Kevin Garnett is resurgent, Jermaine O’Neal is not and it’s exactly one week until the trade deadline. We cover these topics and more in our weekly 5-on-5 with Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston and five of our (international) readers.
1. What’s behind KG’s post-all-star break surge?
Chris Forsberg: A combination of knowing that this season (and the future of the Big Three) likely hinged on the stretch of games coming out of the break and Garnett being shuffled to the center position. Garnett has thrived in a league thin on pure centers, using a newfound quickness advantage at the 5 to increase his offensive output. In a way, it’s given Garnett a little extra confidence and combined with Boston’s early success in the second half, he’s playing some very inspired ball at both ends of the floor (at a time when Boston needed it most).
Brendan Jackson: A mixture of pride and a legitimate second wind. KG’s play, like the rest of the Celtics, will continue to fluctuate with the weather. That said, it’s encouraging to see that he still has the ability to reach down and find enough to dominate opponents on a given night.
Brian Robb: Fresh legs and a sense of urgency. The lengthy All-Star respite combined with a two-game personal absence before the break perhaps had the hidden blessing of revitalizing Garnett’s legs. You also can’t overlook the additional focus KG and his teammates have had with their new “grind” mentality since the break. Take that, combined with some added rebounding responsibilities at center and you’ve got an 18-10 player.
CelticsHub Reader Mark Allison: It could very well be that KG is making his last stand. He might be contemplating retirement at the end of the season, and if that’s the case he’s going to go out leaving everything he has on the floor. He may have even discussed this with his teammates, creating the recent surge in intensity from the team as a whole (minus last night).
2. Will the Celtics win the Atlantic Division?
Davenport: Probably not. Boston is a lopsided home team this year, and they’re about to embark on an eight-game road trip with a) zero momentum and b) really only one bad team on the schedule. And while it might be the least competitive division in the East, but the Atlantic will still probably send three teams to the playoffs this year: I could see the Knicks making a late surge just as easily as the Sixers holding on. Even if the Celtics had tied for the division lead last night, I’d still be pretty down on their chances.
Forsberg: No. The schedule is just too daunting. The initial second-half burst is encouraging and shows us that this team still has some juice in it, but Wednesday’s eyesore in Philly proved that it’s still going to be a roller coaster ride with all the back-to-backs looming. Philly has the young legs to win the footrace down the stretch. Boston will likely be content to hand off the Atlantic crown and instead line itself up strategically for the postseason.
Jackson: HA! An all too appropriate question after last night’s no-show. I’m going to go against conventional wisdom and say they will, in fact, get past the Sixers and win the Atlantic.
Robb: No. Philadelphia is a very talented team, and Boston has too tough of a schedule to keep pace with the Sixers the rest of the way. They still have an opportunity to keep it close with a couple of remaining head-to-head matchups, but I don’t see them being able to get over the hump.
CelticsHub Reader Kevin Cote: Nope. The Sixers are better constructed to win over a condensed season like this (i.e. younger). Boston is still a threat in the postseason though, and you can be sure that Chicago and Miami dread a first round series against these crafty vets as much as the C’s dread facing one of the two top contenders right out of the gates.
3. Has Jermaine O’Neal played his last game as a Celtic?
Davenport: Yes, except drop “as a Celtic.” Not once have we ever seen Jermaine O’Neal come out on the positive side of injury speculation: the worst-case scenario is usually the only scenario. You have to feel bad for him; he was a top-five player before his body started falling apart. People like to go after Jermaine because he’s never really earned his salary, but it’s not really his fault that he got offered all those huge contracts. You’re saying he should turn them down?
Forsberg: I’m leaning towards no. But regardless of how this season plays out, it’s almost certain that Danny Ainge will reflect this summer and lament how he was this close to landing David West for O’Neal. What a coop it would have been. Instead, they’re almost at the mercy of hoping someone will take O’Neal’s expiring contract at the deadline and I just can’t see a lot of interest in a player whose body won’t stop breaking down and needs wrist surgery that he’s already put off. The most likely scenario seems to be O’Neal getting a cortisone shot, taking some time off to let the injury heal up, and hoping he can give the team something (anything?) in a reserve role late in the regular season and into the playoffs (much like with the knee injury last year).
Jackson: Hopefully. And I mean that with all due respect to J.O. He’s the classic case of a willing mind but a body that refuses to cooperate. Despite what it looks like, these injuries are real and J.O. wants to be on the floor. Right now, his roster spot and or contract is more valuable than his play.
