The Celtics have nine games left before the playoffs.
1. A Lasting Return By An O’Neal. The Celtics need an O’Neal – any O’Neal - they can count on for 25 minutes a night over the next three months. Both Shaq and J.O. have reportedly lost the weight they should have lost last summer. J.O. is due back tomorrow night against San Antonio with Shaq due to follow in the next week. Plugging either one into the center spot should have positive ripple effects on the eight items below. If neither proves reliable, banner #18 is out of the question. Isn’t it?
2. Offensive fluidity. Ray Allen is frustrated with his lack of touches. Rajon Rondo suggests the Celtics aren’t sure what to run in crunchtime. Jeff Green’s place in the offense remains a work-in-progress. Until recently, Paul Pierce seemed content to take jumpers rather than attack the basket. Of course, we know Boston isn’t a great offensive team. They’re a mediocre one. But to achieve even that level of efficiency, they need five men working to generate good shots. Defenses are about to get stingier. Does Doc Rivers have enough time to pull this thing together?
3. Shoring up the defense. In the eighteen games since the Perk trade, the Celtics have allowed 98.6 points/100 possessions, which would rank second in the league over the full season. So, statistically, they’re still elite. But there’s clearly room for improvement, given failures in both perimeter defense and interior defense over the last few weeks. On the flipside, there’s reason for optimism given some of the shutdown quarters they’ve submitted lately.
4. A narrative shift. By the final buzzer on April 13, the story we want to be hearing about these Celtics goes something like this: “despite some dark moments and ugly games after the Kendrick Perkins trade, Rivers got his shellshocked troops refocused on working together on offense and rallied around their identity as a badass defensive team, which never went away (see #3). The struggles through the last third of the season proved merely the inevitable growing pains that result when you switch out almost half your roster halfway through the season.” It hasn’t felt like it lately, but there’s still time for this narrative to take prominence over the current one, which amounts to something like, “the Celtics aren’t trying ’cause they’re sad, ’cause they’re injured, ’cause they’re evolving into a fringe player in the NBA title quest this spring.”
5. Victories against Chicago and Miami. The Celtics could reaffirm their standing amongst the elite (and their standing in the standings) with wins against the Bulls and Heat. Victories in those games would also be a small validation of the changes Danny Ainge wrought because this new Celtics amalgam has beaten neither yet. Miami, in particular, stands to benefit from a late-season win, as the Celtics have been in their heads all year long. That whole throat-stepping-on thing Tommy Heinsohn and Larry Bird advocated? Now’s the time for it.
6. Cockiness. This team is supposed to be arrogant. When Garnett is sneering at European players, when Pierce is bowing to opposing crowds, when Allen is mocking teams that don’t belong on the court with Boston… that’s the team you want to see heading into the playoffs but it’s been in short supply lately. A relevant question – is this mentality a product of good play or a cause of it?
7. The return of the starters. There’s a chance this is the last run for this Celtics team, particularly if those Garnett-may-retire rumors have any truth to them. And if he retires and Rivers finally moves on, it probably undoes Pierce and Allen’s chances to add second titles to their resumes. It’d be nice if the big three attacked this last stretch with that in mind – we may never get back here again.
8. Jeff Green, essential rotation piece. I’m nowhere near Nate Robinson-level cynicism about his fit on this team, but I’m still unconvinced about the Jeff Green experiment because he seems to have no elite skills, no position for which he’s ideally suited, and an unassertive personality on the court. I’d like some more declarative performances out of him before the playoffs, the kind that make clear why Ainge thinks this trade made the Celtics stronger this year. I’m so ready to be convinced on this one. Will I have to wait until the playoffs?
9. Rest. While we’re shooting for the moon here, it’d be nice for Allen, Garnett and Pierce to each get a game or two off, like Rondo did on Sunday. Friday night, on another SEGABABA, seems a good place to start.
Is there a #10 I missed in there?