Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 12, 2012

Celtics Fans Have Plenty Of Reasons To Worry

The NBA season is not yet three weeks old, but it’s already apparent that the abbreviated 66-game schedule is likely to be a painfully long haul for fans of the Boston Celtics. In the wake of Wednesday night’s 90-85 loss to the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, Boston is a game under .500, in 3rd place in the Atlantic Division behind the 76ers and the Knicks, and in a tie for the 8th and final Eastern Conference ticket to the playoffs. The Celtics are just four years removed from their 17th NBA Championship and but two years distant from taking the Lakers to seven games in the Finals. But the operative words in that sentence appear to be “removed” and “distant.”

Boston began the season by losing all three games of an opening road trip, beginning with a 106-104 defeat at the hand of the Knicks on Christmas Day. Two days later they fell to the powerful Miami Heat by 8 points, and then went down the next night by an embarrassing 19 points to the New Orleans Hornets, a team that is going nowhere fast. Casual fans may have been encouraged when the team ran off four straight wins, but it’s hard to ignore the quality of the opposition in those games. Boston has yet to beat a team with a winning record. Their wins so far this season came against Detroit in the home opener, twice against Washington in a home-and-home matchup, and then against New Jersey. Collectively the Pistons, Wizards and Nets are 5-26 this year, good enough to occupy the bottom three spots in the Eastern Conference standings.

Against better opposition, as their last two games have shown, the Celtics appear somewhere between outclassed and totally overmatched. The young and hungry Indiana Pacers outran and out-hustled Boston, making the men in green look very old in a game that wasn’t even as close as the not very close 87-74 final score would indicate. Then against the Mavericks, Boston couldn’t get out of first gear in the opening quarter, falling behind 10-2 at the very outset of the contest. Forced to chase Dallas all night, Boston finally caught up early in the second half, and even went ahead by 5; only to have the Mavericks go on a 24-6 run. A fourth quarter rally brought the Celtics back into a tie at 85-85 on a 3-pointer by Paul Pierce in the game’s final half-minute. But the home fans were forced to watch Dirk Nowitski blow past Kevin Garnett and sink the winning layup while being fouled by Brandon Bass with 5.1 seconds left to play. Down by 3, the Celtics couldn’t even get off a shot, instead turning the ball over one final time when Ray Allen bobbled a pass from Rajon Rondo.

Wednesday’s result has to be of particular concern for Boston because Dallas appears to have some issues of its own. The win moved the Mavericks above .500 at 6-5, but this year’s Dallas squad does not appear to be the same force that swept the defending champion Lakers in the second round of last year’s playoffs and went on to defeat the heavily favored Heat in the Finals. The main problem for both teams is age. Six of the top eight players for both Boston and Dallas are 31 or older. In contrast Philadelphia and New York, the two teams Boston now trails in a Division it has owned for half a decade, each have just one player over age 30 among their top eight.

Aging players and tired legs will certainly be a factor in a compressed season that will have fewer off-days and more back-to-back games than usual due to the lockout. But the Celtics problems don’t end with the fact that the Big Three of Pierce, Garnett, and Allen are 34, 35, and 36, respectively. Age alone does not explain why Pierce has been an anemic 5 for 22 from the floor in his last two games, or why he attempted a total of just 5 shots against Dallas; though it may be the reason why he spent much of the 4th quarter watching from the bench.

But even if the Big Three perform up to expectations, NBA titles aren’t won in 3-on-3 contests, as the even Bigger Three down in Miami found out last year. Since making the necessary but painful decision to trade Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder last February, the Celtics have been sorely lacking in the middle. Last year the hope was that the tandem of Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal would carry the load in place of Perkins. That bad idea ended with the second round playoff loss to Miami and Shaq’s overdue retirement. So far this season the remaining O’Neal has contributed little. In 22 minutes against Dallas he scored just 2 points and pulled down 3 rebounds. As bad as those numbers are, it would be asking a lot to expect the rookie Greg Stiemsma to step into a regular starting role.

Unfortunately for the Celtics, their schedule doesn’t get any easier any time soon. Boston is about to play three games in four nights, starting with a visit from the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls. Then it’s off to Indianapolis to face the Pacers again before returning home to host Oklahoma City, leaders of the Western Conference. Toward the end of the month they have a home-and-home with Orlando followed by a third game against Indiana in less than three weeks. Even with some dates against the likes of Toronto and Washington, it’s not hard to imagine the calendar turning to February with the Celtics a sub-.500 basketball team.

Some of the team’s more ardent fans will blame the problems on the short pre-season, or the early foot injury to Paul Pierce. They will dream of a team that gels down the stretch, slips into the playoffs as a #6 or #7 seed and then goes on a tear. But with the reality that’s been on display on the court so far this season, and with young new powers rising in many NBA cities, those dreams seem increasingly like so much wishful thinking.

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