“Frustration is high on our team right now,” head coach Doc Rivers told reporters after Sunday’s embarrassing 100-77 loss in Miami.
It’s the Understatement of the Year, and perhaps it feels like the Green are done. It did for me when I watched Dwyane Wade block a recreation-basketball style layup by Ray Allen, followed by a hoop-and-harm for Chris Bosh at the other end—after an offensive rebound (one of 15 the Heat pulled down in the game).
But it’s not over yet.
You’ll remember that Boston finished the 2009-10 regular season in a 3-7 drought, including embarrassing defeats at the hands of the Knicks and Wizards. This year, they’re a much better .500 over their last 10.
Sure, last year was different. Doc was resting a veteran squad that already knew it was a four-seed.
This time around, however, the starters are playing extended minutes, battling for the No. 2 spot—and still can’t buy a win against the league’s elite (minus San Antonio on March 31).
They’ve lost that "flip the switch" ability that has defined the Big Three era in Boston. Against Chicago and Miami, that switch short-circuited.
But there are fixes, at least five of them, that could help push the Celtics deep into the playoffs.
1. Resign Kendrick Perkins …. Kidding, kidding.
1. Rajon Rondo
I’ve heard whispers on the blogosphere of a "Replace Rondo" campaign, no doubt coming from Delonte West apologists. Crazy talk. Lest we forget, the young gun is at his best in the postseason—16 points, nine assists, six boards in the 2010 playoffs—and he’ll no doubt bring it when challenged by Chauncey Billups in the first round (if the C’s draw the Knicks).
Part of the 25-year-old’s recent struggles (a combined 11 dimes against Chicago and Miami) comes down to achy legs. But outside of resting up in the short interim between Wednesday and the weekend, Rondo needs to focus on three things: (1) Get over the loss of your best friend Perkins — he’s not coming back; (2) Push in transition; and (3) Penetrate and dish. The Celtics are undoubtedly at their best when Rondo does the latter two.
I know losing Perk hurt the shot-stopping in the low post, but Boston’s defense was superb without him in the first half of the season. Ranked No. 1 in the NBA, in fact.
They simply must reinvest in it. Rondo has to stop taking gambles on opposing point guards (I’ve never seen someone attempt the matador-and-poke so often); Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic need to be quicker on their rotations; and the team as a whole desperately needs a big body in the middle to deflect penetration. Which brings us to ….
3. The O’Neals
I might not have said so at season’s start, but Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal must contribute defensively, or the C’s are finished. Even if they can only offer a combined 30 minutes, the two giants are exactly what Boston needs to knock around slimmer post players like Amare Stoudemire and Bosh.
In fact, when comparing the Heat and Celtics earlier this season, the biggest advantage most gave to Boston—their size in the frontcourt. Shaq and Jermaine, even if hobbled, could help them reclaim that edge.
And I’m not talking about the fake kind.
“I thought it was all theatrical, all the crap," Doc said Sunday about a second-quarter scuffle between Jermaine and LeBron James. “I guess that’s called toughness these days. Two guys run into each other, we’ve got to call a flagrant foul, which I thought was a joke. And I thought the reactions by both were a joke.”
The Celtics’ toughness of last year and of the title run in 2008, the kind embodied by Kevin Garnett, is more focused on play within the game: being the first to loose balls; taking charges; setting hard screens; boxing out; out-muscling your defender; getting into the paint and drawing fouls — all the stuff that Miami did to Boston on Sunday afternoon.
The Celtics have lost their killer instinct, in other words. They need to use the intensity of the playoffs to help them regain it.
There’s not enough time for another trip to Italy, but perhaps the club should at least go have dinner together. Arrange one of those players-only meetings that have become all the rage. Do something, because this team has lost every semblance of the “ubuntu” that carried it for three seasons.
No swagger. No joking together on the bench. No communication on defense. They’re like the sad, suburbanite married couple that doesn’t talk during dinner anymore, and if they don’t do at least some of the above and find a way to right the ship, they’ll have all summer to be apart.
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