It’s called hitting the wall.
You hear marathon runners talk about it all the time. Same for people trying to lose weight or amateur journalists trying to finish an article. You come to a certain point in the process where you plateau, where it seems that you can’t take that next step…
…and that’s where the Boston Celtics are right now – and if they can’t find a way to break out of their current funk, they are destined for the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which means a first – and possibly the Celtics’ only – round matchup with the reigning champions Miami Heat.
Struggling to find consistency early on in the season, then losing their all star point guard and two of their top reserves with season ending injuries – enduring all manner of troubles on the road and drawing coach Doc Rivers’ ire on a few occasions, the Celtics had persevered as their makeshift lineup caused the opposition to scramble to find an answer to the odd scheme…
…but after Wednesday night’s loss to the New Orleans Hornets, a game in which they were out rebounded by an embarrassing 45 – 28 tally, it was Rivers that seemed dazed and, yes, confused as to why his team keeps laying eggs against the bottom feeders of the NBA – but then on Friday night after watching his team come out flat and uninspired against the Dallas Mavericks, Doc was completely at a loss for words.
Uncontested layups, not boxing out on the defensive glass, choppy ball movement…its as if the Celtics are a bunch of friends that have convened for an evening of pick-up hoops, only instead of taking on pear-shaped 40 something construction workers with far too much body hair, they are playing the best basketball players in the world – be it in Dallas, Miami, New Orleans or, yes, even Charlotte.
There are just 14 games left in this NBA season, and the Celtics current three game skid finds them slipping back into the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference, just 2 games in front of the young Milwaukee Bucks, who hold down the 8th and final seed…
…and though it’s a stretch to think that the Celtics could fall completely out of the playoff picture with just 14 games to go – considering that they would have to lose practically all of the rest of their games while either the 76ers, Raptors or Wizards would have to go on a Heat-like winning streak to catch the them – to fall into the 8th seed and having to face the defending champions in the first round would most likely produce a similar result.
The good news is that Boston sits just 5 1/2 games behind the struggling New York Knicks for the Atlantic Division lead, and the Celtics could trim two games off of their lead when the two teams meet in the next couple of weeks.
To catch the Knicks and win the division would assure the Celtics the third seed and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs…and even if they can’t catch the Knicks, they are only a half game behind the Bulls for the 6th seed, a game and a half behind the Hawks for the 5th seed and four games behind the Brooklyn Nets for the fourth seed in the playoffs.
And given that the Celtics are a lowly 12-22 on the road this season while boasting a robust 24-10 mark at home, gaining at least the fourth seed with the resultant home court advantage would seem imperative to advancing past the 1st round of the playoffs.
But how do they do it? How do they break out of the cycle of taking horrible losses down the stretch?
Aggressiveness. On offense, it means taking the ball to the hoop and, more importantly, finishing at the hoop. It means crisp passing, moving the ball around, but also knowing when the passing stops and the scoring starts. Someone needs to take charge and force the issue, and the Celtics have this person, but it’s tough for him to set the tone for the game on the bench…
…and by the same token, it means playing defense. It means not losing track of your man for wide open jumpers and uncontested layups and dunks – but the Celtics can’t have both. To have Jeff Green start at a forward spot means that superior defenders Kevin Garnett or Brandon Bass will have to sit, but to have them start the game means that the Celtics’ plodding front court sets the wrong tone for the game.
It’s a quandary for sure, one that is going to be tough to accomplish. But if Doc can find the proper combination that keeps them in the game and not playing from down in a hole, a lineup that gives them the opportunity to be in the mix at the end of the game, they have the talent to win most of those.
And now with Courtney Lee out with a bum ankle, the Celtics are forced to shift things around which, if recent history tells us anything at all, could be just the spark to break the Celtics out of the funk and finish the season strong…
…and that starts on Saturday night in Memphis against a very tough Grizzlies team.