The Boston Celtics have had a roller coaster year. By January, injuries, cold streaks and trade rumors had many fans thinking that in-season rebuilding was an inevitability.
But as The Godfather: Part III character Michael Corleone says, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Like they seemingly always do, the Celtics rallied and found a way to make the playoffs.
Their quality team basketball from top to bottom on the depth chart made them a frightening match in most of the second half.
However, things have dissipated once again, and hopes at championship contention have all but unraveled.
Since March 18, the Celts have lost 10 of 15 games. Since March 8, they have only defeated one team with a record over .500 (Atlanta). It's April 17, folks.
One game remains on the regular season docket (at Toronto), then the squad heads to Manhattan to face the smoking-hot New York Knicks in the first round of the dance. New York stifled Boston 100-85 and 108-89 their last two meetings.
For the Celtics to advance and make a postseason run, they must recognize the following keys.
Paul Pierce Must Be Huge
Since February, Paul Pierce has a +137 points differential. He logged a -7 in the first four months.
Without the “The Truth” and his improved play in the absence of Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger, the Celtics would not be in the playoffs. In the face of adversity, he improved all facets of his game, helping the Celtics win seven straight and 14 of 18 games from late January to early March.
Pierce has shot a superb 48 percent since the All-Star Break, compared to 41 percent prior. His .424 percentage from three-point land in those 24 games trumps his .359 ratio in the first 52.
And he's dishing the ball, too, with a 24.3 assist ratio compared to 16.5 from November to February. He averaged 4.6 dimes those first three months of the season—since then, he's logged six per contest.
These numbers have produced results. But, he must continue to push himself if Boston expects to have any shot at a deep run. In 41 wins this year, Pierce has logged a full rebound (6.9) and full assist (5.3) more per game than in the 35 losses. And his shooting across the board is consistently higher in victories.
The Celtics simply need their captain to deliver his usual brand of postseason basketball.
He has to create offense, serving as a playmaker both on the drive and on jumpers. He must facilitate team basketball, increasing the overall movement and pace.
He must be as clutch as ever.
That shouldn't be a problem. In 31 games this year, the Celtics have been tied or behind by five or less in the last three minutes. Pierce shot 44.4 percent from the floor and a staggering 55 percent from deep in those clutch minutes, giving Boston a +69 points differential.
His clutch factor in the last five minutes of close games? Just a cool +97 in 115 minutes, with 84 points and a 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio.
He's hit numerous game-winning shots this season, and continues to lead physically and emotionally.
Without Rondo, Coach Doc Rivers will need Pierce to play an even bigger role. The Knicks score an average of 100 flat each contest (almost four more than Boston) and rank fourth in three-point shooting at almost 38 percent.
No team in the NBA has more threes or three-pointers per game.
But an even greater concern lies in the fact that New York allows only 95.8 points per game, good for seventh-best in the league.
“They're a much better defensive team,” Rivers said after practice on April 15. “A team that can shoot threes, and shoot quickly, and still is able to get back and defend is pretty good. I just think they've all bought in: you want to win, you have to do it on both ends.”
Pierce must help Boston control the pace offensively, spread the ball, and rebound, while also limiting penetration and open treys.
Kevin Garnett Must Lead the Rebounding Attack
Kevin Garnett must be the one leading the charge.
During the initial post-Rondo hot streak, when Boston won 14 of 18 games, Garnett averaged a monstrous nine rebounds per game.
KG averages 8.1 rebounds in wins, compared to 7.4 in losses—when he or Pierce collect more than 10 rebounds, the Celtics tend to win.
Also integral to their success on the glass, Shavlik Randolph must channel his early-March mojo. His 13.5 rebounds per 36 minutes have been superb but the former Chinese Basketball Association standout has started to struggle lately.
Shav must take better care of the basketball and avoid foul trouble if he expects to make an impact in the postseason.
Chris Wilcox, who adds about eight boards per 36 minutes, has encountered similar woes as of late.
The 10-year veteran has the ability to throw down fierce dunks in transition, and his knowledge and experience often play a vital role in low-post garbage points. But he can't get minutes if he continues to be a defensive liability.
To achieve any success, the entire unit needs to crash the boards. Nobody expects the Green to win the rebounding battle on any given night, but they need to at least stay within five per game.
Defending Wing Players Must Be a Team Effort
But the first and foremost issue Boston must confront is Carmelo Anthony, the league's leading scorer (28.7 points per game). Rivers and his players recognize this fact—now they must figure out a way to stop him.
“He's their best player,” Rivers said at the April 15 practice. “Carmelo, one of his best attributes for them is he’s a foul magnet. He’s terrific at drawing fouls, at getting people in foul trouble.”
Allowing wing penetrators to get to the hoop has been a huge problem for the Celtics, and a big reason Randolph and Wilcox have each averaged around six fouls per 36 minutes. Rivers says Pierce, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass will be called upon to split defensive duties with Melo.
"We want to try to spread those fouls between three guys instead of one guy locked in to get in foul trouble,” he told Boston Herald writer Steve Bulpett. “Because if you guard him alone, you’re going to get in foul trouble. And we want to avoid that as much as possible."
Sure, Anthony takes a lot of shots. But most of this season against the Celtics, they're good shots.
He posted 24 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in their last meeting, and 29 points with eight boards in the game before that. He averaged 24 points in the first two games.
Anthony and J.R. Smith can be absolute monsters with combined strengths off the dribble and from long range. They have savored the Celtics' defensive spacing issues, helping New York hit a mind-boggling 22-of-56 from deep in their last two contests.
Miami has found similar success against the C's, getting them in foul trouble and absolutely torching them from long range (12-of-23 their last meeting).
The biggest key for Boston is to force Anthony and Smith to take poor shots, and limit New York's ball movement and ability to spread the floor. With some lock-down defense, improved rebounding and the Paul Pierce of playoff lore, the Celtics definitely stand a chance.
After all, who would count out the squad that almost defied the odds to beat Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals last year?
Like many fans, yours truly will still be watching, expecting a run starting with an exciting first round.
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
All stats compiled using NBA.com/stats and ESPN.com. Graph designed using National Center for Education Statistics (NCES.ed.gov).