Father Time Finally Catching Celtics?
Coach Doc Rivers knew the moment his career was over, will the Boston Celtics know when it’s time to start thinking towards the future?
The possibility of an end to the Celtics days of being title contenders in the East is nothing new. Critics bashed Boston after losing in the conference semifinals last season to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Miami HEAT – this after the C’s took the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the NBA Finals just a year earlier.
However the idea that this team may be just plain finished is something new this season, and the C’s sub .500 record with one game to go heading into the All Star break could be a telling sign that this team may merely be a shell of their former selves.
Do the Celtics, with three of their best four players at the age of 34 or above, have one more run in them, or is this a team on it’s last legs yearning for an infusion of youth and a new direction?
Boston’s head coach, in an especially candid interview with the assembled media before Monday’s game between Boston and the Dallas Mavericks, Rivers said he could remember the approximate moment when he knew his career was over as an NBA player.
“Yeah, I could tell you the exact moment for me because I was planning on playing the following year and I got hurt in the playoffs,” Rivers said of his final postseason run in 1995-96 with the San Antonio Spurs. “We were talking about this last night on the bus. I got hurt in the playoffs, I was just sliding into Kevin Johnson and my back went out. I remember Gregg Popovich walked in and said, ‘We have to get you back for the playoffs.’ I said, ‘I’ll never play another minute or second in my life,’ and I held true to that.”
This brings us to the team Rivers now coaches, an increasingly elderly and struggling Celtics squad. Even though he’s been through it first hand, Rivers says he doesn’t discuss the imminent (in some cases current) vanishing of talent with Boston’s veteran players.
“I think when you start talking about it then you have one foot in [the grave] and I don’t think you should ever talk about it,” Rivers said. “I think you should just keep playing. It’s a gift to be able to play this game and I think you should play it as long as you can. I’ve always thought that with stars they’re viewed on an unfair scale.
“Me, for example, I was an average player so at the end of my career I could keep being average and no one cared,” Rivers joked. “My numbers dropped in half and I didn’t read [about it] everyday… Yet, if that was David Robinson everyone would’ve wrote, ‘David Robinson is not scoring the same amount of points,’ but he is still one of the better players on our team. I’ve always thought that it’s the unfair part for the stars once they can’t be stars anymore. No one will accept them as good basketball players and personally I’ll take a lot of good basketball players, they don’t have to be stars anymore.”
That’s a good question going forward for this Celtics team: are the likes of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen still stars in this league or just “good basketball players?”
Now sitting at 15-16 after Monday’s 89-73 dismantling at the hands of the Mavericks made it four consecutive losses, the Celtics have fallen below .500 for already the second time this season. To put that in perspective for Boston, the last time this team had a losing record at any point during an NBA season was 2006-2007 – the year before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were acquired to turn around one of the worst teams in basketball.
“I’ve been through this,” said Paul Pierce, who is the lone remaining player from the 06-07 Celtics squad that finished an Eastern Conference-worst 24-58. “You’ve just got to be mentally tough. We can’t put our heads down, feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to work harder and compete night in and night out.”
To be fair to the Celtics, injuries and suspensions have been prominent issues through the first 31 games of the season. Rajon Rondo, Garnett, Pierce and Allen have all missed time this season for various reasons which has left Boston shorthanded in many of their 16 losses
“Its real tough when you’re put in this situation, but we have a lot of pride and [we’ll] continue to go out there and compete and show improvement,” Pierce said. “It is what it is. It’s a difficult time of the season where there’s a lot of injuries and we’ve been on the bad luck end of it as of late. So we just got to keep grinding through and weather the storm.”
The inactive list continues to pile up for Boston. Rondo and Brandon Bass are definitely out tonight against the Oklahoma City Thunder, with Garnett, Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O’Neal each day-to-day.
With nearly half the roster out on any given night, it’s no wonder Rivers says he’s “scared” to talk to the medical staff because, as he says, they always seem to be giving him bad news.
Even with the recent turmoil another key member of the once mighty Boston trio, Allen, doesn’t believe this is a time for the Celtics to panic. The 15-year vet believes Boston is still a championship-caliber club and feels this team still has room for improvement.
“This is the time for all of us to circle the wagons and come together and figure out what we can do to be better,” Allen said. “It’s not about pointing fingers, it’s just about learning how we can be better as a unit. The bottom line is to win games.”
One positive this season, as it seems to be every year for Boston, has been the same suffocating defense that paved the way to an NBA-title in 2007-2008. As the one thing the C’s can consistently rely on, this team ranks second in the NBA in both points allowed (87.5) and field goal percentage allowed (41.6 percent).
Unfortunately for the C’s they don’t exactly light up the scoreboard themselves. While ranking in the top-five in many defensive categories, Boston ranks in the bottom five of the NBA in points – averaging just 89.1 points per contest.
Of course, another thing Boston could be banking on is the fact that this veteran team has the potential to wreak havoc come playoff time if they can make it into the fray with a rested and healthy roster.
In this shortened season, a team like Boston’s array of postseason experience would seem to be an advantage in a seven-game series. The Celtics can keep focused on just making the playoffs in general without worrying about seeding because it would be about just being healthy and ready come playoff time.
With no other team in the East capable of supplanting Boston as the current eighth seed, a playoff berth seems eminent and that would set the stage for the Celtics trying to stage an upset in the first round.
“It’s going to be structured differently,” Allen said. “The playoffs are going to be a lot more interesting this year, so our habits have to be built and we have to stay consistent because it’s going to be up in the air.”
Trade Winds Stirring
The only problem with Allen’s theory is that this team may be structured differently come playoff time.
With the recent plunge in the standings, the unavoidable trade chatter has already begun to emanate around the league. Cornerstones of this team like Allen and Rondo have recently begun to be mentioned in connection to various teams around the league as trade bait for Boston to retool.
General Manager Danny Ainge hasn’t shied away from making moves with this Celtics team in the past and it will be interesting to see if he pulls the trigger on a blockbuster trade before the March 15 trading deadline.
Coach Rivers believes this team needs more time to get healthy and see what they can do together on the court before making any rash decisions.
“Why shake things up if guys are injured,” Rivers asked rhetorically. “I think Danny’s always going to look for trades. I think you know who Danny is. Having said that I don’t think Danny is going to do anything crazy.”
In a recent interview with the Boston Herald, Ainge seems – for now at least – to agree with Rivers’ sentiment.
“My feelings haven’t changed yet,” Ainge told the Boston Herald. “You don’t panic when things aren’t going well and when your lineup isn’t 100 percent.”
If this team does in fact stay intact, the Celtics have 34 games after the All-Star break to get things clicking. Then Boston will likely have to win on the road in the playoffs to avoid knocked out in the early stages for the second straight year.
At this point an early exit seems like the most likely conclusion to this season and, if that’s that case, there’s little doubt there will be sweeping changes to the roster this offseason.
Regardless, Boston’s most productive era since the 80′s appears to be coming to an end.
Derek’s weekly chat is going down again this Saturday at 5:00 PM EST. Feel free to get your questions in early by clicking here.