The 2012-13 Boston Celtics have proved they can win despite the most challenging bouts of adversity. They continue to play inspiring basketball, pushing forward on a late-season surge for a top-five seed in the Eastern Conference. But many question marks still surround this playoff-bound squad.
Since Rajon Rondo went down with a season-ending ACL tear, and rookie standout Jared Sullinger underwent back surgery, Boston has picked it up on both sides of the floor. They have won 15 of 21 and look primed to compete against any opponent in the league.
However, big losses to the Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Charlotte Bobcats prove that a playoff run will not be smooth sailing. This Celtics squad has major flaws that any team would struggle to overcome in the postseason, never mind resolve in the 18 games leading up to it.
Can They Continue to Win Without Rebounding?
It almost seems like a broken record, but it's practically impossible to break down the critical weaknesses of this Boston team without looking at rebounds.
Boston continually shoots itself in the foot by not boxing out. Size disparities play a huge part in such woes, but defensive inconsistencies hurt as well. When both big men slide away from the basket to greet opposing penetration, it stands to reason that the offensive team has a good chance to grab a miss.
And second chances have taken their toll physically. In their six overtime games this calendar year, the Celtics have been out-rebounded 280-259. Allowing huge disparities on the boards will keep any opponent close down the stretch.
Relying on Kevin Garnett could prove to be the tragic flaw of this Boston unit. The "Big Ticket" continues to impress as he approaches his 37th birthday, grabbing 7.8 boards per contest. But fellow starting forward Brandon Bass only logs five rebounds a game, and the bench has been sporadic at best near the hoop.
Boston sits at 29th in the league in team rebounding with a mere 40 per game, with only 8.3 offensive boards on average. The only squad worse in rebounds per game differential is the Charlotte Bobcats, the worst overall team in the league.
Most of the Celtics' potential Eastern Conference playoff opponents either have formidable rebounding numbers or a dynamic big man. The Indiana Pacers have both, and lead the league in boards. The Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets also sit in the top 12 of NBA rebounding squads. Boston must seriously step up their low-post efforts if they expect to make a splash this May.
Can Their Defense Contain Playoff Opponents?
Doc Rivers' recent strategy to apply zone defense at certain parts of games has largely succeeded, but not against contenders like the Thunder and Pacers. OKC exposed Boston's gaps on the wing by moving the ball around, and penetrated open avenues to the hoop. Indy capitalized on wide-open passing lanes down low.
Far too often, multiple Celtics move over to greet a driving opponent, while leaving big men alone under the rim. Communication errors and lack of collective fluency clearly contribute to such problems, both of which must be resolved by playoff time if Boston expects to contend.
And while ball movement on the offensive end has greatly propelled this current 15-6 stretch, allowing ball movement on the other side has considerably hurt. If such inadequacies continue, quality playoff opponents will exploit the Celtics and make short work of them in a best-of-seven series.
The tough March 8th game against Atlanta exemplified the Celtics' terrible interior defense when opponents move the ball. Alley-oops, drive-and-dishes and uncontested dunks kept the Hawks in the game, forcing Boston into an incredible 11th overtime game of the season.
Similar issues occurred (with more frequency) in the blowout 100-74 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on March 12th. Gerald Henderson looked like Dwyane Wade, slashing to the hoop with relative ease because of awful help defense. Even when Brandon Bass did slide over to help at one point, blocking Henderson's shot, no Celtics were there to recover the ball and Henderson easily put back a layup.
Lack of defensive spacing outside and on the perimeter have also led to a plethora of open three-point shots. In many cases, Boston has been bailed out by misses. However, great three-point shooting teams like Atlanta, the New York Knicks and Miami Heat will be merciless if provided with quality opportunities behind the arc.
Deep and mid-range shots have gone largely uncontested when Garnett is not on the floor. The Celtics often fail to efficiently shuffle over on help D, in turn putting more work on themselves toward the end of games. They should be winning games like the one in Atlanta by 20, rather than letting up down the stretch and inviting opponents back in.
These kinds of errors add minutes to an old, tired unit and often serve as the catalyst for an early exit in the NBA playoffs.
Can They Make a Deep Run Without a True Point Guard?
Rondo's absence may replace a one-man assist hoarder with a stronger style of team basketball, but it also leads to an increase in turnovers. Boston has executed poorly on transition recently, forcing the ball with poor focus and errant passes.
As a team, the Celts posted a 15-13 assist-to-turnover ratio in Charlotte Tuesday night. Two days prior in Oklahoma, they had more turnovers (18) than assists (17). That's never good.
What is the Celtics' biggest question mark as they prepare for the playoffs?
No Celtics fan ever really expected to replace Rondo's league-leading 11.1 assists per game when he went down, never mind his career-best season averages of 13.7 points and 5.6 rebounds. But Boston probably expected a starting guard to average more than Avery Bradley's three assists a game as his replacement.
Paul Pierce has been the biggest contributor to the passing game, creating with the ball off screens and penetration. The captain averages a team-best 5.6 assists since the All-Star break. Fellow veteran Jason Terry has also improved his assist rate, logging almost a full dime more (despite four fewer minutes per game) since the break.
But these players are not point guards, and neither are Bradley and Courtney Lee. Pitiful offensive performances like the game against Charlotte highlight Boston's weaknesses off the dribble, as nobody could create for teammates without Pierce on the floor.
Rondo proved last year that he was one of the top players in the NBA, averaging 17.3 points, 11.9 assists and 6.7 rebounds per game in the playoffs. But his vision and knowledge as floor general will be missed more than his sheer numbers this postseason.
These question marks highlight the many things we still do not know about the 2012-13 Boston Celtics. It's imperative for Doc Rivers to address these points of concern before embarking on a playoff run, or else the Garnett and Pierce era in Boston could once again be bordering on extinction.