Breaking Down The Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics have been a little slow out of the gate in the NBA season, losing their first two games and barely escaping with a win in the third. We can excuse the opening loss since it was on the road in Miami, although losing at home to Milwaukee and then a narrow escape at Washington suggest this Celtics’ team is a work in progress. Of course there’s plenty of time to do the work and today TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at the raw material head coach Doc Rivers has in Boston and what some coming checkpoint games will be.

Ray Allen left town with bad blood between him, the organization and Rajon Rondo in particular. It bubbled over after Allen went to Miami, but whatever Allen brings the Heat, the Celtics are adequately situated in the backcourt without him. Allen’s hobbled ankles and being reduced to a one-dimensional shooter are fine in Miami, which only needs him to be a role player. Boston needed a little more.

Rondo brings the more, a consistent double-digits point guard in scoring and assists, and adept at playing scavenger on long rebounds. He pushes the pace as well as anyone and now he’s got some backcourt maters that can run with him.

Courtney Lee was brought in from Houston and Jason Terry left Dallas via free agency to strengthen the guard play and replace Allen. Lee and Terry are both steady shooters from the perimeter, and consistent double-digit scorers. And we haven’t even mentioned Avery Bradley, the young two-guard whose emergence began the forcing of Allen to the sidelines. Bradley makes an ideal running mate for Rondo and can shoot the ball well from the 15-18 foot range, although his three-point shooting is a little suspect.

Bradley is out until December with the shoulder separation that knocked him out of last year’s playoffs. And when and Rondo are on the floor at the same time, they’re both a little undersized and vulnerable to being posted up by bigger opposing guards. But Rivers has always coached one of the best team defensive concepts and when you look at this backcourt is a whole, it’s just a question of getting the right combinations developed in the early part of the season.

The frontcourt is a little more established with the two key veterans remaining at small forward and center, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Both will need to have their minutes monitored during the season, as has been the case for a few years. Both can still score and it’s all about keeping them healthy for the playoffs. Jeff Green is the key backup for Pierce, known for being good off the dribble, who averaged 15 ppg two years ago in Oklahoma City before being missing last year with a heart condition.

Jared Sullinger is the new kid in town, the first-round draft pick out of Ohio State and he’s being broken into the power forward slot slowly, though Sullinger is grabbing five rebounds in just 19 minutes for his early season averages. Rebounding is a Boston bugaboo and any help Sullinger can give there means improvement. Brandon Bass is the veteran option at power forward, although he’s still just 27 years old. Bass had some big moments in last year’s playoffs, notably a rescue job in a key moment of the series win over Philadelphia and is a solid role player with a nice 10-15 foot jump shot.

Rivers’ key challenge—after experimenting with his various backcourt combinations—will be finding the right man to spell Garnett. The team signed Darko Milicic and drafted Fab Melo. The former is a high draft pick that was a bust. The latter was the team’s second 1st-round pick this past year and one a lot of people believe will be a bust. Could it be that Celtics fans will long for the glory days of Greg Stiemsma coming off the pine to grab a few rebounds each night? We’ll see, but the backup to Garnett will be a key figure during the season’s dog days.

Boston has been a team built on defense first and there’s no reason to think that will change. They were second in the NBA in defensive efficiency a year ago, a stat that tells us their good defensive numbers aren’t just the product of a slow pace, but a genuine ability to get big stops. Some of that is connected to their poor rebounding numbers (28th last year). The Celtics send defenders back quickly rather than crash the glass. But the area that has to improve is offensive efficiency. They were 24th last season, something that became painfully evident during an ugly Game 7 win over Philadelphia and a missed opportunity to close out what would have been a monumental upset of Miami in the conference finals.

Between now and November 15, the Celtics will play three divisional opponents, starting with Washington tonight. More important checkpoints will be Friday night against new-look Philadelphia and Andrew Bynum, then Monday in Chicago and a week from Thursday (Nov 15) at Brooklyn on TNT. We’ll see how the C’s are doing as they find a new combination for success and try and pace themselves for another spring run.