Robb: Yes. In all likelihood, the gentle Jermaine era has come to an end. There was still plenty of defensive acumen from O’Neal this season, but, unfortunately, over the past couple years, his body was just too broken down for it to really matter. Another failed mid-level exception signing for Danny Ainge.
CelticsHub Reader Alexis Torres: No, he’s played his last game in the NBA. J.O. has been retired for two years already. He just hasn’t sat down and accepted it yet.
4. If O’Neal is done, what does that do to the Celtics?
Davenport: Not much. O’Neal stopped rebounding about a month before he started sitting out, so that aspect of the game was an issue with or without him. Chris Wilcox has actually been a decent replacement, and even Greg Stiemsma compares favorably to O’Neal: he’s been a better rebounder and more efficient scorer in fewer minutes with a similarly low usage. But neither one feels like the defensive anchor of a championship team.
Forsberg: If O’Neal is done — and there is always the chance that he realizes that the Celtics just don’t have a great chance at a title (maybe the only reason he’d return) and thinking about his post-basketball life is more important than risking further injury — then Boston might be content to grind through with what they’ve got. It’s going to be hard to integrate a new body on the fly given the schedule and it’s not like there’s many serviceable 7-footers just waiting for work (hence why the team hasn’t added one already). The Celtics would love to haul one in to aid the stretch run, but I think they might be content to simply use KG at the 5 and lean on Greg Stiemsma in emergency situations.
Jackson: Without JO, the Celtics don’t have a guy on the roster to deter slashers who drive hard to the hole. There is no more menacing presence to make those swingmen think twice before deciding whether or not they want to risk getting hit hard or just pull up for a jumper. The Celtics can add some size with JO’s spot filled up but they’ll have slim pickings when it comes to someone actually being a difference maker.
Robb: Makes them even more vulnerable on the glass and the defensive end. It also puts Chris Wilcox in the spotlight. Beyond KG, he’s the best career rebounder on this team but his inconsistency has been maddening so far. No-shows (like last night in Philly) can no longer be accepted if this team hopes to win a playoff series or two in May. Wilcox needs to step up to help this team stay afloat on the glass.
CelticsHub Reader Christoffer Nordenlöw: That Stiemsma has to play more key minutes? Sure, he is a shotblocker. But he’s a poor one-on-one and even worse help defender. He is also very foul prone. I think we really need J.O. in the playoffs. Not to play 25 minutes but to play decent defense and give some hard fouls for 12-15 minutes. I think it’s also important for our wing defenders to know the last resort is J.O. rather than Stiemsma. His game against Dwight Howard was outstanding.
5. Do you think Ainge is shopping some/all of his Big Four?
Davenport: Ab. Solute. Ly. Danny is an instinctive dealer. It’s in his nature. There are 15 to 20 different Aesop’s Fables that apply to Danny Ainge’s compulsive urge to trade all his players away. He may end up with the same roster after the trade deadline, but he’s definitely making and receiving calls right now.
Forsberg: I think Ainge has gauged the value of all of his assets and, as he’s stressed, is willing to part with any player as part of a that makes Boston better either immediately or in future seasons (while maintaining that necessary financial flexibility moving forward). I don’t see very many scenarios where the team trades KG or Rondo (and, to a lesser extent, Pierce). But if the right deal came along for Allen — either getting younger at that position or bringing back a much-needed big man, along with any combination of draft picks for future use — I think Ainge would have to give it a lot of consideration. Otherwise, we might be looking at nothing more than a minor move at the back end of the bench and giving the Big Four their last rodeo.
Jackson: He’s definitely listening. As for shopping? Maybe for superstar players or lottery draft picks. Maybe. As we all found out last year, a phone conversation with Ainge can quickly go from Rondo for Westbrook to Perkins for Jeff Green. It’ll be interesting to see if any trades go down that were initially unintentional.
Robb: None of them. He’s waiting and listening, perhaps hoping to be bowled over with an offer he can’t refuse by a championship contender, but that’s unlikely to happen. Ainge planned well to earn plenty of cap space and he’s not going to surrender any of it unless he gets a good player on a good deal. That will be tough to come by for an expiring contract. I expect Danny to stand relatively pat.
CelticsHub Reader Marcello Ciozanni: Danny should listen to all kinds of offers, but if breaking up this core is the only way to go, I’d try to shop Ray. I hate to write this, because he’s an excellent professional and athlete, but he needs to be fed by an inspired Rondo and needs to come off proper screens by big guys (something we lack). Obviously if you give up Ray, you need a big man in return. I know the name of Michael Beasley popped up here and there, but we have already tried to go small and athletic last year with Green and the results were not encouraging, therefore I say we break the core only for a competitive big man.