The Boston Celtics stormed into the All-Star break by winning eight of their final nine games, an impressive mark that looks even better with the team's numerous injuries. All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo and bench-scoring spark plug Leandro Barbosa both tore their ACL, and rookie Jared Sullinger—arguably the team's best rebounder—saw his season cut short after undergoing back surgery.
As the Celtics head down the home stretch after the All-Star break, it'll be difficult for them to sustain that winning percentage in the long term. But for all the glaring weaknesses and hurdles standing in their way, here are five reasons why the Celtics can make a strong run heading into the playoffs.
Doc Rivers has a masterful basketball mind, and without his All-Star point guard dominating the ball, he's been forced to recreate Boston's offense.
Which is like "forcing" an Oscar-winning actor to perform without a mask.
Obviously, he's done a great job. Even though the Celtics' speed didn't climb above league average in the past nine games, they've still picked up the pace. Pushing the ball in transition, their point-guard-by-committee system that has allowed quick transition baskets from the likes of Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley and Jason Terry.
Their typical grind-it-out offense has ceded to one of quick pick-and-rolls (especially with Terry and more recently Bradley) and handoffs. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Green rarely go in isolation when they aren't afforded mismatches off a quick screen action, which allows the sort of fluid ball movement this subpar offense needs to score more points than the opponent.
Of all the two-man tandems Boston has put on the floor over the last 20 games, Jeff Green and Jason Terry are by far the most successful (minimum 300 minutes played).
When those two bench players share the court, the Celtics have a plus-7.7 point differential per 100 possessions and post an impressive 54.3 percent true shooting percentage, according to NBA.com.
Season-ending injuries to Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa have obviously hurt Boston's bench, but the ability of Green and Terry to thrive against opposing second units (and in close games alongside Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Avery Bradley/Courtney Lee) gives the team more flexibility and an obvious advantage against Eastern Conference rivals such as the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, who aren't known for having a strong bench.
Small ball isn't so much a revolutionary movement as it is a useful tactic to combat the league's elite teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat. Boston headed into the season with this philosophy, constructing a team that featured Kevin Garnett at center, Rajon Rondo at point guard and a list of similarly sized athletes falling in between.
As the season has gone on, the Celtics have experimented with small lineups but also larger ones, starting the likes of Jason Collins at center and moving Garnett to the 4. They've also dabbled with Garnett and Chris Wilcox on the floor at the same time and, before he hurt his back, Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass. But extracting numbers from what happens with the former two would be useless given the tiny sample size, and the latter pair is a moot point.
What isn't useless, though, is the recent Paul Pierce/Jeff Green tandem that has helped this team. In their last nine games, Pierce and Green have shared the court for 197 minutes.
In that time, the Celtics are scoring 106.2 points per 100 possessions and holding opponents to 86.5 points per 100 possessions for a ridiculous point differential of plus-19.7, according to NBA.com. On the defensive end, they're switching on pick-and-rolls while creating matchup nightmares on offense.
This pair has been effective, and it'll be interesting to see how much further they can grow together by the playoffs.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry have played—and been major contributors—in a combined six NBA Finals between them. Even though they're older than their immediate competition, the NBA has always been a league built on end-game execution, with experience being the one trait void of a price tag.
Teams with experience more times than not end up on top down the stretch of close fourth-quarter games, and the Celtics have as much (probably more) as anybody. They rarely, if ever, make crucial mistakes with the game on the line and know exactly how to execute their game plan on both ends of the court.
What they lack in talent, they make up for in understanding what it takes to win it all.
Yup, it's still dominant.
For all their struggles scoring the basketball, grabbing offensive rebounds, keeping other teams off the offensive glass and even transitioning back on defense, the Celtics remain as stout as anyone in the half court, rotating on cue to help, pressuring full court and on the perimeter and locking down the pick-and-roll as good as any team in the league.
For the season, Boston is allowing 99.2 points per 100 possessions. Only the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls are better. But in their last nine games (i.e., since Rondo went down) that number has been pacing the entire league at 92.7. With more of a demand on the backcourt to pick up its play the entire length of the court, Boston's defense has been a monstrosity for opposing offenses.
And there's very little reason to believe any of it will change as long as Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are on the court directing traffic. When those two play together (1,164 minutes this season) the Celtics have allowed just 96.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
Is that enough to win the title? Probably not given all the aforementioned questions, but it does make this team one nobody will want to face in a seven-game series.