We’re down a man this week on the 5-on-5 (austerity measures) but we’ll return to full strength — and your contributions — next week. In the meantime, we tackle Jermaine O’Neal’s departure, the search for bench help and tonight’s Bucks-Celtics tilt.
Brian Robb: They’re still able to grind. That’s been the popular mantra or catch phrase in the locker room since the All-Star Break, as Doc Rivers and the veterans instilled that mindset in the team. No game is a given now, and nothing will come easy, so they must grind to get through, something they weren’t doing earlier this year. With a 9-4 record since the break, featuring a largely anemic offense and likely the worst rebounding roster in the league without O’Neal and Chris Wilcox, this team’s fighting mentality has stood out. I’m not sure how much they’ll have left for the postseason (if they can get there) but one thing is clear: they’ll continue to grind.
Chris Forsberg: We’ve learned that Kevin Garnett can play the center position consistently and play it pretty well (even if he doesn’t particularly enjoy the idea of it). Other than that, we already kinda knew that this was a team with inconsistent energy and an ability to elevate (or demote) their play based on the opponent. If fans had hopes of the second half of the year being less of a seesaw, we learned that’s probably not going to happen.
Hayes Davenport: I’m not sure we’ve learned anything new about the Celtics since last year’s All-Star Break. They’re still struggling with the same issues they were a year ago: rebounding, Rondo’s inconsistency, getting out in transition, rookies never getting playing time, and dramatic, unexpected losses to their roster. I don’t see change on the horizon.
Michael Pina: Not really. They’re still an inconsistent bunch with a frustrating offense and an inability to grab rebounds. But the Celtics are still one of the grittier teams in the league and whether it’s an ugly game nobody deserves to win (Tuesday against Atlanta), or a back yard brawl where one team’s trying to usurp the other’s identity (last Monday against the Clippers), this veteran group is as resilient as ever.
Robb: A calculated gamble that failed. You could tell almost right away this one wasn’t going to work out when Doc Rivers took some subtle (and not so subtle) jabs at Jermaine last year as he reportedly came into camp out of shape, leading to an odyssey of knee issues over the remainder of the season. The fact is J.O. is just one of a long list of veteran bigs who have been unable to keep their broken down bodies on the floor over the tail ends of their careers. And while the era was disappointing, it’s important to remember what the alternative was that offseason for a big man: Brad Miller. Either way, the C’s were in trouble.
Forsberg: A headache. O’Neal was certainly well-intentioned and wanted to help this team, but the inability to stay on the floor made his health a constant focus of attention (and made the starting lineup difficult to maintain at times). Doc Rivers is fond of noting that the best ability is availability. Needless to say, he could never count on O’Neal and that made things difficult on a team that’s had center issues for two seasons now.
Davenport: Infrequently. Danny made the mistake of giving himself the hilarious schtick of signing totally washed-up former-All-Star bigs who could barely finish a season, so Jermaine’s name will always come up when we make fun of that tendency of Danny’s in the future. Other than that, he was a player widely known to be injury-prone who fulfilled everyone’s expectations except Danny’s. That’s the book on Jermaine O’Neal in Boston.
Pina: 49 games of him giving his all. My expectations were never high regarding the oft-injured O’Neal regaining his health to the level this team needed, but if I had to pick a positive angle it’d be Game 1 of last year’s playoff series against the Knicks. With almost everybody on the team going through a rough shooting night, O’Neal scored 12 points on 6-6 shooting to go along with 4 blocks, 4 rebounds, and 5 hard fouls. In that crucial playoff opener, O’Neal gave much more than anyone could’ve possibly expected, and the result was a two point Celtics win.
Robb: Two healthy, relatively experienced big men that can eat up a few minutes a game. The last part is the most important one, as Garnett and Brandon Bass have been ridden into the ground the last couple weeks to keep this team competitive. Unfortunately, the schedule just gets worse in April, in terms of quantity and quality of opponents. Ryan Hollins, who has shown he can hold his own for brief stretches on an NBA floor, will be needed to give the starters some semblance of rest.
Forsberg: A body. Start the expectation there and be excited if you get anything more. If fans are looking for a savior on the buyout scrapheap, then they are severely misguided. The player coming in will eat up minutes over the final 20 regular-season games. If he makes any sort of impact in the postseason, then the Celtics hit the buyout lottery because it’s going to be hard for any new face to claw their way into Doc Rivers’ rotation at this point.
