As the 2013 NBA season nears the playoffs, the Boston Celtics continue to roll despite absences to key players Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger. Fueled by team-oriented basketball, a 14-4 run has positioned Boston nicely in its campaign for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.
It seems wild to imagine that the Celtics have any shot at a postseason run. If you were told in December that Boston would finish the season without its floor general and only true point guard, you might have given up on the concept of even earning the No. 8 seed.
And if you were told that they would also lose a key big man in an already-deplorable rebounding frontcourt, you'd probably laugh at the notion they would finish the season above .500.
But this team has rallied, and continues to steamroll through its second-half schedule. Coach Doc Rivers and his passionate lineup definitely have grounds for optimism regarding their chances in May and June.
The following factors highlight the reasons Boston has yet another championship race in its proverbial engine.
Jason Terry may have started the season in rough shape, but he continues to emerge as part of the Celtics offense as the playoffs draw closer.
Terry's largest impact has been on threes, knocking down shots in the clutch with the veteran efficiency GM Danny Ainge knew he would offer. "Jet" has also built a strong rapport with the majority of the team, looking to pass much more often than he did two months ago.
Management and ownership were drawn to Terry because of his many years fueling Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. It may have taken time for the 35-year-old to adapt to this offense, but he seems to be in full stride now.
Terry's three with 35 seconds to go against Atlanta Friday night had the TD Garden in an absolute frenzy. He then got to the free-throw line the next possession, knocking down both shots in the clutch. That kind of momentum swing shows exactly why this fiery veteran caught Ainge's eye last offseason.
“That's what they brought me here for,” Terry told Comcast Sports New England after the game.
But while his 19 points (3-of-4 from three), five assists and four rebounds were great, Jet's defense proved equally important. He limited Kyle Korver's looks in the latter points of the contest, forcing sloppy passes into the interior when Atlanta needed a three the most.
“We are a defensive team,” Terry stated with pride. “That's our identity.”
When up-and-coming rookie big man Jared Sullinger's back surgery in late January cost him the season, most of Celtics Nation lost a great deal of hope. Boston already sat in the bottom-tier of rebounding squads in the league and seemed destined for failure without his size down low.
But after over a month of solid all-around play and largely improved efforts near the hoop, such trepidation has been minimized. Since Doc Rivers reportedly addressed concerns with Chris Wilcox's effort, the 10-year veteran has come up huge in the Celtics' second unit.
Wilcox blocks shots and disrupts opponents on one end and takes it strong on the other. He puts himself in good position at the mere smell of a rebound. His instinct and hands will continue to be huge for the Celtics in the long run.
More importantly, fellow power forward Brandon Bass, relatively underwhelming most of this season, has started to come out of his shell. He seems a bit more focused, even coming up with a couple big blocks on help defense and transition plays. His jump shot has also started to fall with more consistency, providing hope that he can grasp the confidence he exuded in last year's playoff run.
Another hope for Celtics fans involves newly-acquired power forward D.J. White, a player Boston has kept relatively silent outside of the practice court. Perhaps Ainge and Rivers want to wait until this brutal week concludes before they introduce him to the lineup.
Tough contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and Oklahoma City Thunder aren't exactly prime opportunities for newfound bench players. Fans can expect to see more of White in two upcoming matches versus the Charlotte Bobcats and a home game against the Toronto Raptors.
If White can mesh well with this Celtics frontcourt, which has already improved its defense and rebounding since the season began, bigger and better things await this squad. Boston will need to further utilize its veteran role players down low, especially if they hope to battle tough opponents like the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers in the playoffs.
Devoted Rondo fans have grown tired of arguments suggesting that the Celtics play better without him. But one thing is for sure—Boston has played its best team basketball of the season since his absence.
The Celtics have moved the ball up the court with passes, as opposed to dribbling coast-to-coast. They spread the floor, efficiently finding open shots. They continue to gain comfort as an entire unit, showing a collective willingness to do what it takes to succeed.
Many college-aged sports fans find any way possible to turn their favorite teams' contests into drinking games. But for students looking to limit their alcoholic intake during midterms, a reliable game would involve imbibing on any Boston possession that features less than three passes.
In addition to strong outlet passes, fast-break hustle and energetic pushes, the Celtics have been moving without the ball efficiently. Back-screens continue to open up wing players, and backdoor cuts prove beneficial to the interior players' points in the paint.
The Celtics still need to work on their tendency to get sloppy during second and third-quarter stretches. But with 20 regular season games remaining, they still have time to tighten their game before the playoffs.
Rivers must be ecstatic about the way his squad has meshed heading toward the postseason. On the whole, they move the ball much better than the 2012 team that nearly beat the Miami Heat in the seven-game Conference Finals.
Avery Bradley has absolutely caught fire as of late. He has not only shown the ability to shoulder the loss of Rondo, he's arguably made the team better.
AB goes nuts on defense, swarming opponents on the often self-imposed individual full-court press. He completely disrupts teams' rhythms on offensive sets. He steals the ball from players when they least expect it, sometimes even on in-bound passes.
