As has been widely reported by scribes both locally and nationally, the 2011-2012 Boston Celtics are shadows of their former selves, and it would be delusional to have high hopes as they plod toward the playoffs. The biggest flaw in Boston’s game is their pathetic work on the boards, which has them dead last in the league at just 38.3 rebounds per game. Losing Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, and Jermaine O’Neal helped doom the Celtics to the bottom of the rebounding ranks, but Kevin Garnett ain’t what he used to be—8.2 RPG this year, versus 12+ RPG in his youthful days as a Timberwolf—and undersized power forward Brandon Bass can’t be called upon to grab more than a half dozen. Rajon Rondo may be the only Celtic who truly possesses that magical “nose for the ball,” but he seems to wear that nose only when he’s fired up to play (read: the game is on national TV). It is this ineptitude on the glass that made the rumored Rondo-for-Gasol trade seem somewhat plausible.
This year’s green machine is also running on fumes in the scoring department—5th worst in the land at just 91.1 points per game. Each member of the new millennium version of the “Big Three” has seen his per-game scoring drop 4-6 points below his career averages, and Rondo is now missing layups in addition to jumpers and free throws. Pierce and Allen can still fill it up on any given night, but those nights are few and far between, with Allen in particular going through stretches where he’s lucky to take ten shots, let alone make that many. Like late-career Reggie Miller, Allen is all about running around screens for open jumpers, or trailing on fast breaks for open threes. If the offensive schemes aren’t working, or fast breaks aren’t occurring, Allen gets left out.
Meanwhile, the reigning Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat are looking better than they did last last year, and the deep, defensive-minded Chicago Bulls seem capable of getting to the Finals with or without Derrick Rose. This is not the East of 2007-2008, when the Celtics rolled from start to finish.
All in all, this is grim stuff. However, here are some reasons—I’ll aim for a half dozen—to keep watching and keep rooting for this team, even as presently constituted:
1. Kevin Garnett. Yes, his scoring and rebounding numbers for the season are predictably down, but his numbers have been trending upward since the All-Star break, he’s doing a commendable job at center, and he remains the barking floor general who’s kept the Celtics atop the heap in terms of team defense. I don’t think anyone expected him to be playing this well. Speaking of which…
2. Team defense. The only reason those aforementioned rebounding and scoring woes have not sunk the Celtics to the cellar is their strong defense. They rank 3rd overall in fewest points allowed per game, with 90.5. (Philly and Chicago are 1 and 2, respectively.) More specifically, Boston ranks #1 in opponents’ 3-point field goal percentage and opponents’ assists per game, and they trail only the Sixers in overall field goal percentage. Folks who lament the departure of Kendrick Perkins or Coach Thibodeau should bear these numbers in mind. This team still knows how to play defense, and they are unlikely to get worse as long as KG is around.
3. The kids are alright. Of the players scarcely old enough to buy a beer, we’ve seen good signs from Avery Bradley, JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore, and Greg Stiemsma. For all the crap that was sent Tommy Heinsohn’s way for daring to compare Greg Stiemsma’s shot-blocking ability to that of Bill Russell, there was some truth to it. The kid has a knack for blocking shots, and more specifically, he has a knack for blocking shots in a way that gets the ball into his team’s hands, whereas other block addicts can’t help but spike the ball off the backboard or into the stands. I play in an over-30 league, and I block a lot of shots. Recently, the guy who runs the league told me “try to keep the ball in play” after I’d swatted a ball into the bleachers. It bugged me. Blocking shots is, and pretty much always was, my only forté in the game, so why the lecture? But he was just pulling something right out of Red Auerbach’s “Roundball” videos. A block is basically twice as good when it puts the ball back in your team’s hands. Stiemsma seems to know this, and he also seems to know that his best shot at having more than a cup of coffee in the NBA is to play smart and do what he’s asked to do… and that includes eating doo-doo from referees. (As luck would have it, Tommy Heinsohn just now, in the first quarter of this Celtics-Bobcats game, mentioned the crap he was given for the Stiemsma-is-like-Russell analogy, and he clarified that it is Stiemsma’s style of blocking that is analogous to Russell’s.) Fellow rookies and former Boilermakers JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore also appear to have futures in the league, with Johnson looking somewhat KG-esque with his pogo-stick build and Moore looking like a competent and confident shooter. Both of them have had “breakout” games of over 12 points, though neither of them has played much since Doc Rivers shortened the bench. The kid who may have the most value is Avery Bradley, who was a one-and-done at Texas and then had his rookie campaign thwarted by a) a bad ankle, and b) Doc Rivers, who basically hates rookies. Anyone who watched Bradley terrorize Jameer Nelson a few months ago could see how special he is in terms of one-on-one, on-ball defense. If any defender has faster lateral quickness, please let me know. All in all, Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers have to be satisfied with these four lads, who collectively are making about half of what Jermaine O’Neal is getting for being old, fat, and hurt.
