OK. This column comes in the midst of a Celtics three-game win streak. I get it.
But the question I have isn’t about whether Boston can beat the likes of Washington, Miami, and New Jersey. It’s about whether the Celts are still good enough to compete for a championship. Is Boston really that good right now?
From Halloween ’07 through Christmas ‘08, the Celtics put together one of the greatest 14-month stretches in league history.
Led by its “Big Three,” Boston won an NBA title while compiling a mind-boggling 93-18 regular-season record (an otherworldly win percentage of .838).
Since that time, however, the Celtics have gone 67-34, while their win percentage has dipped to just under .667.
Now, a team that wins two-thirds of its games is darn good. But why have the Celtics dropped off a little since those incredible 14 months?
Maybe it’s just because those Celtics, as good as they were during that stretch, were playing over their heads. Maybe the law of averages has caught up to them since that time. After all, sustaining a plus .800 win percentage isn’t easy.
Or maybe, just maybe, there is a specific reason for their decline. Maybe, just maybe, the Celtics are not the dominant force they were just a short time ago.
Each of the previous two seasons, the Celtics won 44 of their first 55 games. This year, however, Boston has already lost 16 of its first 48. Also, good teams are no longer too worried about playing in the TD Garden.
Boston’s record was 35-6 at home each of the last two years. Yet this year, the Celts are just 15-8 at home, with six of those losses coming to teams with winning records. And it’s against the league’s better competition in which the Celtics have really underachieved.
Boston is just 10-10 against teams that currently have winning records. They finished 0-4 against the Atlanta Hawks for the first time since the 1995-1996 season.
So, again, why have the Celtics struggled? Their starting five is still the same as it was when they won the championship two seasons ago: Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Kendrick Perkins.
However, the statistics indicate that each member of “The Big Three,” is, in some respects, enduring the poorest season of his career. Here’s a 2009-2010 season evaluation for each Celtics starter. We’ll put the good news first.
Rajon Rondo, 22, has established himself as one of the most versatile young stars in the league. His field-goal percentage, assists per game, steals per game, and points per game have increased each of his first three years as a starter.
Kendrick Perkins, 25, in his fifth season as a starter, is putting up career-highs in field-goal percentage (62 percent), rebounds per game (8.2), and points per game (11.6).
Now for an evaluation of “The Big Three.”
Paul Pierce, 32, recently hampered by a left foot sprain, is averaging the fewest rebounds per game of his career (4.7). His 18.9 points per game average is his lowest since his rookie season in 1998-1999.
Kevin Garnett’s season has been pretty similar to Pierce's. The 33-year-old K.G. has also had to play through injuries, while his rebounds per game (7.3) and points per game (14.6) are his lowest averages since he was a 19-year-old rookie.
Ray Allen, 34, on the other hand, has had a clean bill of health and played in all 48 of the Celtics games. But his three-point percentage (34 percent) is the lowest of his career, as are his 16.1 points per game.
Now, to be fair, the decline of “The Big Three” is thanks in part to the maturation of Rondo and Perkins. But Boston’s veterans must improve their play during the second half of the season if the Celtics have any shot at competing against the best in the East.
Thankfully for the Celtics, they still have lots of opportunities to prove their worth, starting with tomorrow’s showdown at the Garden against Orlando. The Magic have already won two of the first three meetings with Boston this season, and just 10 days ago overcame an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Celtics in Orlando 96-94.
The Celts also have three games against perhaps their biggest conference rival: the Cavaliers. Two of those upcoming three games will be played at the TD Garden, and all three of those games will be nationally televised either on TNT or ABC (the first on TNT on Feb. 25).
On a similar note, the Celtics will play 12 of their remaining games on national television. This means that NBA fans from coast to coast will get to see if these Celtics are still a force in the Eastern Conference.
Can the Celtics turn it around? Can they still ride their potent mix of future Hall of Fame veterans and talented youngsters to the top of the NBA once again? The whole country will be watching.