Five Ways The Celtics Can Still Win It All

714510.jpg

Five Ways The Celtics Can Still Win It All

On March 16, a day after the Celtics stood pat at the deadline and officially embarked on their latest last run with the Big 3, I wrote a post called: Five Ways the Celtics Can Still Win It All.

This wasn't an endorsement of their championship potential but more an attempt to shed a little bit of optimism on what had been painfully negative and emotional season.

I figured: Hey, everyone's still here, and you know they're not lacking for confidence. So, even if there's only a one in a million chance of bringing home Banner 18, what realistic sequence of events would put Boston in the best position to do so?

They rewarded my optimism by losing back-to-back games to the Kings and Nuggets.

But then something clicked.

Chalk it up to Rajon Rondo's consistent killer instinct, the resurgence of Kevin Garnett, the subtle dominance of Paul Pierce or that Avery Bradley's suddenly growing up at a faster rate than Jack. Chalk it up to chemistry, coaching or a relatively easy schedule.

Whatever it is, the Celtics are on a roll.

They've won seven of eight games. They're a game up on Philly in the Atlantic, and somehow only a game and a half behind Orlando for the third seed in the East. They're once and for all the team nobody wants to see in the playoffs.

Do you think they have what it takes? Probably not. But coming off yesterday's massive beatdown of the Heat, it's at least worth re-visiting that old column and updating some thoughts.

Five Ways the Celtics Can Still Win It All, Volume 2.

1. Get Chris Kaman
What I wrote: The addition of a legitimate seven-footer doesn't mean that the Celtics can't play small. But I don't have to tell you that, in order to succeed in the playoffs, they'll need someone taller than Mickael Pietrus and more experienced than Greg Stiemsma to step up and make an impact.
Update: Well, Kaman stayed in New Orleans, where he's been productive when healthy, but recently missed more than a week with bronchitis. In his place, the Celtics picked up a rebound-deficient seven-footer and alley-oop extraordinaire named Ryan Hollins.

Although right now, none of that really matters. The reason is Kevin Garnett.

When it comes to playing center, KG is like a reluctant super hero, or Ed Glosser: Trivial Psychic He didn't ask for these powers! But there's no escaping the fact that the Celtics have been a different team with Garnett in the middle.

In the 21 games since he officially took over, the Celtics are 16-5.

Even better, despite the lack of front court depth, Doc Rivers has kept Garnett's minutes to a minimum. He's averaged only 31.6 minutes a night over this recent eight-game stretch has yet to shown any signs of the wear and tear you might expect from nightly battles with the NBA's biggest and strongest.

Still, moving forward, it's hard to imagine that the Celtics can overcome the lack of size.

Hollins is an athlete, but not much of a basketball player, and while Stiemsma has been a nice surprise, the playoffs are a different beast.

What happens if KG finds foul trouble?

Will he have anything left after seven games against Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah or Dwight Howard?

Can you really win in the playoffs when 35-year-old Kevin Garnett and rookie Greg Stiemsma are your only legitimate players taller than 6-8?

2. Stay healthy

What I wrote: No one can get hurt.OK, I take that back. Sasha Pavlovic can get hurt. E'twaun Moore can get hurt. And the C's could probably afford to lose Marquis Daniels for a few games. But if one more player of remote significance goes down, we can officially close the curtain on the season even if it's already only inches from the ground.
Update: Since my original post, the Celtics have lost Ray Allen to an ankle injury and Mickael Pietrus to a concussion, and there's reason to be somewhat concerned about both.

First, with Jackie Macmullan's suggestion that Allen may eventually need surgery to fix his ankle, you can assume that he won't be 100 percent again this season. And despite the old "No one's 100 percent in the playoffs" cliche, the fact remains that shooters especially of the 36-year-old variety need their legs, and if Ray's even slightly hobbled, it should affect his play.

But on the brightside, the Celtics certainly have no plans to rush Ray back, meaning that when he does play, he'll be as healthy as he's going to be.

As for Pietrus, Doc said yesterday that he doesn't expect the Frenchman back before the playoffs, and that's hardly a good sign. When healthy, Pietrus played such an important role for this team. At his best, he was the closest thing they've had to James Posey. A guy who can extend the defense, guard multiple positions and meshed unbelievably well in the locker room. If they lose Pietrus, they lose a lot of energy, versatility, and a little bit of their edge.