Even scarier for potential playoff opponents, he now hits the boards with Rondo-like tenacity. Most notably, he kept the offensive rebound alive with 1:30 to go in overtime against the Atlanta Hawks, leading to a Paul Pierce go-ahead three.
Rounding out his significantly-improved game, Bradley has taken shots with supreme confidence. His stroke from medium to long range has become a reliable part of Boston's offense, both on the catch-and-shoot and the pull-up.
Since the All-Star break, he has averaged 12.2 points per game, almost four points higher than the rest of the season. He also improved his field goal percentage (40% to 49%) and three-point accuracy (30% to 35%). His rebound average has climbed from from 2.1 to 3.3, and he has doubled his assists per game to 3.1.
If he can develop his ball-handling on the drive, and slowly phase in penetration skills, Bradley can be a real menace in the playoffs.
Kevin Garnett does not like to be counted out. The proud Celtic who claims to “bleed green” recently told WEEI Boston reporter Ben Rohrbach that the media's tiring “pathetic articles” and “lousy analysis” lit a fire under the team.
“We're not looking for any hand-outs or sympathies,” KG said when asked about Boston's ability to overcome adversity. “We're giving ourselves a chance every night—leaning on each other, playing together.”
But much of the roster has leaned on Garnett, who continually distinguishes himself as one of the most competitive players alive. His offensive determination, defensive fire and rebounding tenacity still make him a feared opponent in the NBA.
And new teammate Jordan Crawford knows all about Garnett's tough-as-nails demeanor. During a pick-up game in 2011, KG slapped the young guard in the face for talking too much smack.
Crawford, who calls KG a “bizarre” person to play with, says his teammate gets in the zone like nobody else in the league. This certainly seems accurate, given the 37-year-old veteran's continued productivity and gritty demeanor on both ends of the floor. He logged 17 points and eight rebounds against the Hawks Friday.
Practically alone on the block for large stretches, he has rebounded with a purpose. He doesn't allow anyone to get near him, sometimes even his teammates.
And his drive to score remains among the best in the business. The Celtics' current run has propelled him even more—he's even hit two three-pointers in the last week.
The 18-year veteran and future Hall of Famer continues to lead with his expressive on-court personality, undoubtedly improving the overall dynamic of the Celtics. His fiery heart will once again be a crucial factor in their playoff run in June.
Any regular fan of the Celtics can see that Jeff Green has been given the green light to open up his game.
He's being fed entry passes on mismatches with no hesitation, allowing him to throw up high-quality jump-hooks. He's coming off screens and planting three-point shots from the wing. He's slashing to the hoop to drop in layups or reverse dunks. And he draws contact with no hesitation.
Opposing GMs and owners might excuse coaches who put smaller defenders on Green in the post, since the 6'9", 230-pound forward possesses a tough combination of size and quickness.
"He's a matchup nightmare," Rivers told CSNNE after Green put up 31 points in Phoenix on 11-of-14 shooting. "At 3, he can post you. At 4, he has speed. And when he's making his jumper like he (has), then it's pretty much a tough night for whoever is guarding him."
At a certain point, though, it seems silly to leave him open for threes. His shot has developed so well, he almost seems surprised when given the opportunity to hoist one up from distance.
Rivers trusted Green with Wednesday's last-second shot against the Indiana Pacers, a backdoor layup that sealed the victory after Boston scored 12 straight points to come from behind.
Since the All-Star break, he has averaged 15.6 points on 50 percent shooting, with 4.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 blocks. Compare that to the 52 games prior, in which he logged 10.3 points (44% from the field), with 3.3 rebounds, 1 assist and 0.7 blocks, and it's easy to see something special taking form.
Green's inside-outside ability has flourished as the season has progressed, making him one of the most formidable bench scoring threats in the Eastern Conference. His defense has also impressed as of late. His emerging stardom comes at a very opportune time, as he will assuredly play a huge part in any kind of postseason run for Boston.
Pierce started the exciting game against the Atlanta Hawks by shooting 2-for-3 in the first two minutes. He finished with 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists—yet another huge late-game performance.
"The Truth" has been the primary playmaker since Rondo's ACL injury. He creates opportunities for teammates, taking the ball up the court in late stages of games. He comes off screens with youthful aggression, and takes matters into his own hands with isolation when necessary.
Nothing seems forced with the 35-year-old, who seems more mechanically sound, physically strong and instinctively gifted as he ages.
Pierce's dominant shooting from straightaway, as well as on driving pull-ups, honestly appear Kobe-like. He stares down defenses with the confidence that nobody can stop him.
Possibly one of the most underrated clutch performers in league history, Pierce sits near the top of the list of players nobody wants to meet in a best-of-seven series. He absolutely refuses to let high-pressure moments affect his focus. In fact, he seems to welcome the challenge.
He may be playing through neck pain, but Pierce still has no problem putting the Celtics on his shoulders for another championship drive. As Garnett recently told reporters, the captain keeps the team's heart beating.
"He's the original Celtic and we go how he goes," Garnett said. "Nights when he's not going, we try to obviously support him and help him. But this is Truth's house, and there's never been a misunderstanding since I've been here. We have all the trust in the world in him."