4. Paul Pierce. He passed Larry Bird on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list, was named to another All-Star team, continues to be good for about 20 points, 6 boards, and 5 assists per game, and still has the supernatural ability to calmly sink daggers into opponents when the game is close. Pierce has an awareness of the pace of the game, and of his own pace, that rookies obviously do not possess and other veterans rarely hold onto as long or as well as Pierce has. He gets the timely rebound, he hits the timely three, he shuts down the other team’s scorer when doing so is most necessary, and he can act as the de facto point guard if Rondo is on the bench. I suppose all of this could be read as a backhanded way of saying ‘Paul Pierce picks his spots’ or ‘Paul Pierce phones it in too much,’ but that would be a legitimate criticism only if he were not past his prime. At this point, it’s just smart of him to be keeping an eye on his own gas tank and thinking ahead to the playoffs. It’s been nearly four years since Pierce was Finals MVP, and he’s on the wrong side of 30, but I wouldn’t put it past him to rise to that level again. If the Finals are a pipe dream, fine. I’ll be content to watch him nailing threes, duping defenders into fouling him on elbow jumpers, and pirouetting to the rim for and-ones until he retires. Pierce has matured and evolved as well as any NBA player this side of Steve Nash.
5. Brandon Bass. Below is the 2011-2012 stat line of a certain former Celtic:
4.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 8.5 PER
Here’s the same stat line (PER is for player efficiency) for Brandon Bass, who finds himself playing 30 minutes a game:
12.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 0.9 bpg, 14.00 PER
Guess who the first player is. If you guessed Glen “Big Baby” Davis, I wouldn’t blame you. After all, David was traded for Bass, so he’s an obvious point of comparison. But that first stat link actually belongs to OKC’s Kendrick Perkins. So, not only did Danny Ainge manage to get rid of a gravitationally-challenged head case by trading Big Baby for his childhood chum Brandon Bass, but he basically got back the production—and then some—of the thoroughly overrated Perkins, and at considerably less money. Bass has been extremely adept at hitting mid-range jumpers—his FG% is .474 to Big Baby’s .381—and unlike Perkins, he can catch a quick dish and explode for a dunk without having to dribble, squat, and then jump. I don’t know if Ainge put on his magic genius underwear or Orlando GM Otis Smith had another brain cramp, but Bass has been a godsend in this year of bad news among Boston’s big men. Perhaps Ainge should go after more players like this instead of throwing money at washed-up veterans (the O’Neals, Rasheed Wallace, Keyon Dooling).
6. Ubuntu! Just kidding. This isn’t the summer of ’08, this isn’t the Big Three in their prime, and there was no preseason bonding trip to Europe. But it looks like there’s a genuine “team first” vibe to this team, perhaps best exemplified by Jeff Green—an unsigned player whose future with the team, if not the NBA in general, is very much in doubt—coming to the games and sitting with the team on the bench. Meanwhile, none of the Hall of Farmers have asked to be traded to South Beach or Chicago, and there are rumors that they could actually re-up for yet another try next year, at lesser salaries. If this year is indeed the swan song and they do get beyond the first round of the playoffs, let’s follow the Sports Guy’s advice and admire this Celtics crew for crafting a five-year window out of something that was supposed to work for just two or three.