It was only ten days ago when I had thrown in the towel on the 2009-10 Boston Celtics. The Celtics had lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers 104-93. The game marked the second straight meeting between the two teams where Cleveland appeared to toy with Boston—allowing the Celtics to hang around before quickly and easily pulling away.
Boston followed that game, though, with decisive home wins over the Pistons and Knicks. Nice victories, sure, but not exactly the type of wins that should be celebrated. Then the Celtics showed real signs of life for the first time in months, winning on the road at Houston and then at Dallas, for a four-game winning streak.
Suddenly, I was hooked again, convincing myself that yes, this team will be able to battle with the top teams come playoff time. But then came a 110-97 loss to the Utah Jazz on Monday. Now, I do not know what to think about the Celtics.
Even 70 games into the season, there continues to be more questions than answers surrounding the Celtics: Are they bored? Is their a switch? Does the Big Three, in particular Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, have enough left for another sustained playoff run? Can Rajon Rondo find consistency? Can the bench do the same?
I would rather not wait for the playoffs to find out the answers. With only 12 games left in the regular season, I might not have a choice. But, the upcoming schedule may provide some much needed guidance. Boston begins a six-game home stand tonight against the Denver Nuggets, the team tied for second in the Western Conference, followed by a series of games against other playoff teams.
Wins are obviously ideal, and as Boston battles with Atlanta for the three-seed, wins are crucial. But what I want to see more than anything else, is that the Celtics are capable of sustaining a top-level effort over a stretch of several games, similar to what will be needed come playoff time.
Boston did just that with the wins at Houston and Dallas, displaying the type of fight that has been noticeably absent for the most part since before the New Year.
Against Houston on Friday night, Boston resembled the championship caliber team that many thought they were when the season began. Leading by nine at half-time, the Celtics relied on their Big Three to lead the way in the second half. Ray Allen buried three three-pointers in the third quarter, and Pierce and Garnett scored Boston’s final 21 points, securing the 94-87 victory.
At the time, I thought that was the best win by the Celtics since the calendar turned to 2010. But the very next night, Boston improved on its showing in Houston with the 102-93 win in Dallas.
Fourth quarters have been a problem area for Boston for much of the season, but not against the Mavericks, as the Celtics outscored Dallas 29-21 in the fourth. Allen, Pierce, and Rondo combined for 23 of 29 points in the fourth. Pierce finished with 29 points, Allen 21, and Rondo went for 20 points and 10 assists.
All was well once again.
Then came Monday night at Utah. Boston started out playing well once again, only to watch the Jazz go off on a 16-0 run over the end of the second quarter and start of the third. Utah never looked back, winning 110-97.
During Boston’s four-game winning streak, the Big Three lived up to their nickname, combining for an average of 55.5 points per game on 59-percent shooting from the floor. Against the Jazz, the trio totaled just 36 points, shooting only 35-percent.
So what now?
I remain encouraged, although I am definitely cautious about getting too excited. The Celtics play over the winning streak, easily handling inferior opponents at home and winning against two quality teams on the road, was enough to have me thinking for a few seconds that this team is closer to the one that began the year 23-5 than I wanted to admit.
Maybe the Celtics are not too old and the door has not been closed. Maybe it was just a matter of getting everyone healthy.
But then, nothing went right in Utah, and it was a harsh reminder that the Celtics played at a .500 pace (18-18) for nearly three months.
It is time for answers from the Celtics. Winning in Dallas and Houston was encouraging, but the Celtics need to show they can sustain that level of performance. Playing well some nights only to run out of gas the next, will not get Boston too far in the playoffs.
The time is now for the Celtics to tell us what type of team they are going to be. Let’s hope to get some answers starting tonight against Denver.
Boston’s bench actually outplayed the starters in the loss at Utah. The starters combined for 49 points, led by Ray Allen’s 15, while the bench chipped in 48 points. Glen Davis had 13 points, while Nate Robinson, Michael Finley, and Marquis Daniels each scored 8 points. If looking at +/-, every Boston starter was a minus, with Rondo doing the best at a –10. Each bench player, except Robinson (-3), was a plus.
Pierce entered the Utah game averaging 28 points on a blistering 62.5% shooting over his previous three games. He appeared to be reemerging as the player Boston could count on down the stretch to lead the Celtics to victory. But then against Utah, Pierce shot just 3-13 for only 11 points. Was this a minor bump in the road or an indication that at 32-years old and having played nearly 900 regular season games, Pierce can’t dominate fourth quarters on a nightly basis anymore?
The loss at Utah also showed the good and the bad of Rajon Rondo. Rondo keyed Boston to victory at Dallas, as he had 10 points and seven assists in the fourth quarter alone. But at Utah, Rondo was a non-factor, with just six points and six assists, while Deron Williams had 22 points and 11 assists. When discussing where Rondo needs to improve, shooting comes up quickly, but it will also have to be in his ability to handle bigger, stronger point guards such as Williams.
After a slow start to the season, Glen Davis is finally playing well, as he is having his best month of the season in March. Davis is averaging eight points and four rebounds in March, in just under 18 minutes per game. He also has provided much needed help on the offensive glass.
The San Antonio Spurs released Michael Finley, allowing the Celtics to pick up the veteran. For the Spurs, Finley was playing 15 minutes per game, but averaging just 3.7 points on 38.1 percent shooting (31.7% from three). For the Celtics, playing about the same amount of minutes, Finley has watched his scoring increase to 6.3 points per game, while his shooting has also improved to 54.5 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from three.
(This article was originally posted on 4SportBoston.com)
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