They still have nagging injuries that creep up from time to time, their effort level is still maddeningly inconsistent, but in the end, they still have the ability to rise to the occasion and win big games. That last point was made crystal-clear by the Celtics’ victory in Atlanta on Monday night, a resounding 99-76 win that was effectively over in the first quarter.
The C’s are now 10-4, alone atop the Eastern Conference but still looking to put it all together. Here are a few lessons learned from an up-and-down week of Celtics action:
1. With the win in Atlanta, the Celtics narrowly escaped their first three-game losing streak of the season. Last year, the C’s didn’t have a single three-game skid until Dec. 30, when they completed a post-Christmas stumble after a blowout loss at Phoenix. The C’s had three other three-game losing streaks last season, consummating them Jan. 20 at Detroit, Jan. 31 against the Lakers, and April 2 with an overtime loss to the Rockets. It’s been nearly two years since they’ve lost four straight games — since Jan. 9, 2009, to be exact.
2. What was the weirdest thing about the Celtics losing to the Raptors on Sunday? Historically, the Celtics have owned the Raptors. Going into Sunday afternoon, the C’s were 11-1 against Toronto since adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen back in 2007. Addition by subtraction, I guess — the Raps were only able to figure the C’s out once they’d unloaded their two best players, Chris Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu. It doesn’t make much sense, does it?
3. The big overarching storyline of this week is this: Smart coaches are always overly cautious with injured young superstars. Look at Flip Saunders with John Wall, Scott Brooks with Kevin Durant, and of course Doc Rivers with Rajon Rondo. All three stars could have easily played this week despite minor injuries (foot, ankle and hamstring, respectively), but all three played it safe. In the long run, they’ll be happy they did. You can never be too careful with one of the game’s best young talents.
Side note: Boston just missed its one chance to see Kevin Durant in person this season. If you’re a good fan, you’re rooting hard for a Celtics-Thunder NBA Finals in June.
4. The Celtics are a completely different team with Nate Robinson running the point instead of Rondo. Nate doesn’t have the court vision to be the playmaker that Rondo is, but his ability to score makes the C’s a difficult team to guard. Teams like to sag off of Rondo a little bit defensively, using a roving defender to help out on other scorers, but with Nate on the floor, that’s impossible. The Raptors, despite winning, learned that the hard way on Sunday afternoon, when the little man exploded for 16 points in the first quarter.
5. There’s another backup point guard in town, and he’s ready to contribute. Avery Bradley made his NBA debut in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s blowout, and while he didn’t do anything too dazzling (two points, a rebound, an assist and a steal), he showed great effort and a tremendous willingness to play defense. He’s going to be a solid role player for the Celtics this season and beyond — if Doc gives him minutes, that is.
6. Bradley’s comeback is an inspiring one, and it makes you wonder — maybe Jermaine O’Neal could be the next Celtic to make a successful return from the injured list? J.O. has been much maligned by Celtics fans the past month or two, and his litany of injuries — hamstring, wrist, back, now a sore knee — makes it obvious why. But it’s still only November! There’s plenty of time for J.O. to return to action and have an impact for the Celtics this season. People are calling his $12 million contract the biggest bust of the summer, but O’Neal still has plenty of time to prove them all wrong. Don’t bet against him.
Speaking of O’Neals?
7. Shaquille O’Neal may be past his prime as a basketball player, but he’s still working as hard as ever off the court. He estimates that he shoots one or two commercials per month, two or three public service announcements a month, and — get this — five photo shoots a week. Last week he stayed late in the Celtics’ practice gym one day, doing a shoot for Boston Common magazine.
“As long as it’s a cover shot, I’ll do the photo shoot,” Shaq says with a grin. “But if it’s not a cover shot? I’m in a meeting.”