“They are as bad now as they were during the Antoine Walker years!”
‘They’ were the Boston Celtics, the speaker was my gym teacher and Antoine Walker was the sixth overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft that was the leader for a Celtics team that went 15-67 in that ’97 season. Those 67 defeats under Coach M.L. Carr are a franchise record for losses in a season.
It has become fashionable as of late to make disparaging comments about the Boston Celtics and their playoff chances. “They’re old and they don’t play defense!” many yell.
Cue the Celtics bandwagon – if there even is one – emptying out, leaving only General Manager Danny Ainge. Ainge said, before the Memphis Grizzlies game, “This will be the first game where we have our best lineup that played last year, and that was with [Rajon] Rondo and Avery [Bradley] and Brandon Bass and KG and Paul [Pierce]. That lineup hasn’t even played one minute together this year, so I’d like to give that a shot.”
The Celtics were 14-17 when they took on the Indiana Pacers at home and were in the midst of a four-game slide in which they were outscored by a combined 79 points in losses to the Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies and lowly Kings.
The Celtics drubbed the Pacers 94-75 and set season bests for field goal percentage allowed and for points allowed. For the Celtics, a team that is last (30th) in the entire NBA with 38.6 Rebounds per game (RPG) to outrebound the 3rd ranked Pacers was impressive and the 19-point win supported Danny Ainge’s mentality of patience.
In the latest ESPN.com power rankings, Marc Stein rated the Celtics just behind the Toronto Raptors. The TORONTO RAPTORS, the team that finished 22-43 just a season ago and a club that is currently without Andrea Bargnani, it’s second leading scorer. To make the slight worse, that Raptors team is – at the moment – two spots behind the Celtics in their own division. All of that and this is the same Boston Celtics that were a consensus top-5 team and seen as the main contender with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference.
Here are reasons to believe the Boston Celtics will rebound, not only on the glass but in the season, and make the playoffs.
The Celtics are not in unfamiliar territory. In the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12 the Celtics were 15-17 after 32 games, just as this season’s team. The Celtics of 2011-12 came off a five-game losing streak to win five in a row and this year’s squad came off a four-game losing streak and now has won two in a row against tough foes in the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks. In the 2011-12 season, the Celtics finished strong with a 24-10 record down the stretch and made the playoffs. They finished the year 39-27. Veteran leadership of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett along with the youthful legs and artistic assists of Rajon Rondo led them to the fourth seed in the postseason.
Some say that the absence of Ray Allen will affect the Celtics, but if it does, it will be minimal. With the return of 22-year old Avery Bradley – and he will return to form, however, he has been rusty in his three games back – it gives the Celtics that huge defensive upgrade that it desperately needed. Bradley’s return also allows Jason Terry to move to the Sixth Man spot, which is where the C’s signed him to play. Terry can then focus on being a high energy, scoring man off the bench.
Bradley’s defensive prowess is sure to improve the currently 12th ranked Celtics defense when it comes to allowing points per game, and the C’s are allowing 96.7 points currently.
The experiment of Kevin Garnett at Power Forward is finally over and Jason Collins can finally return to the bench. Don’t get me wrong, Collins is a valuable role player, but the load of being a starter seemed to overwhelm at his time there. The numbers tell about Collins as he contributed 1.1 points-per-game (ppg) and 2.0 rebounds-per-game (rpg) while shooting an abysmal 60% from the charity stripe.
Collins in the starting five helped no one, as it shifted Garnett to starting Power Forward where, this season, he made six appearances, averaged 11.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, and 0.5 blocks per game. Also, he shot poorly – only 41.5%. Conversely, Garnett appeared to relish the chance at Center where he is excelling in 26 appearances this season he averages 15.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg and shot an impressive 53.5%.
The sample size is small, but the claim that Garnett belongs at Center is furthered by last season’s examples. In 24 games at starting power forward he averaged 14.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 0.8 blocks. In 36 games at starting center he averaged 16.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. Though he is a natural Power Forward and has played the position primarily throughout his time in the NBA, Garnett clearly is a more valuable addition to the team at Center and at 36 years old – having played over 46,000 minutes in his career – every bit of production that Boston can get out of him, they should.
How much does Garnett really mean to the Celtics? With KG on the floor the Boston Celtics are allowing a 3rd-best 99.5 points per 100 possessions, but when Garnett heads to the pine, that number balloons to a gaudy 113.5 points per 100 possessions – good for last in the league behind the woeful franchise of the Charlotte Bobcats. Even though he is not a natural Center, clearly, the Celtics need him there.
Another ray of hope for the Boston Celtics is the come-uppance of former Buckeye Jared Sullinger. The C’s selected Sullinger with the 21st pick in last year’s draft and, at only 20 years old, has averaged 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in only 23 minutes a night. If given the starting job, because Brandon Bass has all but played himself out of it, Sullinger could become a 10-10 man every night. It also would allow Garnett to stay at Center and boost Boston’s rebounding production.
That means the Celtics would have Rondo and Bradley in the backcourt and Pierce, Sullinger and Garnett in the frontcourt; to me, that sounds like a fearsome starting five to contend with any team in the West or East.
The Celtics are now on the clock and have 49 games left in the season to turn their year around and this year has a pair of legitimate, contending foes in the revamped Brooklyn Nets and resurgent New York Knicks in the Atlantic Division. Yes, up to this point the Celtics have not been the team they were in the past three or four years, but there are signs and ways of turning it around.
Turning it around is something that the Boston Celtics of today can do, and it is something that the Celtics of the Antoine Walker years could not do. To say that the Celtics are just as bad as they were in 1996 is neither fair nor true. Except for the fact that the Celtics of today have 15 wins and the ’96 C’s had 15 wins, they are not the same team.
Oh, and the Celtics of today have 49 more opportunities to move past that infamous ’96 Celtics team. To put it simply, the Antoine Walker years are not – mercifully – the years of today.