I'll say this though: If there's one benefit to Pietrus' extended absence, it's that while his head might be hurting, the rest of his body most notably his right knee is intact. And if he's by some chance cleared to play again, while it will obviously take a little time to get back into the flow, that sore knee will be fresher than at any point this season, and better prepped for the rigors of playoff hoops.

3. Beat the Heat

What I wrote: I know, regular season success doesn't mean anything in the playoffs. We learned that last year, when the C's won three of four during the season, but then lost four of five when it mattered most. But here's why the Celtics need to beat the Heat in the regular season. To show that they can, and to regain just a little bit of that mental edge that was lost during last year's playoffs.

Update: Check. And now the stage is set for a classic battle on April 10 in Miami.

With yesterday's no show, you know that there's no chance the Heat overlook the Celtics on the 10th. They'll come with everything they have. There will be no excuses.

Which begs the question: What if the Celtics win?

What does Miami do then?

And how does that effect the all-important mental edge heading into a possible playoff rematch?

If anything, it puts the Celtics in a position we never imagined they would be, even as recent as a few weeks ago.

4. Derrick Rose falls apart
What I wrote: You know they're going to do everything in their power to ensure that he's OK. Rose is already playing a career low 35.6 minutes a game this year, and if the Bulls continue to build on their lead in the East, you can expect his minutes and games played to further decrease. But regardless of how much rest the Bulls find for Rose between now and the start of the playoffs, his durability will be a major wild card and potential game-changer for the Celtics chances to shock the world.

Update: You hate to root against Derrick Rose. Of all the superstars in this league, Kevin Durant may be the only guy who scores higher on the genuine likability scale. So, as a basketball fan, you want to see Rose compete, and do so at his best. The NBA is better place when he's around.

But from a Celtics perspective, the absence of Rose creates an opening in the Eastern Conference, one that's expanding at the rate of Carlos Boozer's hairline.

Rose has now missed 10 straight games with a sore groin, and told reporters yesterday that he's still having a hard time running. The Bulls hope he'll be back before the end of the regular season, but that's still very much in the air. In the meantime, so is the future of one of the East's two major contenders.

If the season ended today, the Celtics would draw Indiana in the first round, and with a win would likely face Chicago in the second.

If Rose is out or legitimately hobbled, who do you like?

5. 1-2-3 UBUNTU
What I wrote: At this point, it's unreasonable to expect the Celtics to reach any special level of chemistry. At least nowhere near the heights they experienced in 2008 or the spring and fall of 2011. There's not enough time or talent for the guys to form that sort of bond. BUT if the Big 4 can re-discover Ubuntu among themselves (what a ridiculous sentence) if even just those four can find a way to co-exist as seamlessly and consistently as they have in the past then yeah, maybe the Celtics can make a little run.
Update: Well, they have made a little run. But of course, the crazy thing is that it's happened with one of the Big 4 stuck on the sidelines.

So, what should the Celtics do when Ray Allen comes back?

Do you roll with Avery Bradley, and bring Ray off the bench?

There's no denying the Celtics success with Bradley on the court they're 5-0 with Bradley, Rondo, Bass, Pierce and KG, 9-6 when you sub Ray in for Avery. You can't run from how happy Rondo looks with Bradley as a wing man on the break, and the damage AB does on the defensive end. Meanwhile, if Allen's ankle is a problem, wouldn't it make sense to try and limit his minutes, and wouldn't bringing him off the bench be the perfect way to do that?

Of course, it's not that easy. For one, Allen is a creature of habit; a man who thrives off routine, and has been in the starting line up for 1140 of 1143 career NBA games. How would he take to coming off the bench? Especially when you consider that he's currently playing for his last NBA contract. This a tough business, and you know that losing his job to a 21 year-old second year pro will have an affect on negotiations and his overall market value.

Still, in a perfect world, it seems like this would be the best move for the Celtics. The old way doesn't work anymore. This is their best chance, and they have to roll with it.

If Doc does, UBUNTU will face it's biggest test since the trade of Kendrick Perkins, and you can only hope it plays out better this time around.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

bruins_ryan_spooner_120216.jpg

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.