By Rich Levine
OAKLAND It was a solid start to the home stretch of the season.
Not that beating the Golden State Warriors is a champagne-popping accomplishment when youre a team with expectations like the Celtics, but all things considered, and assuming Kendrick Perkins' bruised knee is only that, Tuesday night couldnt have gone much better for Boston.
If were being honest, its a game we probably could have forgiven them for losing, but they escaped the trap and kicked off their historically troublesome post-All Star trip in style. They won in Oakland for the first time since the Jiri Welsch era. They looked fresh. They appeared energized. And while there were undoubtedly some sloppy moments, the Cs were sharpest when it mattered most.
Although, mattered most is obviously a relative term.
In reality, what matters most for these Celtics has nothing to do with the Warriors, or snapping quirky losing streaks or a successful West Coast swing.
It has to do with the title, and for now, with the elephant in the locker room.
No, no. Shaqs in Florida. Were talking about the NBA trade deadline, and the move the Celtics have to make.
It wasnt supposed to be like this, you know. For most of this season, we had the Cs pegged as deadline bystanders. We thought theyd done all their dirty work last summer, when Danny Ainge assembled the deepest bench in the league as the perfect complement to the best starting five in the league. And once all 15 guys on the roster reached guaranteed-contract status, we figured that was it. Boston was built for the long haul, and as the curtain closed on the deadline, it was the other teams who would be left to scramble, who would be subjected to the non-stop speculation and forced to spend their days refreshing the rumor mill like Zuckerberg at the end of Social Network.
Meanwhile, Celtics fans could watch the festivities like spectators during feeding time at the zoo. Ainge could shut off his cell phone and spend the deadline day dreaming about Jimmer. Everything was cool.
But as the season went on, things started heating up, and now the Celtics are left in a little predicament. Now, they need help, and if they cant find it (or create some room for it) by Thursday at 4 p.m., the big picture will get a little blurry. And the supposed-to-be insignificant deadline could become their downfall.
OK, now its time to bring myself back off the ledge. Or just clarify that Im not even standing on it. Im not trying to say that if the Celtics cant get something done before the deadline that theyre destined for disaster; that theyll fall to the fourth seed and get swept by the Hawks in the first round. The Celtics, as theyre presently constituted, are still one of the best teams in the league. I feel like an idiot for even mentioning this. We all know what they bring to the table, and the level of talent, intensity and desire that sits in that locker room every night.
But at the same time, with less than two month before the playoffs begin, this team has more question marks than a biography of King Hippo.
First, you have to assume theyve lost Marquis Daniels for the season. Its not for sure, but you have to treat it that way. You cant count on him for the playoffs. And if hes not there, the Celtics have a huge hole at small forward. Daniels was supposed to be this years Tony Allen but the good Tony Allen. The guy who could step in and help contain the Wades, LeBrons, Kobes or even guys like Deng or Joe Johnson. But now, that might not exist.
Same goes for Jermaine ONeal who, again, might very well be back for the postseason, but would you be shocked if he wasnt? Be honest, what would surprise you more: Jermaine comes back and gives the Celtics a solid 20 minutes a night through June, or Jermaine comes back for a few games before shutting it down again?
As for Shaq, well, the team is definitely taking it slow, and theyre obviously going to do everything they can to get him ready for the real thing, but come on: The knee, the calf, the hip, the Achilles. At this point he has more injuries than tattoos. And thats not a surprise. No one expected 82 games; we knew it would be a struggle. And now it is. Its almost March and the injuries are multiplying like Gremlins.
Then theres Nate Robinson, who started the season strong, who looked like hed figured it out and finally become a guy Doc could trust every night. But thats not the case. Hes still Nate, which obviously isnt all bad. He can still do things that only Nate can do. But on the other hand, he can still do things that only Nate can do.
Theres a lot of optimism around Delonte West, and right fully so. When healthy, there may not be a more essential player off the Boston bench. When healthy, Delonte can play point guard or shooting guard. Maybe more importantly, he can defend point guards, shooting guards and even some small forwards. Hes a proven big-game player with big-game experience and never operates at anything less than ludicrous speed. Doc Rivers has called West the most competitive player hes ever coached . . . and Rivers has also coached Kevin Garnett. So there you go. But Delonte has also missed all but six games this season. If he plays, youre in business, but if you dont have some sort of backup plan, well, youre just careless. At this point, it cant be: Damn, Delonte went down again. Just our luck. You have to be prepared.
And thats really what it comes down to as the deadline quickly approaches. Its about preparation. Its about knowing that, yeah, theres a chance that Marquis comes back, the ONeals get healthy, Nate recaptures that preseason focus and Delonte stays the course.
But you have to be prepared for the alternative. You cant have the worst-case scenario come true and be left with Von Wafer and Semih Erden in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Right now the Celtics have six players that they can absolutely count on every night. And theyre six fantastic players. But thats not enough in the postseason. Thats not enough now.
The Celtics won by 22 points on Tuesday. But even in a blowout, the Big Four all played 35-plus minutes. Obviously, some of that was due to the All-Star break, and getting them back into the flow of the real NBA season. But part of that was also due to the fact that Doc doesnt really trust his second unit, or that he doesnt even have a second unit. Theyve been decimated by injuries, unable to develop a chemistry and thats a huge part of any playoff run. It will be a huge part of this one, one way or another.
By now, you know about the Celtics options heading into the deadline. Youve heard the names like Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Charlie Bell and Troy Murphy.
Some of them (most notably Hinrich, Hamilton and Murphy) would only be available after a buyout, and if that was the case, then the Celtics wouldnt have to acquire them before Thursday. But theyd more than likely have to clear a roster spot before then. Theyd have to move someone or someones before the deadline to even give them the flexibility to add a bigger, more reliable and productive name.
Theres been some talk about trading Robinson (that the Celtics actually offered him and a draft pick for Corey Brewer before the Knicks jumped in), but theres also a good chance that no one wants him. Maybe they have to look into trading Semih Erden, although they can obviously use his big body for now. Avery Bradley is getting a lot of interest from other teams as well, and considering that the point-guard spot is pretty secure in Boston for the foreseeable future, then maybe thats an option the Celtics need to investigate further. And really, Im sure they are.
Im sure Ainge and Co. are exhausting every option there is, because they know, as well as you and I, that this team needs help right now. That the once meaningless trade deadline is now more significant than we ever imagined.
And that while Tuesday nights win in Golden State was a terrific way to kick off the home stretch, it wont mean much if this team ends up limping to the finish line.