Doc Rivers State of the Celtics

777422.jpg

Doc Rivers State of the Celtics

WALTHAM -- Doc Rivers knew there would be challenges in finding consistency with a team that had been newly pieced together this summer. Unlike past years in which several key members returned from the previous campaign, less than half of this season's team suited up on the 2011-12 squad.

The Boston Celtics are at .500 (13-13) as they depart on Monday for a four-game road trip to wrap up 2012. Following their final home practice of the calendar year on Sunday, Rivers addressed the state of his team, from clicking on the court to establishing swagger, using the word 'soft' to fixing everything at once.

"Soft" is hard-hitting: Following the Celtics November 28 loss to the Brooklyn Nets in which Rajon Rondo was ejected for getting involved in an altercation with Kris Humphries, Rivers did not hide his frustration -- "Were a soft team right now," he said at at the time. "We have no toughness." How does he think the Celtics have responded since then?

"I think we're playing better, we're just not winning," said Rivers. "But we are definitely playing better. I haven't used that word again, so I think I like where we're trending as a team. But the facts still say we're a .500 team right now and we have to do a lot of things better."

The Celtics fear factor: The Celtics quickly became the team to beat when "The New Big Three" was established in 2007. For years, opponents would mark their calendars for when the Celtics would come to town, and the C's traveled around the league with a target on their backs. When asked if the Celtics still have that swagger on the road, Rivers has sensed a change since then.

"We may, but I don't know if the other team senses it yet," Rivers said. "You've got to earn that. You've got to earn it every year, and we haven't earned that right yet. Our record suggests no. I think every year, teams don't go into the next year thinking about the team you had last year. They go in trying to beat this year's team. Until you go on a roll and start playing well and getting people's notice, no, I don't think anybody fears us right now."

Time is ticking on clicking: The Celtics jump-started their chemistry building process this summer when Rajon Rondo organized an offseason team trip to Los Angeles for workouts. A month later, the C's traveled to Europe for training camp where they furthered their bonding experiences. They have their cohesion figured out off the court, now it is a matter of finding it during the games that is an area of concern for Rivers.

"You feel that every year, you really do," Rivers said of being worried if the team will mesh on the court. "That's a fear, even when you're playing well. You may have a good record but your eyes tell you something different or your feel tells you something different. I think this team wants to and I think they have to learn how to. I've had teams here in the past that we've won with. Early on, I didn't feel like they wanted to and somehow they did it, they got there.

"I think our minds are in the right place, I think our heads are in the right place, it is a good group of guys that wants to win. There are a lot of guys from different places bringing a lot of different habits, and their habits show under pressure right now and it breaks down things we do offensively and defensively. That's what we're trying to focus our guys on, and it's staying in good habits, in our habits."

A Work in Progress: If only it were as simple as improving defense or offense or one area in particular of the Celtics performance. But Rivers is tasked with improving multiple facets of the C's play, which presents a unique set of challenges.

"Usually with teams one area takes off and the other lags behind," said Rivers. "This has been a team that has gradually just gotten better in each area, and unfortunately that doesn't a lot of time translate into wins. It's usually when one side, like even defensively you're getting way better and it explodes and it can carry your offense for a while, or the other way even sometimes. Right now it's a little bit of everything."

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass-rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

MORE: How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track.