By A.Sherrod Blakely
SAN ANTONIO Near the end of games, opponents have no idea what to expect from the Boston Celtics.
Sadly, the C's play of late appears as though they're just as clueless.
When you look at the problems Boston has had lately down the stretch in close games, it's difficult to gauge whether it's confusion, choking, or a little bit of both right now.
Earlier this month, point guard Rajon Rondo pointed out how the Celtics don't have any go-to plays down the stretch.
Upon his return to the lineup in Monday night's loss at Indiana, after missing the previous game at Minnesota with a right pinkie finger injury, he reiterated that point.
"The past couple of years, we always had two or three plays we could call and get a . . . not necessarily make the shot, but get at least a decent shot in the possession," Rondo said.
He said he doesn't know why that hasn't been the case this season, but understands that it is a major problem for the Celtics as they limp toward the end of the regular season for the second year in a row.
"Right now," Rondo said. "We're a little bit all over the place."
Many will look at the late-game execution issues being a byproduct of Kendrick Perkins being traded last month, and that having so many new faces has impacted the team's ability to close out games.
If only it were that simple.
Boston's end-of-the-game lineup usually includes the Big 4 of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, along with Glen Davis or Jeff Green.
Folks tend to forget that even when Perkins was with the Celtics, Davis was often on the floor to finish games. And when Perkins was out at the beginning of the season while recovering from a torn MCL and PCL suffered last year in the NBA Finals, Davis was the fifth guy.
But you have to remember, players across the league have more bounce to their game in, say, November and December than they do in March and April.
The impact of not having Perkins is more apparent in the wear and tear that you're starting to see on both Garnett and Davis. Because those two, more than any other Celtics players, have had to pick up the slack that was left by Perkins in addition to all the slack left by a slew of injuries to Boston's big men.
"Kevin and Baby Davis most of the time, they've been without Boston's injured centers for most of the year," said Jermaine O'Neal, who was signed in the summer to be Boston's starting center but has been limited to just 17 games due to injuries. "You want to do whatever you can to give them a break."
Although Davis and Garnett won't acknowledge it, the pounding that their bodies take over the first three quarters of games, has affected their ability to play at a high level in the fourth. And with Nenad Krstic still learning how to mesh his game with their play, it adds another layer of difficulty to a team that's trying to jell on the fly.
With this team, all it takes is one player to be out of position or off his game, and the entire group suffers.
That's why having Jermaine O'Neal return to practice this week, is so important. He's targeting a return to the court on Thursday against the San Antonio Spurs, but coach Doc Rivers isn't as optimistic.
"I doubt it," Rivers said when asked about O'Neal coming back so quickly. "There's a chance. The only way is if we had some type of other injury or something. Even then, I doubt I'd do it."
Boston would certainly benefit from the size and rebounding that O'Neal could bring to the floor. But maybe just as important, he's a big body with six fouls to give.
Having that extra body could come in handy, especially down the stretch of a close game.
Rondo would love for two or three plays to emerge that the Celtics could go to down the stretch, but he knows most games wouldn't come to that if the defense played better when the game was up for grabs.
"Regardless if we score," Rondo said, "the last five minutes of the game we have to find a way to get stops."