We've officially entered the dog days of winter, and the Celtics are officially playing like it. The C's are showing flashes of brilliance but are marred by flashes of inconsistency. Like it or not, you've got to take the bad with the good.
The Celtics earned three satisfying wins last week — a nail-biter over the Magic, a wire-to-wire grind over the Pistons and a surprising blowout of the Jazz. But then they followed it up with a colossal failure on the road, losing to John Wall and the Wizards thanks to horrendous shooting in quarters two through four.
You can't expect the C's to play perfectly every night, though. These grinding mid-season weeks are all about survival — and perhaps, somewhere along the way, building the rhythm to be a title contender in the spring. This team is still taking baby steps forward.
Here are seven thoughts on their progress:
1. Football season may be over in New England, but not before the Celtics learned a lesson from it. After watching the Patriots fall last week to the Jets, cutting short their postseason run, Kevin Garnett blogged about the loss, saying that the C's should take notice. "I want our guys to see that we can’t take anything for granted," he wrote. "We need to play as if we could be eliminated." Wise words — the Pats were the top seed in the AFC playoffs, just as the C's could well be in the East. That doesn't guarantee a thing.
2. Did the Celtics steal a win last Monday night over the visiting Orlando Magic? It took a clutch jumper from Paul Pierce and a clutch steal from KG to seal the deal on a three-point win. But did Rajon Rondo steal an assist on the game's opening play? Absolutely. Check out this video. Rondo makes an entry pass to Ray Allen, who dumps it to Shaquille O'Neal, who pump-fakes and dribbles and eventually scores. Yet somehow, Rondo is credited with the assist. It just goes to show you that you can't always trust the official scorers — sometimes, they're even bigger homers than the TV announcers. How many of Rondo's 416 assists this season are really legit? No one knows.
3. After the Celtics evened the score with the Magic, winning the rematch of their Christmas loss, Glen Davis had plenty of trash talk ready for the opposing big man in the Eastern Conference grudge match. "I think it's easy to guard him," Big Baby said of Dwight Howard. "He's a finesse guy. It would be different if you didn’t know which way he was going, but if he's just going one way or making one move, it's hard for him to power over big dudes who are just as strong as him." Strong words — but they'd probably be stronger if Howard hadn't just outscored him 33-15. They call Howard Superman for a reason, regardless of what Davis says.
4. In another individual grudge match last week, the Celtics came out way ahead. That would be Friday night, when Rondo thoroughly outplayed Deron Williams in the C's blowout win over the Jazz. D-Will's final line: five points, six assists, zero rebounds. He took only four shots. It was the first time all season that he'd scored five points or less. In his career, Williams has scored five points or fewer 32 times, but in the last three seasons, this was only his fifth. Williams has become the best scorer on one of the game's best offensive teams, and the C's just manhandled him.
5. With a professional shooter like Ray Allen, you never want to say that pressure's getting the best of him. But get this: ever since Allen has moved within 30 3-pointers of Reggie Miller's all-time record and the media scrutiny has picked up, his shooting has really fallen off. Over the first nine games of 2011, Allen was having one of the best shooting hot streaks of his career — he was 28-for-40 from long range, or 70 percent. Since then? He's had a long week. In his last three games, he's 4-for-20, or 20 percent. Even for a veteran like him, it'll take some fortitude to block out the distractions and shoot. These could be a long few weeks as Allen chases history.
6. The Celtics sent Avery Bradley down to the D-League so he could see some more minutes and get some reps as a pro basketball player. So far, mission accomplished on that front. Check out Bradley's stats so far with the Maine Red Claws: through four games, he's averaging 15.0 points, 3.8 assists and 2.0 steals in 25.5 minutes. He even dropped 20 on the Texas Legends on Friday night. Bradley has hardly played a lick this season at any level, but he's catching on fast. You might see him back in Boston before too long.
7. The C's are being predictably cryptic about the most recent injury to Shaquille O'Neal, saying he has a hip ailment but withholding the specifics on how bad it is or how long he'll be out. We know he's not playing Tuesday against the Cavaliers, nor is he likely to be active Thursday when the C's open their road trip in Portland. So here's a prediction: Shaq will be back come Sunday. That's when the Celtics play their most anticipated game of all this season — their return to the Staples Center to take on the Lakers. The rivalry with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers was one driving force behind the Celtics' signing Shaq in the first place, so Shaq had better be ready for this weekend's grudge match.
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