Joel is the newest writer to hit the pine for NBAMate. A basketball tragic who lives and breathes the NBA and sees the world through his green-tinted Celtics glasses. When he’s not out balling, you can find him rambling on endlessly about how good Larry Bird and Bill Russell would be in today’s game. It’s not an obsession, so he tells me…
After the All-Star Break, late last month, the Celtics went 3-1 on a weeklong West Coast road trip. Since that time a lot has changed for the Celtics as they returned home to a locker room full of unfamiliar faces.
“It’s been a crazy week. People don’t really think about the emotions, the connections you make in this game and the friends you make on the way in this journey when you’re in the league”, Garnett said. “It’s difficult at times, to be honest with you”.
The Celtics had won 5 consecutive games before losing the last two to the Clippers and 76ers. In the victories, the “Big Core Four” of Rondo, KG, Pierce and Ray built home leads of 28 and 16 points against Phoenix and Golden State, respectively. However as the leads diminished, it is evident the new-look bench has been unable to solidify the starters’ effort. In the losses, the starters have looked lethargic in creating a hole too large for the team to dig itself out of.
Doc Rivers and the Celtics Bench have plenty of work to do before the playoffs begin in 5 weeks. Something Doc surely wasn’t expecting at this point in the season.
With a schedule that includes five games in the next 7 days including 2 back-to-backs, there will be ample on-court opportunity to allow for integrating new players and improve team chemistry. Team chemistry is a central theme of the Celtics’ success as the team preaches solidarity; Boston is a Brotherhood. “They are my new teammates, so I welcome them with open arms and look forward to playing with them”, KG said when discussing the new personnel.
The Celtics have been plagued by injuries throughout the season. Delonte West, Semih Erden, Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal have missed a considerable amount of games due to injury as well as Marquis Daniels who suffered a season-ending spinal cord injury. Glen Davis and Von Wafer are the latest to join the list that are nursing injuries.
The bench has not been able to attain any consistency due to the unavailability of healthy players. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are the only players to have played in every game this season (Ray came extremely close to missing last Friday’s game against the Warriors after making a game time decision). With the playoffs insight Danny Ainge was put in a hard place to try to solidify the bench.
The Celtics have made several significant moves in overhauling their roster; After essentially dumping salaries of Semih Erden, Luke Harangody and Marquis Daniels, Troy Murphy, Carlos Arroyo and Sasha Pavlovic were acquired through buyouts. However, it was the controversial and heart-wrenching trade that sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.
But does that rule out raising Banner 18? I wouldn’t count out these Celtics; ever. (Remember last season after the Celtics literally limped into the playoffs?)
Doc Rivers preached that the starting five had never lost a playoff series. Kendrick Perkins, along with Kevin Garnett, was seen as the defensive lynchpin of the Celtic defense that allowed Pierce, Ray and Rondo to pressure the perimeter. Perkins is the premier post-defender in the NBA as he could defend opposing centres like Dwight Howard in single coverage. He was an integral part of Boston’s advantage in the forwards over Miami and Chicago. Perkins was all heart and soul. He had an impeccable work ethic and was the consummate teammate.
However, there are two schools of thought; one believes that Boston lost game 7 of the Finals last year due to Perkins’ absence. That is why they assembled a squad of 7 footers in the offseason. Shaq, Jermaine O’Neal and Semih Erden were brought in to combat the Lakers frontline of Bynum, Gasol and Odom.
The other school of thought is that the Celtics lost the series against the Lakers as they lacked a swingman that could play either small forward or power forward thus allowing Garnett to play centre in stretching the floor with shooting for Rondo and the Celtics. Recall the 2008 NBA Finals against the Lakers when James Posey would play the crucial final minutes with Perkins watching from the bench. One non-scorer in Rondo was hard enough let alone having two. In the 2008 Finals, Perkins averaged just 18 minutes in the five games he played (he missed game 5 because of a strained right shoulder). In game 7 last year, the Celtics established a 13 point lead with Rasheed Wallace starting before fatigue set in.
Ainge believes that the starting unit are strongest with Shaq starting. “We were leading the conference because of Shaq (while Perk was injured). We had a better record with Shaq than we did with Perk, Our offense was better and our defense was at least the same”, Ainge said. “I don’t think Perk is Perk yet. We think that by adding Green, Krstic and Murphy, we are a better team than we were”.
