At 36-31, the Boston Celtics are essentially a lock for the 2013 NBA playoffs. However, just how far they can go in the postseason is anyone’s guess.
Simply put: If the Celtics can’t successfully address certain weaknesses, a first-round exit will also be essentially a lock.
That surely was not the forecast for the team earlier in the year, especially after Rajon Rondo was sidelined for the remainder of the season back on Jan. 27.
Yet, in 24 games since, the Celtics are 16-8.
But records can be deceiving.
It’s been no secret that Boston has had its fair share of problems along the way. However, they’re problems that have been exposed as fatal flaws as of late.
In fact, they have been instrumental in the Celtics losing two straight and four of their last six games.
Teams are starting to take note of these shortcomings, and slowly but surely, a blueprint on how to beat Boston has been formed.
1. Beat Them Down Low
Protecting the paint has not been the Celtics’ forte.
It’s been an issue that has plagued the team since the beginning of the season. Opposing players have penetrated the defense with ease, finding buckets easy to come by down low.
A lack of frontcourt depth is solely to blame for that.
Already thin beforehand, losing Jared Sullinger to a season-ending injury in January certainly did not help.
In 22 games without the rookie, opponents have averaged 44.5 points in the paint per game. That’s an increase over Boston’s season per-game allowance of 42.4.
In comparison, the Celtics have only averaged 34.1 points in the paint per game during the same stretch. That’s down from their season per-game output of 37.6. Only four teams average fewer.
Lately, it’s an issue that has crippled Boston.
Against the Hornets, not only were the Celtics outscored inside the paint—42-40—but they were also out-rebounded on the offensive glass. New Orleans collected 11 second-chance boards compared to Boston’s four.
Not surprisingly, it was an offensive rebound that led to the game-winning tip-in at the buzzer that sealed the Celtics’ fate.
The Heat dominated the paint, outscoring Boston 50-34 down low. Time after time, Miami would spend much of the shot clock struggling to find an open look, only to be bailed out by an easy bucket inside.
You’re not going to win too many games like that.
But while the Celtics have somehow managed to do just that—they have lost the battle down low in 18 of their last 22 games—it will eventually catch up to them.
2. Catch Them on the Road
Most teams prefer not playing on the road. Boston despises it.
The Celtics have lost three straight away from the comforts of the TD Garden, while holding a road record of 12-21. It’s the worst mark of any team currently in playoff position in either conference.
Furthermore, Boston averages 93.7 points per game on the road, while allowing 98.6 per game. The team has posted an offensive rating of 99.4 and a defensive rating of 104.3.
In comparison, the Celtics average 98.5 points per game at home, while allowing just 93.1 per game. They have also registered an offensive rating of 101.5 and a defensive rating of 94.8.
Talk about a flip of the coin.
At home, Boston has the look of an NBA title contender. It can play with and beat anybody. Victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Heat prove as much.
On the other hand, away from home, the Celtics look as if they were playing for a high lottery pick. Anyone can beat them. Losses to the Charlotte Bobcats (twice) and Hornets prove that.
With the likelihood of Boston landing a low seed in the playoffs being pretty high, its road woes have got to change soon.
3. Make Them Close It Out
Building up a lead is the easy part. Finishing it off is much more difficult.
The Celtics probably know that better than anyone else.
Through 67 games, they have already lost six contests in which they held a double-digit lead at some point. That includes leads of 16, 17 and even 27.
To put in perspective just how important those six games were, consider this: Boston currently trails the New York Knicks by 4.5 games in the Atlantic Division.
How badly do you think the team wishes it could have those games back?
But instead of looking back, the Celtics should aim to correct the cause of these shortcomings.
The catalyst might just be the team’s play in the fourth quarter.
In the final period, Boston holds an offensive rating of 97.4 and a defensive rating of 101. The team averages 22.1 points in the quarter, while allowing an average of 23.2.
The numbers get even worse in the clutch (i.e., under five minutes with neither team winning or trailing by more than five points).
The Celtics have been in 34 such situations this season, going 18-16 in those games.
However, they have shot just 36.6 percent from the floor and 30.5 percent from beyond the arc. Boston also has an offensive rating of 92.3 and a defensive rating of 97.1.
A team is supposed to play its strongest in the fourth quarter. That’s when the games are won.
Just imagine where the Celtics’ season would be now had they been much better at closing out games.
Summing It All Up
With 15 games remaining in the regular season, Boston still has time to get it together before the playoffs.
While these issues are severely detrimental to the well being of this team, they’re also not impossible to fix.
And if there’s something head coach Doc Rivers is good at, it’s learning from his mistakes. Don’t expect that to change this time around.
No matter what seed the Celtics hold entering the postseason, they’ll easily be one of the teams nobody else wants to play.
Hey, everybody loves an underdog story.
All stats used in this article are from NBA.com’s Media Central.