The Celtics have limped their way into All-Star weekend as the fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference, and you can't imagine they're happy. This is the same Boston team that won an NBA championship just 20 months ago, the same team that made the playoffs last season and looked poised to win it again, if not for untimely injuries, the team that's shelling out over $85 million this season to ensure a return to the NBA's promised land.
If the season ended today, you'd have to call it a bust. No one puts in this much time, this much effort and this much money just to be an also-ran. The Celtics went into this season being viewed as an elite team in the Eastern Conference, at an echelon where only Cleveland and Orlando could even touch them. They expected way, way better than this.
After losing their final game of the first half on the road on Wednesday night 93-85 to a bruised New Orleans team, the Celtics are now 32-18. After a Christmas Day win over the Magic brought them to 23-5 on the season, the Celtics have lost 13 of 22 games in the month and a half since. They're playing like a lottery team. And no matter how many injuries you've suffered or how many problems you're facing in the locker room, that's scary.
At a certain point, you have to decide where you stand, not only in this Eastern Conference playoff race but also in the serious discussion of who's a real NBA title contender and who isn't. The Celtics have to make up their minds: Are they in or are they out? If they're in, they need to regain their laser-sharp focus on making a playoff run, and they need to muster the confidence to take on the big Eastern Conference titans that have given them so much trouble this season. If they're out, it's time to reassess the roster, take a look at their spare pieces and expiring contracts, and start to think about making a few rebuilding deals. And yes, this could mean goodbye to Ray Allen.
The time for making excuses is over. The Celtics have to get down to business and figure out where they stand.
And if you're going to write a Celtics State of the Union Address, here's what you have to go on. Here's what we know.
We know that when healthy, Boston still has the best starting five in the Eastern Conference. Who else among these top East teams can you trust? LeBron James is great, but what happens to the Cavaliers when the King has an off night? Do you expect Mo Williams and Delonte West to carry the load?
Dwight Howard is great too — but what happens when he runs into a bad matchup and the Magic aren't hitting 3s? Can you count on Orlando to win big games in the postseason?
The Hawks' talented group of youngsters is all well and good, but can they get it done this spring with no experience and no clue how to win the big one?
The Celtics' starting five has it all. Paul Pierce is their leader offensively; Kevin Garnett holds down the fort on defense; Allen hits big shots; Kendrick Perkins is a beast down low; and Rajon Rondo, as everyone now knows, is one of the most explosive young point guards in the game. If all of these guys are healthy and motivated come April, the Celtics will be in good shape, no matter what playoff seed they get.
We know that when it matters, the C's can play defense better than anyone. For all the ugly losses they've put up in recent weeks, the numbers are still there. Per game, they've allowed 93.7 points this season. That's the lowest figure in the league. Per 100 possessions, they've given up 101.7. Also numero uno.
It's not easy to play stellar lock-down defense for 48 minutes a game, 82 games a year. It just takes too much energy. When you're banged up the way these Celtics are, it becomes pretty much impossible. But the C's have proven that they can get it done defensively when they commit to it. In a crunch-time moment in a big game, there's no better defensive team than the Celtics. That was true in 2008 when the C's won the NBA finals, and we easily forget it, but it's still true now.
We know that ultimately, when it comes down to it, the Celtics are the one team that's done it before. James has brought his team close to an NBA title before, but remember: He's still only 25. He's never felt the sense of urgency that engulfs KG, Pierce and Allen every spring. He's never found it within himself to will his team to a title. If you want the best team in the East right now, that's the Cavs, but if you want the team that has what it takes in the end, don't bet the farm on James just yet.
The Celtics have gotten it done before. The starting five from the 2008 title-winner remains intact, and they've all proven their championship muster. It's still there. If you doubt the Celtics now, they'll punish you later.
Of course, the ultimate goal is not just conquering the East, but it's being prepared to take down the Lakers in June. Two years ago, Boston accomplished that goal; the question is whether they're now capable of doing it again.
The big picture is that this Celtics team is still very much alive. If anyone tells you the C's are done, don't listen to them. In the second half of this season, they've got another thing coming.