Krstic has averaged 13.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game since joining the Celtics. Filling-in as the starting centre, Krstic has shown that he is more valuable than just a “throw-in” to the trade. However, the trade was made with the purpose to acquire 24 year old, Jeff Green.
The suitably named new Celtic gives Doc Rivers and the Celtics the elusive, athletic running mate for Rondo to finish on the fast break. Rondo is no longer a one-man fast break as Green showed against the Warriors. Green scored 21 points, many of those coming from simply outrunning his opponent down court and finishing at the basket.
“Jeff is probably one of the most versatile guys I’ve been around,” KG said. “He does a lot of things that, he just makes it look simple. I can’t put it into words right now. I’m glad he’s an addition to our team”.
Moreover, Green will be able to provide some flexibility as he can play as an oversized small forward or allow Doc to employ a smaller line-up with Green at the four and Garnett at the five.
Although Perkins provided a strong inside presence against the Lakers, Ainge figured that it wouldn’t matter if they couldn’t get past Miami or Chicago in the East. Make no mistake; Green was acquired to help defend against the likes of Luol Deng, Carmello, LeBron and Kobe (if it comes down to it).
With a potential bench consisting of Green, Davis, West, Krstic and Jermaine O’Neal, there is an added element of flexibility. West can ably back up Rondo and Allen, Green can spell Pierce or Garnett and Davis can also cover at centre or power forward. This is a more dynamic bench who are young and athletic while providing an ability to stretch the floor with solid shooting.
There is no doubt that the Celtics will miss Kendrick Perkins. He was committed to his game as he recovered from a serious knee injury; Always gracious to the fans and supporters; Loyal to the team and provided chemistry in a very close locker room; Dedicated to the success of the team.
“It’s very emotional, especially for me”, said Pierce. “I had a chance to see Perkins grow up from Day One, fresh out of high school. The guys around this locker room are hurting to see Perk go”.
What accentuated the impact of the trade was how unexpected it was. Hearing news of the trade almost felt like an April Fool’s joke.
Furthermore, Ainge has made a high-stake gamble that Shaq will be healthy enough to help in the playoffs. It’s not enough that Shaq has missed 21 games with a multitude of injuries already this season but at 39 years old, there is nothing to indicate that Shaq will be able to provide 20 minutes a game in the playoffs.
Ainge has also vowed that Jermaine O’Neal will return and provide meaningful minutes. Jermaine O’Neal has played in just 17 games this season and has missed the last two months. You would not be at fault if you had little faith as to what impact Jermaine could have after having arthroscopic surgery on his knee last month.
At this point, it’s almost laughable that both O’Neals will be available for the playoffs. Having said that, if Ainge had not made any moves, the Celtics would have had a very slim bench. Nate Robinson, Kendrick Perkins, Semih Erden and Luke Harangody are all currently nursing injuries for their new teams.
Ainge knows exactly what he did; he took a calculated gamble. He addressed team injuries. He exchanged toughness, post-interior defense and potentially affected chemistry for athleticism and youth on the bench while providing flexibility at multiple positions.
Ainge is confident heading into the payoffs with a healthy KG who has been more aggressive recently. With Rondo continuing to run the show alongside Pierce and Ray, Ainge was in no doubt that Doc and his “Big Core Four” could incorporate their new teammates. Give Doc credit here; Ainge would not have made the trades if he didn’t have faith in Doc and his ability to manage individuals. Doc is the leading candidate as coach of the year. With a multitude of injuries this season, Doc has lead the Celtics to sit atop the Eastern conference standings.
The Celtics recognize chemistry as one of its main strengths. They know how important chemistry is. “To me chemistry is everything”, Pierce said. “It doesn’t matter what type of talent you bring in or what type of talent you have on your ball club. People underrate what chemistry brings. This is one of the tightest units, one of the most together teams that you could probably think of, especially because we’ve been together for so many years. So hopefully we can integrate the new guys that we’ve got coming in and they can pick up things pretty quickly, and make the adjustment in lifestyle to just how we are off the court”.
This season is all about banner 18. Ainge gambled with the short window of opportunity that is present with the Big Three. He knows he’ll receive the brunt of criticism if the Celtics don’t win it all this season. “I’m alright with that”, Ainge said. “Blame me all you want. Do I get all the credit if we win?”
He won’t get all the credit. But after trading one of Boston’s most endearing characters he will get all the blame if they fall short of capturing Banner 18.
Anything else apart from 18 just doesn’t cut it.