Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for Boston Celtics in the Month of December
Still, there’s plenty more to come as 2014 draws to a close. This month has serious potential to make or break the C’s season depending on how things shake out.
Playing against a particularly soft schedule, Boston has the chance to vault itself back into the playoff conversation, and with Marcus Smart healthy and Tyler Zeller shining as a starter, this is the perfect opportunity.
In order to make the most of this month, though, they’ll need to make some changes and get some breaks.
Despite being incredibly entertaining, this is still a flawed team that needs to fix its execution issues in close games and defend without fouling.
While we may not get another game as exciting as the double-overtime thriller versus the Washington Wizards (a 133-132 loss on December 8), let’s take a look at some of the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Celtics this month.
Best: Brad Stevens Brings Back the Three-Guard Lineup
It’s official: Marcus Smart is back.
The rookie point guard was transcendent with 23 points and countless stellar plays against the Washington Wizards and looks completely healthy after spraining his ankle earlier in the season.
Stevens made the controversial choice to ride with Smart over Rondo late in that game, and it ultimately paid off, as Smart was a tremendous factor on both ends of the court.
Now it’s time to bring back the three-guard lineup Boston experimented with prior to Smart’s injury.
While the trio of Rondo, Avery Bradley and Smart give up a lot of size to opponents, both Rondo and Smart are quality rebounders, and opponents will struggle just to get the ball over the timeline.
Smart and Bradley are two of the best pressure defenders in the league, and the size advantage is less important when opponents are starting their offense with 10 seconds left on the shot clock.
Additionally, the C’s have the opportunity to go small with Jeff Green at the 4 in this lineup and really run the floor. This lineup would feature four capable ball-handlers who can push the pace.
Having this stalwart defensive trio on the court would also help the Boston defense, which has struggled mightily in 2014-15.
Obviously, shooting is a significant issue with this lineup, but Bradley has emerged as a capable three-point threat, and Smart is at least willing to gun from deep.
Stevens has been no stranger to trying interesting lineups, using Green more at power forward this season and running Evan Turner at point guard, so it stands to reason that he’ll give this trio some more run with the soft December schedule.
Worst: Frontcourt Foul Trouble Continues
Not only is Boston’s frontcourt struggling to protect the rim, but it also has a hard time avoiding foul trouble.
Kelly Olynyk is averaging 4.1 fouls per game, and while Jared Sullinger has cut down to 2.7, his are still usually avoidable calls.
Against the Washington Wizards, Olynyk fouled out after 41 minutes.
The C’s need their big men on the floor to open up driving lanes with their shooting, so they desperately need to stop reaching on defense and creating unnecessary contact when contesting shots.
As well as Zeller has played (which we’ll touch on later), he isn’t a multifaceted offensive player like Sully or Olynyk, and the C’s need them in their three-pointer-heavy attack.
These fouls also contribute to Boston’s serious struggles guarding the pick-and-roll, as the big men cannot corral opposing guards without letting them drive past or draw fouls.
Boston does a solid job keeping opponents off the foul line, allowing just 22.9 attempts per game (11th in the league), but they’re still at the bottom of the pack defensively.
One of the biggest steps Stevens can take in December would be to teach Sully and Olynyk to stay on the floor rather than be too foul-happy.
Best: Tyler Zeller Stays a Starter
In six starts, Zeller is averaging 10.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists on 61.5 percent shooting in 25.8 minutes per game.
While he’s not as versatile a scorer as Olynyk, Zeller makes up for that with his excellent hands and pick-and-roll prowess. He’s also significantly less foul-prone, a problem that plagued Olynyk while trying to defend starting-caliber 5s.
While Olynyk has played worse since coming off the pine, he is still averaging a decent 8.7 points and five boards while hitting 38.5 percent of his three-pointers. His minutes have also only dropped from 25.8 to 25, so it’s not like he’s losing significant time on the floor.
Zeller’s skill set is a better fit with Sullinger in the starting lineup, and he has shown a terrific chemistry with Rondo thus far.
