The Celtics have mailed in the second half of every game this season, save one.
Minus a blowout win on Election Day over the woeful Detroit Pistons, Boston has been outscored in the third and fourth quarters 302-263 — and that difference is spread across just six games. By average, they're losing the second half 50 to 44.
They turn the ball over more, they jog up and down the floor, they don't bang the boards as hard. In essence, for two quarters every night, the Boston Celtics become a subpar team.
And yet, the damnedest thing in all this is that they still manage to win.
The Celts are 6-1, earning impressive wins over Miami and Chicago at home, and over Oklahoma City on the road.
How? The bench, for one, has stepped up. After a shaky start, the NBA's best second unit has outscored its counterparts 70-31 over the last two games, with Glen Davis and Nate Robinson solidifying their presence as elite sixth and seventh men off the bench.
And there's the cold, hard truth that Boston's starters are — with few exceptions — simply better than their opponents. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett both look a year younger, while Rajon Rondo continues to emerge as one of the top three point guards in the league.
Boston, in other words, is winning in spite of itself, but the second-half hangovers have got to stop.
"In this league, everyone loses leads, but not the way we did today," Doc Rivers said after Sunday's win over the Thunder, in which the C's were outscored 46-34 in the third and fourth quarters. "We got up on a great team, and then you have to keep playing that way to win the game and stay up. We kind of let up. You can get away with that against a lot of teams. Not with a team with [Russell] Westbrook and [Kevin] Durant on it. You definitely can't do that."
Funny thing is, the Celtics did "do that." The bench managed to gain the lead back, and the starters finished the match off for a 92-83 win. But Doc's point stands: At some point, the mental and physical letdown is going to catch up with Boston.
It certainly did last season. It's largely why the Celtics managed just 50 regular-season wins — which, in turn, is why they had to go through Cleveland and Orlando on the road to make it to the Finals.
While they managed to get through those teams, it took six games apiece to do it and no doubt wore an older Boston team down. In Game 7 of the Finals against the Lakers, as every Boston fan knows, the Celtics did it again, outscored 49-39 in the second half en route to one of the most colossal meltdowns in the history of the franchise.
Which is where the two real problems facing Boston become most apparent.
First, like Doc said, the good teams generally take advantage of poor or lazy second-half performances. Miami almost did in the season opener (and likely would have if Dwyane Wade's hamstring had been 100 percent), and there's little doubt Los Angeles will again if faced with another Finals matchup against its archrival.
Second, it becomes habit, especially when they're still winning.
How many losses will it take for Boston to realize no lead in the NBA is safe? Ten losses? Twenty? Or will they wait again until Game 7 of the Finals to try to kick into an extra gear? And if so, will they be able to?
If nothing else, the Celtics can use regular-season wins as motivation. Rest is important, especially with an older roster, and no one expects Doc to trot out the starters for 40 minutes a night. Heck, no on expects many more than 60 wins.
But if you expend the energy building up a double-digit lead in the first half, the least you can do is expend enough in the second to maintain it. After all, the alternative has already cost Boston a loss to the LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers (out-scored 49-40 in the second half) and led to two overtime games that never had to happen.
Resting on the bench is fine. Resting on the court spells trouble.
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