Back in December, “Could the Celtics make the playoffs?” was the topic du jour, as Boston overachieved its way through the first 20 games of the season. The Celtics were hovering around the .500 mark with a combination of smart defense, unexpectedly smart offense (Jordan Crawford’s 20+ PER through the first 15 games will undoubtedly go down as one of my favorite stories of the year) and team camaraderie.
Fast forward to now: Boston has lost 18 of its last 21 and although most games show signs of progress, some — like last night’s discouraging smacking at the hands of the Knicks — show none whatsoever.
Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe says the Celtics are going away from what made them alluring early in the year.
The Celtics may be playing strictly for the future, unconcerned about results this season, but what made them alluring and inspiring the first two months was their effort, consistently outhustling their opponents. Now that’s not the case, or at least it hasn’t been the case two of the past three games, when they were sliced up by Oklahoma City and battered by the Knicks.
“We have to really analyze and look at what we’re doing,” Stevens said. “We’re going through a drought right now scoring, but at the same time, the way we defended we wouldn’t have beaten them if we scored tonight. Obviously I’m frustrated with how we played.”
Stevens has spent the season lauding opposing teams after blowout losses, refraining from criticizing his patchwork lineup, but Tuesday night he looked disgusted and bewildered.
Although Washburn makes a lot of very valid points (and his comments on Stevens’ body language are telling and interesting), I don’t completely buy what he is selling here — this team is a collection of mediocre talent reeling from injuries to key players (Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger), and they have seen key contributors (Crawford, Courtney Lee) traded away, which has made chemistry harder to come by. Some of the problems we are seeing are simply a struggling team trying to make sense of the lineups being thrown onto the floor.
Give Danny Ainge credit. Celtics started out well thus forcing him to make moves to assure Boston of ending up in draft lottery. A good plan
— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) January 29, 2014
But Washburn is certainly right that last night’s performance was a lack of effort. Multiple times, the Knicks’ offense simply beat the Celtics’ defense back down the floor, or with simple backdoor cuts. New York has more talent, but that wouldn’t have necessarily meant the Celtics were going to be blown out earlier this year. Now? It’s pretty much a guaranteed recipe for an ugly, tough-to-watch game.
Being a professional athlete requires nearly super-human confidence, not just in your abilities but also in your body. For Rajon Rondo, that confidence included his ability to come back from painful injuries, as Celtics fans likely remember from his return after a horrible elbow injury threatened to sideline him in the 2011 playoffs against the Miami Heat.
Jessica Camerato has an excellent feature up on ESPN Boston on Rondo’s recovery:
Rajon Rondo believed he was unstoppable. For the most part, he had been. The fiery point guard had overcome injuries, including a gruesome dislocated elbow in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat, and became accustomed to sacrificing his body, only to bounce back and get up for more.
“I felt like I was He-Man,” Rondo said following practice on Saturday, one year to the day of his injury. “I took longer than I wanted to, but I wanted to do the right thing. I’m not trying to rush to get back to do a contract or trying to rush to prove anything. You only get one opportunity for a shot at this so I don’t want to rush back to mess up something else that could go wrong.”
There are plenty of fascinating Rondo quotes and insights sprinkled throughout Camerato’s story, and it’s well worth reading in full.
In related Rondo news, several outlets are reporting that Rondo is doubtful for tonight’s game against the 76ers. Playing back-to-backs seems like an unnecessary risk for the Celtics point guard, and it would likely be wise to let him rest.
We didn’t post on this yesterday, but Chris Johnson — Boston’s most watchable player over the past three games — received a second 10-day contract.
From the Boston Herald yesterday:
Chris Johnson has played his way into another 10-day contract from the Celtics. The team announced that it has signed the 6-foot-6 guard/forward to a second such contract today.
Johnson matched that career-high in points last night against the Knicks, and his sweet corner 3-point stroke matched with his athleticism and obvious work ethic might very well earn him a permanent contract with the team for the rest of the season after his current 10-day contract is up. There are a lot of dispirited players on Boston’s roster, but Johnson is not one of them, and he has his teammates rooting for him to stick with the squad, according to Jay King of MassLive.
“He is playing unbelievable,” Rajon Rondo said. “He’s playing very well right now. He’s shooting the ball extremely well. He is doing everything coach is asking from him and I am rooting for him.”
“I’m a fan of him. I wish him the best. Each night he plays with us, practices with us, he shows a lot of heart,” Brandon Bass said. “Hopefully we sign him for the rest of the year.”
I will third (?) that motion, Brandon and Rajon.
And finally, you are interested, I run a Celtics-themed pod called the HeinSight Podcast over at TruthOnCauseway.com with my good friend Ryan Hebert. In our latest episode, we discuss last night’s debacle, Jeff Green’s contract, and which draft prospects we prefer.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.