter from three-point range. However, in the clutch—plays that occur during the fourth quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining and neither team ahead by more than five—that mark increases to 50.0 percent on 8-of-16 shooting. One only needs to refer to his game-tying long ball at the end of regulation against the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 21 as proof.
He is slowly putting together an All-Star caliber year for Boston.
While Garnett’s numbers are modest—15.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game—his efforts on the defensive side of the ball have certainly paid dividends.
With Garnett on the court, the Celtics are allowing 92.2 points per 100 possessions. At the same time, the team is scoring 101.1 points per 100 possessions. That gives Boston an 8.9 points per 100 possessions advantage over opponents.
Conversely, when Garnett is absent from the floor, the Celtics have allowed 112.1 points per 100 possessions, while scoring 101.2 points per possession. That’s a 10.9 points per 100 possessions disadvantage.
The impact of Garnett’s presence on the court is obvious.
They say success is contagious. With the way Boston’s Big Three are performing, it’s only a matter of time before the other members on the team finally join in.
The Promise of a New Beginning
Needless to say, Boston needs help at the guard position.
Enter Avery Bradley.
After suffering a shoulder injury in May, Bradley underwent surgery on both shoulders. He’s been sidelined ever since.
Initially, the 22-year-old was thought to make his return to the team after the New Year. However, head coach Doc Rivers has hinted that it might even be sooner.
“I think there’s a chance [he’ll play on the upcoming trip], but I don’t know what the chances are. I haven’t talked to anybody. The fact that he went through, again, today’s practice great … I don’t know, I just try to stay out of that. Because he’s close and I don’t want anyone feeling like I’m pressuring them—Avery or, more importantly, the doctors. Because Avery wants to play. I guarantee he wants to play the next game. But that’s something that I try to stay away from.”
In 28 games last season as the starting shooting guard, Bradley averaged 12.3 points per game with 50.4 percent shooting from the floor. He also shot 46.5 percent from three-point range.
On defense, his excellent perimeter defense would pay huge dividends for a team that currently allows 97.8 points per game to opponents.
While Boston could use his assistance now, expect the team to take a game-by-game approach with installing Bradley back onto the court.
Right now, his health is a lot more important.
Summing It All Up
The Celtics can take solace in the fact that they still have 56 games remaining to play.
That’s more than enough time to turn things around. There is more than enough time to make a run at winning the division and more than enough time to give the Miami Heat a battle for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Boston is far from out of the picture. Anyone who thinks otherwise might just want to keep a close eye on their diet from now on.
It might not be too long before they’re being served a nice hot plate of crow.
Stats used in this article were accurate as of December 23, 2012
Also check out: C's Must Roll Dice on Kenyon Martin
You can follow Sebastian on Twitter at @SP7988