The Celtics kick off the second half of the season against the Utah Jazz tonight so in advance of game #42, here’s a look at some of the stories we’ll be following over the next 41 games.
The Top Seed – At 32-9, the C’s are 3 full games ahead of the Miami Heat for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and 4 games ahead in the loss column. Crushed by injuries early in the year, it seemed unlikely Boston would be able to stay in the hunt, but with the team finally getting healthy, they’re well-positioned for a run at 60+ wins and home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Overall, the Celtics remain 3.5 games back of the San Antonio Spurs for best record in the NBA and 2.5 ahead of the Lakers, who played an easy schedule early in the year and have a rougher ride ahead of them.
Health Watch – So far, it’s been a medical nightmare for the C’s and their impressive first half is a testament to the depth of the team Danny Ainge put together, Doc Rivers’ ability to mix and match parts, and the versatility of the players themselves, who have done whatever has been asked, even when pressed into unexpected minutes or service. Like all stories, how this one ends is more important than how it starts. So if the C’s continue to struggle with minor-ish injuries the next month, it’s not a huge concern. But come April, we’ll be watching to see if this team is able to bring its full, healthy rotation into the playoffs.
The Full Monty – Of course, we still haven’t seen what the Celtics look like with all their key players healthy and built into Rivers’ preferred rotation (which in and of itself remains a bit of a mystery). We know the C’s are very good and potentially very great, but come the end of February, when Delonte West and Kendrick Perkins are both back on the court, we could be primed for a different kind of March Madness.
Who Gets Squeezed Out – Assuming the C’s can get to the playoffs fully healthy, somebody’s gonna be on the outside of what will be a shortened playoff rotation. The bets here are Semih Erden, Luke Harangody, Nate Robinson, and maybe Von Wafer, who has made a case for himself with solid defense and an impressive off-the-dribble game.
Trader Dan – The Celtics claim, convincingly, they like their team when healthy. But given that last year’s season came down to the final few minutes of the final possible game, we can safely assume Ainge will look for any opportunity to improve this team’s prospects at a title. The smart money suggests he will probably stand pat but any team counting on aged bigs like Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal and rookie bigs like Erden and Harangody could use more size off the bench. Also, with Marquis Daniels’ injury history, another backup wing could be valuable insurance, particularly one who is big and physical on defense and can shoot the 3-ball.
Ray For Three – Ray Allen only needs to drop 27 more threes to tie Reggie Miller for the all-time record at 2560. The way he’s been shooting them since the calendar rolled over, that could happen tonight.
Big Games – Mark the following on your calendar:
Scoring – The C’s remain a reliably elite team on the defensive end (they’ve been jostling with Chicago for the top spot in efficiency) and Perk and West’s returns will only strengthen that area. So the question remains – can Boston move up the ladder in offensive efficiency, above the tenth spot, where they’ve been hovering all year (they’re ninth as of this writing at 106.7 points/100 possessions)?
Rondo’s Shooting – Rajon Rondo is shooting a career-high 47% from 16-23 feet, where teams will dare him to make shots as the playoffs begin in April. So, we’ll be watching to see if he continues to improve in that area and pull up his atrocious free throw shooting (46%) which is a disincentive for Rondo to drive the paint, where he’s shooting a career-high 65.2% at the rim.
Rebounding – Nobody wants a repeat of game 7 of the 2010 Finals. Rebounding proficiency will play a big part in that. The Celtics have improved their rebounding this year, but only to a certain extent, as we looked at earlier in the week. Will Perk’s return be enough of a difference maker in this area?
Kevin Garnett – The drive for #18 begins and ends with The Big Ticket. He’s played two games since returning from his calf injury and despite some expected issues with his wind, and some rust on the jumper, all systems appear to be go. If KG is healthy and playing at the 07-08 level, as he has been all year, this team has a legitimate shot at the title. If not, they don’t.