Sitting at seventh in the Eastern Conference with a 39-36 record, it is hard to fathom that the Boston Celtics were widely expected to be a top-three seed in the playoffs before the 2012-13 season tipped off. It's even harder to fathom that people were hailing Boston's role players, who have been absurdly inconsistent all year long, as one of the best complementary units in the league.
Now, heading into the postseason with Rajon Rondo recuperating a torn ACL and Kevin Garnett banged up, Doc Rivers is going to have to hope that one of his secondary pieces can step up and shoulder an increased load on both ends of the floor for these beleaguered, battle-worn Celts.
The question, of course, is which player will it be?
For the sake of this argument, we are considering Jeff Green, despite his role as primarily a bench player, to be a key piece, given the way his performance and minutes have steadily increased over the season. That leaves Jason Terry, Brandon Bass, Jordan Crawford and Courtney Lee fighting amongst themselves.
With just seven games remaining for Boston, let's take a moment to look at what each of these players could bring to the table in the postseason.
Bass played exceptionally in his first season with Boston but has lost minutes to Jeff Green since signing a three-year contract worth $19.35 million in the 2012 offseason.
For the year, he is averaging just 8.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and one assist on 46.9 shooting from the field. Last season, he notched 12.5 points and 6.2 boards for the C's, while shooting 47.9 percent from the field. He also played four minutes more in 2011-12 than in 2012-13.
Spending more time than ever at center for the size-strapped Celtics, Bass remains a pretty pedestrian rebounder but continues to show a knack for scoring the basketball. His outside shot is reliable; he can post up, and he has looked more comfortable taking a few dribbles in recent weeks.
His numbers since the All-Star break have been on a slight uptick, as Bass has averaged 9.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists on 50.9 percent shooting since the Houston festivities.
If Rondo was healthy, Bass' outside shooting would be essential to provide space for the slashing point guard, but with Terry, Lee and Paul Pierce doing most of the ball handling, that is not as essential of a skill.
Against either the New York Knicks or Indiana Pacers, he will have the tall task of guarding a player like Amar'e Stoudemire or David West. Bass will not be expected to cancel out a former All-Star, but he will have to put in a consistent defensive effort for Boston to have a shot at an upset.
Ultimately though, with Green playing so well, Bass playing at a high level is simply not essential for the Celtics.
The signing of Courtney Lee was widely viewed as a shrewd move from Danny Ainge, but much to the dismay of the Boston faithful, Lee has simply not been the player he was for the Houston Rockets or New Jersey Nets.
Despite seeing an increase in minutes and responsibility since Rondo's injury, Lee is still posting a mere 7.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game on 46.8 percent shooting overall and 36.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Lee is picking his spots well, but while his defensive is still above average, he has been pretty much a non-factor offensively.
Surprisingly, Lee is actually scoring less in wins than losses, a difference of 6.7 points in Boston victories to 8.9 points in defeats.
Lee can create his own shot off the dribble sporadically but works best as a catch-and-shoot scorer. He has been logging a good amount of time at point guard but slots more naturally at the 2-guard spot, given that he is a fairly average passer.
In the postseason, Lee will likely be guarding the opponent's second-best wing player, with Avery Bradley taking the others. That equates to him checking the likes of Raymond Felton or George Hill, good offensive players but not elite.
Though by no means a bad player, Courtney Lee is not going to be the catalyst for a Celtics postseason run. His play is important, but with a healthy Bradley, it is not essential.
After seven straight seasons averaging more than 15 points for the Dallas Mavericks, perhaps Jason Terry's decline was overdue. However, his fall off has been steep, as the JET is averaging his lowest point total since his rookie campaign.
Largely coming off the pine, but also starting for a brief stretch, the former Sixth Man of the Year is averaging 10.3 points, two rebounds and 2.5 dimes per contest, with shooting splits of 43.9 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three-point territory.
He's still good for the occasional offensive outburst, as his performances against the Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets can prove, but Terry is no longer a night-in, night-out reliable offensive contributor.
The clutch shots still go in, but he has not been as comfortable attacking off the dribble and has been forced to do more as a pick-and-roll handler than he did as a pure scorer with the Mavs.
To make matters worse, with his lateral quickness declining, Terry has become more of a defensive liability than ever before. He plays hard, but in Boston's defensive schemes, Terry must be consistently hidden on the opponent's worst perimeter player.
Still, Terry is an NBA champion, and he has plenty of playoff experience under his belt. He consistently knows when to elevate his game in April and May, and his role as a gunner off the bench who can heat up in an instant is an important one for the postseason, where offensive possessions are at a premium.
Despite his declining skills, Terry is still capable of swinging a playoff game if his shots are falling. While that makes him important, there is a younger player filling a similar role who I believe is actually the most important Celtic heading into the postseason.
That's right. Boston's biggest X-factor should also be their most important role player once the regular season finishes. The Celtics brought in Jordan Crawford for an injured Leandro Barbosa and Jason Collins, and the enigmatic shooting guard has been expectedly inconsistent during his brief tenure in green.
Over the course of 20 games with the team, Crawford has averaged 8.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Unfortunately, he is shooting just 40.4 percent from the floor and 30.9 percent from three-point range.
Unlike Terry, Crawford is still capable of being the go-to scorer on the court, albeit not always in the most efficient capacity. His outside stroke is erratic, but he can knock down perimeter jumpers and also has the ability to put the ball on the floor and finish acrobatically at the rim.
Which Celtics Role Player Will Be Most Important in the Playoffs?
Crawford has the size and length to play both guard positions for stretches of time, has shown a willingness to pass the ball as a Celtic and has cut down on his turnovers as well.
What makes Crawford the most important player for Boston in the postseason, though, is the uncertainty that surrounds his first-ever trip to the NBA playoffs. In Washington he had no problem taking big shots and running his team's offense, but often young players shrink in their first seven-game series.
If Crawford can stay confident and not be goaded into taking poor shots, he could be the unexpected offensive weapon opponents struggle to game-plan for. A team like the New York Knicks might be able to take away Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, but Crawford has the explosiveness to keep this team in a game.
The difference between good Crawford and bad Crawford is also much more significant than that of Bass, Lee or Terry. The constant danger with Crawford is that he has the ability to single-handedly sink his team with his play on both ends, something that the other role players are not capable of.
Jordan Crawford may not have the largest role of Boston's complementary pieces, but given his pure talent and unpredictability, he is their most important role player for better or worse.
Statistics accurate as of April 3rd, 2013.