Celtics searching for late-game answers

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Celtics searching for late-game answers

By A.Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com

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."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached atsblakely@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Blakely: Celtics not as feared as they were last season

Blakely: Celtics not as feared as they were last season

BOSTON -- On more than one occasion Monday night, the Boston Celtics were a discombobulated bunch with some players thinking they were running one play, while others were thinking the play called was something totally different.
 
You see that stuff in the preseason and to a certain extent in the regular season for a lot of teams. It is in those moments that we’re reminded that this Boston Celtics team is a work in progress on so many levels.
 
Because of that, we all need to hit the pause button when talking about them as a team inching closer towards Eastern Conference supremacy.
 
After the first month of the season, they have yet to show that they are going to be better than last season’s 48-win ball club.
 
The big problem a year ago was the offense bogging down and for the most part, not making shots. This year, it’s the team’s defense that has let them down on many nights.
 
And with that comes a sobering reminder this crew is good, but at best are maybe top-five in the East.
 
As a team on the rise, beating teams you’re not supposed to has to happen with some semblance of regularity.
 
There were only three teams on the Celtics’ docket this season thus far that they should have been beaten by without there being any argument: Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland.
 
They were beaten in all three, two of which (Golden State and Cleveland) had final scores that did not indicate the level of dominance they had over the Celtics.
 
The average margin of defeat in the three games was 9.3 points, but two of them (San Antonio and Golden State) were at the TD Garden, which is supposed to be the equalizer for upset-minded teams.
 
But in each game, Boston put up a decent fight only to fail to emerge victorious.
 
The struggles against the upper echelon teams of the NBA has nothing to do with not having a superstar or a great rebounder or any of the kazillion reasons/excuses offered up as to why they’re not better.
 
It’s hunger.
 
It’s effort.
 
It’s about being blinded by the internet clicks that tout them as one of the best teams in the East, and them not seeing the danger that comes with embracing all that patting on the back.
 
It makes you soft.
 
It makes you fat and happy.
 
And maybe most significant, it creates a false sense of arrival before you’ve left the tarmac.
 
That’s where the Boston Celtics are right now: a team that seems to have forgotten why they were the team nobody wanted to play last year.
 
It wasn’t that teams feared playing them. It was the fact that they knew playing the Celtics would be tough, and it would force them to play a lot closer to their full potential than they were used to if they wanted to win.
 
It was because everyone knew that to beat the Celtics, you don’t have a choice but to play hard because you damn well knew they would.
 
Not anymore.
 
They bring that toughness to the game in small doses, like an intra-venous drip full of hope and promise, providing just enough to life to keep their fans optimistic but not nearly enough to kill the noise of their haters and critics.
 
And while the season is still young, the Celtics need to start racking up some quality wins.
 
Right now, their most impressive win is a toss-up between beating Charlotte 104-98 on Oct. 29, or a 94-92 win at Detroit on Nov. 19.
 
Boston plays at Orlando on Wednesday, a team that’s likely to be back in the lottery again. But after that, they travel back to Boston where they’ll host Toronto -- a game that they desperately need to not only to pad their win total but also provide a much-needed boost of energy and confidence going forward.

The Celtics have to find that hunger, that collective desire that we’ve seen in the past which has propelled them to greater heights than we’ve seen thus far.
 
Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford… you can go down the roster and the mission for all of them has to be the same: play harder, for longer, and be smarter about it, because this team has too much collective talent to be just three games above .500.
 
At 12-9, Boston is third in the East and trail conference-leading Cleveland by three games for the best record in the conference. But then you look at the teams behind the Celtics and realize that they’re only two games out of having the ninth-best record in the East.
 
It speaks in part to the season still being in its infancy stage. But it’s also telling as to how Boston does not have a huge margin of error when it comes to losing winnable games.
 
And as we’ve seen thus far, the Celtics can play with any team in the NBA and hold their own.
 
But beating them is a totally different narrative that this squad has yet to write.