He isn’t an elite rim protector, but neither is Olynyk, and Zeller still moves better on that end of the court. The 24-year-old Zeller doesn’t have the same upside that Olynyk does, but he’s a more stable two-way option who makes the most of his opportunities.
Perhaps most importantly though, Boston is 3-3 with Zeller in the starting 5 as opposed to 4-9 when he comes off the bench.
The C’s starting lineup of Rondo-Bradley-Green-Sullinger-Zeller has also posted a plus-minus of plus-17 thus far, according to 82games.com.
Sure, that isn’t a huge sample size, but it’s enough to earn him a longer look, particularly with Boston needing someone to cover Nikola Vucevic, Al Jefferson, Chris Bosh and DeMarcus Cousins in the coming weeks.
Worst: Boston Plays Down to Its Competition
The C’s December schedule is extremely weak, even by Eastern Conference standards.
At 7-12, Boston is hardly a powerhouse, but this is a well-coached team with some legitimate talent that should be able to capitalize on the league’s cellar dwellers.
The dynamic, San Antonio-style offense (sixth in the league in points at 105.6 per game) should be able to carve up Charlotte, New York and Philly, and the Celts should be decent enough defensively to scrape by.
Still, they cannot get ahead of themselves during these weaker stretches.
As underwhelming as some of these teams are, one of the signs of a maturing ball club is that it can take care of inferior competition without getting distracted.
It’s unrealistic to expect the C’s to beat every sub-.500 opponent in December, but there is no reason for them not to finish with a winning record against inferior competition.
If the Celts do have aspirations of making a playoff push, this is the perfect time to capitalize, as Hardwood Houdini’s Bobby Krivitsky notes.
Best: Jeff Green Stays Aggressive
In the month of December, Green is averaging 25.8 points and shooting 49.4 percent from the floor and 45.8 percent from three.
While those numbers are impressive, the biggest accomplishment is that he is getting to the line 7.2 times per game, including double-digit trips to the charity stripe against Washington and Detroit.
Green won’t keep shooting this well, (there’s a reason he only hits 34.2 percent from deep for his career), but the aggression is something he could continue.
Sure, he has had some favorable matchups against weak defensive teams, but Green has the talent to exploit his matchup in almost any situation. Against Washington, Green was used more in the post, backing down Paul Pierce, while he helped to spread the floor by nailing six threes versus the Pistons.
This season, his average field-goal distance has dropped from 14.6 to 13.5, per Basketball-Reference.com. That difference may seem slight, but it shows a positive trend toward attacking the hole more and drawing contact.
Going forward, Green has favorable matchups against teams like New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, so there’s no reason why his hot play cannot continue.
As usual, the only thing that can stop Green is himself.
Worst: The Celtics Keep Losing Nail-Biters
Nothing is more frustrating than a close loss, and this season the young Celtics have had absolutely brutal luck in close games. The team is 4-8 in games decided by 10 points or fewer and just 1-3 in one-possession contests.
Despite the losses, Stevens has done a magnificent job keeping his team motivated and prepared, but if that is going to continue for the rest of the year, his squad needs a little luck.
In the 2014-15 campaign, the C’s have already dropped a one-point game in double overtime to Washington, a four-point road game to the Atlanta Hawks, a six-point affair to the Portland Trail Blazers and another single-point tilt with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
These are all quality teams that Boston stayed with for 46 minutes but just couldn't seem to close out. They have also had the problem of losing fourth-quarter leads, coughing up sizable advantages in both games against the Chicago Bulls this season.
These flaws are very understandable for a young team still learning the ropes, but the Celts have enough capable veterans who should be able to execute late in games. Too often they rely on hasty shots or cough the ball up on big possessions, which leads to easy transition scores for the opponent.
Surely Boston will play at least one or two tight games during the month of December, and for their growth as a team it is extremely important that they scrape out wins in these scenarios.
One of the biggest steps for a young team is learning how to come out on top in close matchups, and if Stevens’ squad can learn to do that in Year 2 of the rebuild, that would be a tremendous success, regardless of their final record in April.