Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 8, 2012

Celtics Off To A Rocky Start

The good news for fans of the Boston Celtics is that the team has only played four games in the new NBA season. With more than 95% of the schedule still ahead, there’s no reason to panic. On the other hand, while the sample size is small, Boston’s play to date has been sloppy and uninspired; hardly reminiscent of the team that extended the eventual champion Miami Heat to a full seven games in the Eastern Conference finals last spring.

The Celtics opened their season last week by traveling to Florida for a rematch against the Heat. While they briefly led in the early going, the supposedly defensive-minded Gang Green allowed the game to turn into a shootout. Boston surrendered 31 points in each of the first three quarters, by which time they found themselves in a 17 point hole. In the end they were on the short end of a 120-107 score. Giving up that many points was bad enough, but the really inexplicable part was how they allowed former Boston guard Ray Allen to come off the bench for Miami and score 19 points. Surely the veteran Boston players knew what their former teammate was capable of; but time and again they left Allen open.

Three nights later Boston played its home opener against the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that has been to the playoffs exactly once in the past six seasons and who finished four games below .500 last year. Before the game captain Paul Pierce was widely quoted talking about the importance of establishing a dominating presence at home. Instead it was Milwaukee that dominated. The Bucks led by 7 after one quarter and 16 at the half on their way to a 99-88 win. Once again Boston allowed an opponent to score 30 points in a quarter when Milwaukee hit that number in the third. Meanwhile the Celtics could manage just 30 points in the entire first half.

After that inauspicious beginning the Celtics were finally able to put a couple of games in the win column, thanks to a home and home series with the Washington Wizards. While a win is a win, the reality is that the Wizards are one of the worst teams in the league. Over the past four seasons they have posted an anemic winning percentage of .282. In the admittedly very early going this season they are one of just two NBA teams who have yet to win a game. On Saturday in D.C. the Wizards looked predictably bad at the start, spotting the Celtics a 14 point lead after one quarter. But Washington chipped away through the final three periods, and in the end Boston did well to escape with a 3 point victory, 89-86.

Then on Wednesday night at the TD Garden the Celtics appeared to have the game in hand thanks to a big third quarter. With the Wizards missing starters Nene and John Wall, and with the Celtics going to the free throw line 34 times to just 7 for Washington, there was no logical excuse for anything other than a Boston victory. But the Celtics got sloppy down the stretch, netting just one field goal in the final 4:45 of regulation as the Wizards forced overtime when Chris Singleton tied the score at 88-88 on a dunk with 9.4 seconds remaining. In the extra five minutes reserve Brandon Bass saved the day for Boston, scoring five straight points to spark the Celtics to a 100-94 win.

Two wins against a depleted Washington team that wasn’t very good to begin with is hardly confidence building. Coach Doc Rivers, who is unfailingly honest when assessing how his team is doing, said as much after the game. “Well, we won the game, and right now that’s the type of team we are. We’re not playing great,” was Rivers’ understated opinion.

In these first four games Boston has been particularly hurt by poor play from the second unit, and Rivers has admitted that he is more concerned about that than any problems with his starters. He’s mixed and matched players coming off the bench, and perhaps can find a little solace in the finishing performance by Bass and the fact that Jason Terry chipped in with 16 points. In all the 41 points by the Boston bench was the highest contribution by the reserves so far this year.

For now Boston fans will tell themselves that it’s way too early to draw any conclusions. That’s true enough, as a glance around the rest of the league will confirm. The New York Knicks are the only undefeated team, a fact that only the most diehard denizen of Madison Square Garden would find meaningful. Last year’s Western Conference champion, the Oklahoma City Thunder, sport the same 2-2 record as the Celtics; and the Los Angeles Lakers and their lineup of All-Stars have one win in five tries and aren’t even the best team at the Staples Center, much less in their Division or Conference.

Still despite the small sample size some nagging questions have emerged. The Celtics have yet to jell defensively, allowing at least one 30 point quarter in each of the four games they’ve played. The identity of the team’s fifth starter isn’t clear, with rookie Jared Sullinger already getting two starts over Bass. The second unit has left much to be desired. Finally it’s already clear that this Celtics team is going to rise and fall with Kevin Garnett. There isn’t an obvious backup for those times when the 36-year old has to sit, and his continued good play and good health appear absolutely necessary for Boston to succeed. Four games do not a season make, but the Celtics have yet to show that they can beat a good team and dominate a bad one. Until they do both, Boston’s remarkable run through last season’s playoffs will just be an increasingly distant memory rather than a sign of things to come.

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