Boston Celtics Must Approach Playoffs as Their Last Stand
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Since they last won it all in 2008, Boston's hunt for the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy has been frustrating. Questionable acquisitions, difficult injuries, key departures and a continual hole at the center position leave the Green close, but with no Red Auerbach victory cigar each year.
The flaws on the interior exposed the C's against the Orlando Magic in 2009 when Dwight Howard bounced them from the semifinals. Then in 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers narrowly edged them out in an NBA Finals rematch, coming back to win a seven-game series.
Since then, LeBron James and the Miami Heat have served as their biggest roadblock. The South Beach villains smoked them in the Eastern Conference semis, 4-1, in 2011, and then served them a heartbreaking seven-game elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals match last year.
Without injured star Rajon Rondo and rookie big man Jared Sullinger this postseason, the Celts might be dispatched before they get a chance at vengeance with Miami.
As the seventh seed, the Celtics clearly have a preponderance of issues. They can't defend the three-ball. They get sloppy on offense, with poor assist-to-turnover numbers induced by multiple shooting guards and small forwards taking the ball up the floor. They still cannot rebound and have no depth.
Worst of all, they play the red-hot New York Knicks in the first round.
New York has had Boston's number, winning four of their last five contests, including the first game of the playoffs. Now the Celts must win four of the next five to avoid a difficult Game 7 in Madison Square Garden.
As evidenced by Boston's strong first half on Saturday, April 20, the Celtics have the heart and raw talent to come from behind in a series and win.
Reviewing their projected depth chart for 2013-14, it seems they must.
Consider the fact that Kevin Garnett, who turns 37 next month, has lost a step and gained some injuries. The “Big Ticket” missed a chunk of games late this year due to ankle inflammation and bone spurs, and has been a shell of his 2008 champion self since his return.
Unless Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge somehow trades KG, the future Hall of Famer will be owed $12.4 million next season. Combine that with Paul Pierce's non-guaranteed (but widely-expected) $15.3 million, and you have two players in their mid-to-late 30s who are making almost as much as the entire payroll of the 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Simply put, these veterans have suffered from wear and tear. They no longer have the ability to completely anchor a defense, or put an offense on their shoulders. They simply won't be worthy of a combined $28 million short-term investment.
Pierce has stepped up his game on every level since Rondo's ACL tear, and Garnett's defense has been amazing since losing Sullinger.
However, there's no way that any fan feels comfortable going into the 2013-14 season with two aging stars, one 37 and the other 36, along with a banged-up floor general and nothing to show championship-wise for the better part of a decade.
Jeff Green's emergence has certainly dazzled this season, and Avery Bradley's stifling full-court defense continues to impress. They undoubtedly have a strong future in Boston, as does board monster Sullinger and 2012-13 regular-season assists-per-game leader Rondo.
After that, many questions remain.
Brandon Bass, largely disappointing this year after a strong 2011-12, is locked into a three-year deal worth around $20 million. The inconsistent and hesitant Courtney Lee will be on the books until at least the end of 2015-16, making an average of $5.35 million. Veteran shot-chucker Jason Terry will cash checks until 2015, bringing in over $5 million a year in what will assuredly end up being a “bench leader” role.
Then there are a bunch of young-ins and former Chinese Basketball Association standouts. No real emerging stars exist in the Celtics' deep bench.
Shavlik Randolph can bang down low, Jordan Crawford can go into scoring fits, Terrence Williams has the ability to create and Fab Melo is, well, seven feet tall.
Still, nobody in this group possesses a multifaceted skill set to excite Celtics Nation about the future.
So, brace yourselves. An early exit from the playoffs could lead to some drastic changes in player personnel for Boston. To put it bluntly, the squad would get blown up.
Ainge already tried to trade Garnett, and floated Pierce around in early February. There's no reason to believe another failed season would leave him with enough hope to keep the gang together.
Should Ainge blow up the Celtics after 2012-13?
The only thing that would give him that kind of hope would be another NBA championship bid.
It seems highly unlikely. Then again, it seemed unlikely for Boston to win eight straight after Rondo and Sullinger went down and then proceed to go 14-4 from Jan. 25 to late February. But the Celtics did it.
The Celtics need to play with the most urgency they have ever exhibited, treating this season as a do-or-die campaign. That means pushing the ball up the floor, executing quality team offense, playing lock-down defense on the perimeter and beyond the three-point arc and limiting second-chance opportunities.
Nobody is standing on a soapbox telling fans to stop believing the Celtics have a chance at a deep playoff run.
If they fail, however, you can believe one thing—this core group will not be around again in November.
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