Davenport: Something gross. The last three years in Boston are a better indication of buyout season than the Cassell/Brown era. Between Hollins, Ronny Turiaf, and Chris Johnson, there’s not one available (or formerly available) big who can rebound better than Brandon Bass, and he’s a terrible rebounder. The team needs a body or two to spell better players, so any pickup is valuable by that measure, but pretty much by that measure alone.
Pina: A decent amount of big men were available, but so far the Celtics have been unable to land any. Turiaf is in Miami, Johnson is in New Orleans (where it appears Chris Kaman will stay), Boris Diaw is probably headed to San Antonio, and J.J. Hickson is going to Portland. This leaves Boston with former Cavalier Hollins—who reportedly they’re front runners to acquire. Beggars can’t be choosers, and they could do worse than sign an athletic seven-footer, which is what they so desperately need right now.
Robb: Hard not to like, given how the team has played since the move. The C’s have obviously run into trouble against a few teams with formidable offensive centers, and the rebounding issues have been compounded, but Garnett at the five makes this team much more dangerous offensively. For a team that has fallen into the bottom five in offensive efficiency, having a starting center capable of spreading the floor to maximize opportunities is crucial and that’s exactly what KG provides.
Forsberg: It’s hard to argue with the numbers. His offensive production is up given the mismatch he presents, particularly by challenging bigs to defend him 20 feet from the basket. The only concern is the additional wear-and-tear from defending 5s under the basket. As Rivers points out, however, it’s not like he’s defending Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard every night in a league thin on legit big men. I’m still not sure it’s ideal — having Brandon Bass come off the bench to spell KG early was a nice luxury — but in the absence of a pure center, this is what the Celtics must lean on.
Davenport: He’s doing his best. Offensively he’s more or less the same player he was at the 4. Defensively, he’s handicapped by his lankiness and has a lot of trouble guarding the post. Lately he’s given up huge games to Kenneth Faried, Zaza Pachulia, and Jason Thompson. His ability to wander the floor and help out is also being wasted when he’s forced to patrol the post like he has been. It’s not a positive development.
Pina: At the moment, I love it. With Garnett at the five and Bass playing power forward, the Celtics have four elite shooters surrounding Rajon Rondo on offense. Defensively, this isn’t what you’d hope to see, but Garnett has shown he can hold his own. That said, this can’t be a long-term answer, and reverting Garnett back to power forward, after inserting someone like the aforementioned Hollins at center, might be the best solution heading into the postseason.
Robb: I see a tough loss against a Bucks team looking very strong on the offensive end. New additions Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh have appeared to fit in well so far, giving additional firepower and depth to a squad that is knocking on the door of the eighth seed in the East. Look for the Bucks to attack the offensive glass and feast on Boston’s inferior second unit on their way to a 95-90 win.
Forsberg: Don’t want to overhype this one, but Thursday’s game is kinda huge. Sure, the Celtics are just a game back of Philly (the team it plays Friday) for the top spot in the Atlantic Division (the winner of which will vault to the No. 4 seed in the East). But the Bucks (six straight wins) and Knicks (five straight wins) are surging and Boston’s schedule looks incredibly daunting the rest of the way. You assume both Milwaukee and New York will level off at some point, every head-to-head win is important at this point. With two days off, Boston should have the energy to win this game, but it’s gotta lean on its defense.
Davenport: The Bucks haven’t scored less than 105 points in 7 games. The Celtics haven’t scored more than 105 points in 9 games. I think the Celtics could keep it close if Ellis and Brandon Jennings develop “big game” egos and try to compete for who can shoot the most. But I think it’s more likely Drew Gooden pulls in a bunch of rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova abuses Bass. Bucks 99, Celtics 94.
Pina: On March 7th, the Bucks lost to the Chicago Bulls on a game-winning buzzer beater by Derrick Rose. They haven’t lost since. The Celtics are well rested, fresh off a thankful escape from Atlanta. Both teams are on the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings looking up, and neither wants to duel with Chicago or Miami in the first round, so as far as levels of intensity go, this game could feel, well, intense.
What I’m most looking forward to in this one is whether Doc Rivers goes to a Rondo/Bradley tandem if Ray Allen has a difficult time defending Ellis. The Jennings/Ellis combination is a difficult one to deal with if you don’t have the personnel, but at least in certain stretches, the Celtics certainly do.