The Celtics have 70 games down and only 12 to go in the regular season, and from here, they have two goals. One is to get healthy and the other is to get ready. But in what order?
The C's have done well over the last month on the injury front, returning a couple of key players to the rotation and gradually bringing a couple more closer. They're now looking to solidify things before the postseason. Only three weeks to go.
You guys had tons of good questions this week — some on the playoff grind ahead, others on the roadblocks standing in their way health-wise. Let's get to it.
Thanks to everyone for your submissions. Hope to see plenty more down the road.
1. I think the Celtics should concentrate on getting completely healthy and not worry about going after the best record in the East. What do you think?
Good question, Bill. Unfortunately, all I have for you is a wishy-washy answer.
On one hand, getting healthy would be nice, and if the C's have a chance to rest their key guys during these last 12 games, they have to consider it. But I think they're really starting to care about their regular-season record this year, even if they don't publicly admit it. Beating the Bulls for the No. 1 seed is important, not only because of home court for the East finals but also to avoid a seven-game series with LeBron James and the Heat in round two. Plus there's the matter of the surging Lakers. We all remember how much the Celtics wished they had home court against them last year.
I think Doc Rivers will look to pick his spots these last 12 games to rest his starters. In blowouts, he'll start pulling them out earlier and keep them out, and, if the last couple contests this year end up not mattering, he may rest the starters for an entire game or two. But for the most part, this is a team that needs every win it can get.
2. What's the extent of Shaquille O'Neal's injury — torn tendon? Strain? Sprain? When is he really getting back?
Nothing that serious — Shaq's Achilles really is just inflamed. It's not a major injury, but Shaq is 39, so the Celtics are being very cautious.
If these were playoff games, the big fella would have been back weeks ago. He might have missed no time at all. But the C's are playing it safe with him now, just keeping him fresh for the playoffs.
Shaq will likely be back within a week. Seriously, I mean it this time.
3. What about Jermaine O'Neal? When will he be back?
Jermaine had knee surgery on Feb. 5. He's had almost seven weeks to rehab now, and he's getting very close to a return.
I suspect we'll see him back on the floor with about a week to go in the regular season — not so soon that he rushes back and re-aggravates the injury, but not so late that he can't find his rhythm for the playoffs.
The Celtics signed Jermaine O'Neal last summer expecting him to be an impact player in the postseason. They still do have that expectation.
4. Will Von Wafer make it back from his injury soon? If so, do you think he'll have a better chance at being a factor in the playoffs than Carlos Arroyo?
The Celtics are being very cryptic about Von, which isn't a good sign. As far as anyone knows, the only problem he's got is a sore calf, which is strange, because he's been out for three weeks and counting.
Doc Rivers did say that Von shot around a little bit this week, but declined to say anything more.
I have doubts about whether the Celtics are expecting Von to be a real contributor in the playoffs. Because Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen play so many minutes, the C's really don't need a lot of guard depth — Delonte West will be their go-to third guard, and barring injury, no one will see many minutes beyond that.
5. Rajon Rondo's play has declined significantly over the last few games. Should the Celtics rest him at least once during the last few games of the season?
I think so, yes. Even if his ankle and pinkie finger aren't bothering him anymore, there's still the lingering problem of his plantar fasciitis. Plantar fasciitis doesn't go away — Rondo will have to deal with chronic foot soreness all season. And in a situation like that, a little extra rest certainly never hurts.
This is exactly why you have Carlos Arroyo, right? He may not play many minutes in the playoffs, but until then, he's a good guy to have around, to ease some of Rondo's workload. It would be nice if over these last 12 games, Rondo saw 25 or 30 minutes of action per game, rather than his typical 35.
6. Do you think Nenad Krstic will start over Shaquille O'Neal in Doc Rivers' playoff rotation?
–GamedayTycoon, via Twitter
Nope. The reason Danny Ainge felt comfortable dealing Kendrick Perkins was because he sees Shaq as a capable playoff starter. The Celtics are resting Shaq now because they want him in tip-top shape for the playoffs, and they wouldn't be doing that unless they had big plans for him. The C's want Shaq around so he can start every game in the playoffs, from Game 1 of the first round to Game 7 of the Finals.
Krstic will see some time in the postseason, probably mainly in the third and fourth quarters of games when Doc dips into his bench. But in the fourth quarter, Doc's go-to big man might not be Krstic or O'Neal. It may well be Glen Davis. Big Baby has proven his mettle as an energetic, tough player in crunch time, and it's time he got that opportunity regularly in the playoffs.
7. Will Glen Davis be a big factor in the playoffs?
Absolutely. Davis has been the first man off the bench for Doc Rivers pretty consistently this season, and assuming he stays healthy, that should continue.
Davis has shown a knack for stepping up in big games. Remember Game 4 of the Finals last year? He had 18 points and five boards, carrying the C's to victory and tying the series 2-2 with the Lakers.
Davis is showing a lot of maturity for a 25-year-old in his fourth season. Even if he does make the occasional boneheaded play (like the late 3-pointer in the Celtics' loss Wednesday against the Grizzlies), he's also made tons of inspired plays in crunch time. The C's can't win a title without him stepping up once or twice.
8. How well do you think the Celtics will do on the remaining back-to-backs? The schedule doesn't look too bad.
You're right, Spencer, it doesn't. The Celtics have four back-to-backs left, and these are the four teams they play on day two: Indiana, Atlanta, Washington, Washington again. The Hawks are the only team on that list that might scare you a little — but then again, the C's are 2-0 this season against the Hawks.
The Celtics are only 7-8 this season on day two of back-to-backs, but there's reason to be optimistic for these last four. The schedule's not too tough, the C's are getting deeper which should obviously help, and they're also starting to recognize the urgency of this final playoff push. Every win counts, and this team will really start working for these wins down the stretch.
9. The Celtics are 2-1 against the Bulls, but their wins were a while ago, before the Bulls started blowing everyone away. I think the C's can match up better with the new guys, but can they be good enough by April 7 to beat the Bulls in Chicago? Any predictions?
–Green With Pride
It's definitely true that the Bulls are a tougher team now than they were back when the Celtics had their number. After Dec. 3, when the C's improved to 2-0 against the Bulls, the Bulls were 9-8; in the 53 games since then, they're 42-11. Obviously, having a healthy Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer in the mix has made a huge difference.
It's also a good point that the Celtics have added some weapons to counter the Bulls' strengths. Jeff Green is an energetic player who can keep up with Chicago's run-and-gun tendencies, and a healthy Delonte West is one more strong defender you can throw at Derrick Rose.
But truth be told, I wouldn't bet on the Celtics in their final regular-season meeting. Beating the Bulls on the road is hard for anyone (the Bulls are 31-4 this season at the United Center), but it's especially hard for a team that's still working to rebuild its big man corps. Even if both O'Neals are back by April 7, I doubt they'll be totally ready for 48 minutes of Noah and Boozer.
Luckily, the Celtics aren't built to win a regular-season game on April 7. They've got bigger aspirations, if you know what I mean.