As the NBA regular season approaches its conclusion, playoff teams are now in the processing of preparing for the postseason. Some teams appear to be peaking at the right time, like the red-hot Dallas Mavericks or the East-leading Chicago Bulls. Others seem to be fading, like the defense-less New York Knicks. Other teams are just trying to figure what they're going to have for personnel come playoff time, and how to go about the rest of the regular season.
This is where we find the Boston Celtics.
At 50-21, the Celtics are second in the Eastern Conference, two-and-a-half games behind the Bulls, and only a half game up on the Miami Heat. Boston has battled injuries for much of the year with Delonte West, both O'Neals, Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins (when he was still in Boston) and Rajon Rondo all battling various ailments game at different times over the course of the season. Despite leading the Eastern Conference for much of the season, they have recently hit a rough patch, losing the lead in the East to Chicago and feeling pressure from the Heat.
The injury woes of Rajon Rondo are definitely the greatest concern as of late. He's battled plantar fasciitis for much of the year and has also been battling ankle issues. He's suffering from a sprained pinkie finger, which he first hurt on March 19th against New Orleans. He's been playing with it since then, but it's become enough of an issue for the team to scratch him for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
With the injuries befalling this team, the best thing the Celtics can do is give Rondo plenty of rest for the finally 11 games of the regular season and allow him recuperate in time for the playoffs. The Celtics can't afford to have him playing at less than 100 percent, and it has extra benefits for the team as well.
Let's take a look at why the Celtics need to take it easy for the rest of the season and rest their star point guard.
Of course, this has been repeated ad nauseum, but it needs to be said once more. Rajon Rondo is what makes this team so good.
As he's matured as a player, he's made the entire team better, even if that hasn't shown up on paper as a better record. His ability to move the ball around and create scoring opportunities while leaving defenses stymied is his biggest asset. His quickness creates huge problems for defenders and he's finally beginning to master a short jump shot to go with his ability to drive the lane.
The Celtics absolutely need him in the postseason, as last year's run to the Finals showed. If he's hurt, then the Celtics cannot contend for an 18th NBA Championship. If the Celtics reduce his minutes now, they can ramp them back up in the playoffs with less fear of him falling victim to injury.
After all the talk about how Rajon Rondo needed a true backup at the point, Danny Ainge went out and got Carlos Arroyo after he had been let go from the Miami Heat. Not only that, Delonte West is finally healthy and has been gaining some extra minutes as of late, taking some pressure off of Rondo.
However, it's clear that these guys have yet to mesh with the rest of the team. Arroyo was signed midseason, and West has missed much of the season due to a 10-game suspension to start the year and then his wrist injury following his return.
These last 10 games should be used to better integrate Arroyo and West into the point guard position. The Celtics have locked up their playoff spot, so there's not as much pressure on the team. This time can be used to allow the two backups to learn how to run this complex offense and make sure they're ready to step up in the playoffs if necessary.
I see this as a win-win: Rondo prepares for the playoffs by resting and improving his health, while Arroyo and West prepares for the playoffs by fine-tuning their game to match the Celtics' style of play.
Last year the Celtics limped into the playoffs, finishing the regular season with a 50-32 record, fourth best in the Eastern Conference. After besting the Heat in the opening round with relative ease, the Celtics would need to beat the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers on the road in a hostile Quicken Loans Arena.
This, many thought, would do in the Green. Considering that during the 2008 NBA Playoffs, Boston failed to win a road game until the Conference Finals after playing two seven-game series that saw the Celtics go 4-0 at TD Garden and 0-3 in their opponents' arenas each time.
However, the Celtics managed to beat LeBron and the LeBronettes (not my nickname, courtesy of ESPN), and then proceeded to knock off the second-seeded Orlando Magic, again without the benefit of home-court advantage. Although they would fall to the Lakers in seven games, Boston showed that it can win on the road when absolutely necessary, even in particularly hostile environments like Quicken Loans Arena or the Staples Center (at least when Lakers fans stick around long enough).
If the Celtics can't lock up home-court advantage in the East with Rondo not at 100 percent, I don't think it will be a huge hindrance to another title run. At this stage in their careers, the Big Three (or really anyone on this team with serious playoff experience) aren't going to be easily rattled by an opposing crowd. For them, it's just themselves and the other team. And the competency-challenged officials.
At this stage in their careers, the Celtics' veterans are less about putting on a show and winning individual accolades than they are about winning championships as a team. These guys were brought together to win a championship, not to dazzle the Garden crowd night-in and night-out. It's just not how it goes after so many years in the league.
I know this is a seemingly cliché and a tiring excuse, but the vets really DO know what games they need to be on their A-game for. They need not go all out for 10 meaningless regular season games when they already know they're in the postseason. Sure, it would be a great help to win as many of the remaining games as possible with the hope that they can overtake the Bulls and hold off the Heat. But as I said, they can win on the road if they have too.
The vets' advanced age will likely prevent the Celtics from smashing the gas for the last 10 games, but I think they'll post a winning over the remaining games and go no lower than third in the East. Despite their woes as of late, I wouldn't hit the panic button just yet. We said the same thing last year, and although the Celtics came up a little short, they still proved a lot of people wrong.
This team can still win, and they can, and WILL win when it counts the most.