Posted Mar 21 2011 11:08AM
There was a time not so long ago when all the Celtics would have wanted was another shot at the Lakers with a healthy Kendrick Perkins.
Now he's gone.
There was a time not so long ago when all the Celtics could have wished for was another all-or-nothing Game 7, this time on their own parquet floor.
Now they can feel that slipping through their hands like a greased rope.
While so much of the attention has gone to the Day-Glo antics in Miami and Derrick Rose's splendid MVP-worthy drive in Chicago, the under-the-radar story in the Eastern Conference is the playoff-readiness of the Celtics.
Not when Boston is knocking around in a drag 8-5 neighborhood since the Perkins trade, including four losses in their last seven games. Not when the offense is struggling. Not when the defense is lacking. Not when Rajon Rondo is dragging. Not when there may be more lingering injuries than a Saturday night in the emergency room.
When Boston lost at home to the Clippers, coach Doc Rivers did not panic. "No one cried, we're OK," he said.
When the Celtics followed it up the very next night with a loss in Philadelphia, Rivers claimed he still wasn't bothered. "It doesn't bother me unless they're going to start to have back-to-backs in the playoffs," he said.
But by the time they flamed out in Houston on Friday night with a discombobulated effort that saw them trailing at one point by 29, the Celtics could no longer ignore the alarm bells. Even when they came to win at New Orleans on Saturday.
What was once a 4½ game lead for Eastern supremacy is now a tie with the surging Bulls. And the Celtics have the more difficult schedule left with road games at New York (Monday on NBA TV, 7:30 p.m.), San Antonio, Atlanta, Chicago and Miami.
"We've got our work cut out for us if we want to retain home court, if we want to be on top of the East,'' Paul Pierce said. "We have to wake up inside and consistently play the type of Celtics defense that got us this record at the beginning of the year.''
"We've got to get right," said Glen Davis.
The Celtics, as has been their custom, were flying high with a 23-4 record when they went into Orlando on Christmas Day. But just as usual, they are having another spring thaw, unable to keep up the pace.
"We're dealing with a lot of different variables, mixing and putting things together," Kevin Garnett said. "I'm not gonna make any excuses. We've got to figure it out and try to put it together as soon as possible and get back to winning."
It would help, of course, to get healthy.
Shaquille O'Neal hasn't played since Feb. 1 due to an Achilles injury and sore right foot. Jermaine O'Neal has been out since Jan. 10 and had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Feb. 4. With Perkins sent packing to Oklahoma City at the trade deadline, the frontline size and bulk that had made Boston physical and imposing is gone.
It was one thing to bring in the pair of O'Neals to supplement Perkins in the middle of the lineup. But how far can the Celtics go relying on a 39-year-old Shaq and Nenad Krstic, who came with Jeff Green from OKC?
Backup point guard Delonte West first missed three months of the season with a broken wrist and then, just when he got back into the lineup after the All-Star break, chipped a bone in his ankle and missed another eight games.
While the 33-year-old Pierce, 34-year-old Garnett and 35-year-old Ray Allen understandably need their playing time monitored and limited, it is the drop-off in play of their 25-year-old point guard Rondo that is cause for the most concern.
In his last five games, Rondo has shot just 8-for-37 and scored a total of 17 points. Rondo has recently been dealing with a sprained ankle along with the plantar fasciitis that's plagued him all season. He appears less explosive, unable to drive and finish at the basket.
"Everybody's asked me, am I hurt?'' he said. "I'm fine. It's an 82-game season. It's long. Nothing is, I don't think, too serious. We all have aches and pains, but I don't think that it's nothing that's able to keep me out. I'm playing. I'm just not playing well."
None of them has played either well and or consistently of late. In what was clearly their worst performance of the season in Houston, the Celtics didn't close out on jump shots and didn't defend around the basket. Then late in the second quarter Garnett and Davis were hit with technicals, West was called for a flagrant foul and the Celtics fell apart emotionally, looking like anything but a veteran team that is ready to make a deep postseason run.
When is the last time the Celtics looked or felt in sync as a team?
"Last year around this time," Rondo said.
Since the start of training camp, the Celtics have been talking about the importance of securing home-court advantage in the playoffs, how even with Perkins' injury, they believe they could have claimed yet another championship if Game 7 against the Lakers had been played in Boston instead of in L.A.. Now the Eastern Conference has become supercharged with Rose's Bulls stampeding to the top.
"If you ask me personally, I don't think it's so important," Rondo said. "I think it's important that we get our chemistry. We have a lot of new guys on our roster and lot of veterans. The focus should be on getting Shaq back, getting J.O. back. Delonte is getting acquainted. We got to continue finding a way."
Rivers has been at the front of the line, championing the cause of getting the No. 1 seed, at least in the East. But if it means an all-out sprint to the finish of the regular season with Chicago, he won't do it.
"We're gonna lean on the health side," Rivers said. "I'm gonna always go that way and we hope we can still win games and still get the No. 1 seed. But we're not gonna get it if it means that we're gonna have to give up health. Health is gonna be No. 1.
"Any timing when you get healthy is good timing. But I obviously would have preferred it to be right after the All-Star break. That's when we hoped that everyone would be back and that we'd be able to kind of put the parts together. It just hasn't happened. There's nothing we can do about it. So we have to hope to figure it out on the fly."
There was a time not long ago when the Celtics were about much more than just hope.
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