Behind Enemy Lines: Boston Celtics

Boston in New Orleans tonight. Last season, it was one of the defining moments of the year. This time around, it could very well be one to forget with Chris Paul potentially out and Tyson Chandler definitely out. I talked to CelticsBlog for a few Bostonian questions:

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At the Hive: Seems like everyone's in the market for a big man these days, whether it be the cellar dwelling Grizzlies or world champion Celtics. How much of Boston fans' desire for another big man is knee jerk reaction to a few tough losses, and how much is legitimately warranted?

Celtics Blog: Very close to all of it is legitimately warranted.  No matter the result on a given night, this team is lacking usable length on the bench.  I say "usable" there because Patrick O'Bryant has the physique to provide it, but Doc Rivers has given little indication that he trusts the notorious POB to be a significant part of the operation right now.  O'Bryant's work ethic and interest level have been questioned since his collegiate days at Bradley, and Rivers has referred this season to differences between "Celtic speed" and "Patrick speed" in practice.  Not a good sign.  Thus far, O'Bryant has seen nearly exclusively garbage time except for a couple of brief second-quarter stretches in the two games Kevin Garnett missed recently.  But as of right now, he really isn't a member of the rotation.

As for the guys that do play, Leon Powe and Large Baby are both high-hustle guys who lack (vertical) size inside.  While both have had their hot stretches and slumps this season, it is going to be a challenge (not impossible, but without doubt a difficult task) for the Celtics to face top-tier teams like Cleveland, Orlando and the Lakers without adding more height.  On Thursday night, for instance, we saw Pau Gasol hit a crucial shot simply by elevating over the Infuriated Infant, who has no chance to stay with him off Pau rises staright up to shoot.  With the Lakers having Gasol, Lamar Odom and possibly Andrew Bynum back, the Cavs having Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao and the Magic playing that really enormous fellow in the middle, the idea of the Celtics relying on two 6-foot-8 (maybe the Pugnacious Papoose is all the way at 6-9) guys behind Garnett and the in-questionable-health Kendrick Perkins is a bit disconcerting. 

Dikembe Mutombo seemed like the sort of guy who would ahve been a perfect fit.  I would have taken Alonzo Mourning.  Having P.J. Brown back would no doubt be lovely.  But at this point, it appears Joe Smith might be the best realistic option out there.  His veteran presence, ability to shoot the ball from mid-range and post up, and the fact that he's simply a big body would all help.

@tH: From 1998-2007, I truly thought Paul Pierce was one of the most underrated players in the L. He's finally getting some of that credit now. Unfortunately, some statistics indicate that he could be a little bit on the decline at age 31. What do you think is his future with Boston?

CB: While I'm not sure exactly which stats you're referring to, this seems a good time to mention that it's worth being wary of judging Pierce on volume statistics.  Though his scoring is down, it was my contention that he was the Celtics' most improved player last season, and the sort of play that made that the case in my eyes has remained this year as well.  Playing with two other legitimate superstars for the first time in his career, Pierce is being asked to carry less of the offensive load, which has been great for him.  Not only has he done the most efficient scoring of his career between last season and this one (true shooting percentage of 59.9 and 58.3), but he has made an impressive commitment to his work at the other end of the floor.  The Paul Pierce of earlier this decade was a great scorer who didn't always seem all that interested in what went on defenisvely - or in fairness to him, perhaps he was carrying the load to the point that he didn't have the energy.  He has been killing himself at that end since the day KG arrived, and it has been a pleasure to watch.  That said, Pierce is still the Celtics' primary go-to guy at crunch time and has shown on several occasions over the past year and a half that he can still be Superman, as KG likes to call him.

All that is not to say that he won't necessarily hit the decline soon, simply by virtue of the fact that he is getting older and has a lot of mileage on his body at this level.  Since my attitude from day one of the KG era has been to soak in every second of the here and now and not glance too hard at the crystal ball, I must confess to not having thought too much about Pierce's future.  His contract runs through 2011, and I would be surprised if he did not continue to be a highly productive player through that time.  What happens after that is anyone's guess.  But I'll have to admit, after going through my own set of struggles with how I viewed him, after seeing his growth over these past few seasons (and it's not just the winning, I promise), I understand more and more every day how tough it would be to see him in another uniform.

@tH: Where do you fall on the whole KG being "too intense" deal? Is that truly an integral part of his game, without which his play might suffer? Or could some of the things be cut out?

CB: Sooner or later, people are going to get really tired of me copping out of this question with this same email I sent to Henry Abbott a while ago, and they'll start pressing me a bit tighter on it.  But so long as that time doesn't come until after KG is gone, I'll be able to think a bit more clearly and answer rationally then.  Instead, and I assure you that this is not laziness so much as it's the only way I can answer this question coherently and not feel like I'm picking my poison, I'm going with the same answer I gave The Dream Shake back before the Celts played the Rockets in January:

"The best way I can find to sum up my emotions on this one is to go back to what I write in an email to Henry Abbott after his piece titled 'Kevin Garnett's Big Mouth,' an excellent compilation of thoughts and a great read.

My comments to Henry:

'Just wanted to take a minute to applaud you on a heckuva piece about Garnett. I really enjoyed reading your conclusion - mostly because it encapsulated my own internal struggles with KG. As a Celtics fan, I love what he brings to the table and have at no point desired to see it another way. But I've also found myself unwilling to get into some of the discussions we've had at CelticsBlog (particularly when it has become fans around the league arguing with C's fans and the stoutest KG backers) because whenever I've sat down to write a defense of certain behaviors, I've realized that I can't be sure if I'd take it seriously if I read the same thing about someone else's player - and the double standard in denial remains the worst kind of double standard in my book.

So instead, I settle for being up front and admitting it: I'm a Celtics fan, and I love what KG has done to this team. I'll take the whole package and not worry about it. But that doesn't mean I've got an objective clue about right and wrong.'

I'm a fan, and that's short for fanatic. As long as the front of his jersey reads "Celtics," I'm not going to be able to write something reasonable about Garnett's antics that don't either make me feel like I'm appropriating a behavioral double-standard or becoming some sort of ingrate as a fan. So I'll defer to the more objective observers on this one. I am serious about reading as much as I can from as many perspectives as I can find on KG's behavior. In that vein, I'd be curious to hear what the authors and membership here thinks on this. Sorry, folks: I owe you one."

So Hornets fans, how do you perceive KG?

@tH: Say we have a time machine and go back to summer '08 again. Do you still let Posey walk (assuming you'd have to match New Orleans' deal to keep him)?

CB: Now, here's one I can answer, although it depends who "you" is.  If that's Danny Ainge and the Celtics, then I believe that yes they do, because Ainge drew his line before a fourth year for Pose, and he believed enough in the importance of whatever flexibility that not having Posey on the payroll three years from now would offer.  I don't think that's changed in Danny's eyes, and he certainly hasn't exactly left the team in shambles (no matter how much the sky appears to be falling after every loss).  While the Celtics may miss Posey this year, they can still contend for a title without him, and I've heard nothing that would make me think the front office feels any different financially than it did in the summer.

On a personal note, I wasn't in favor of letting Posey walk then, and that position hasn't changed either.  Celtics fans spent the majority of the last decade and a half hearing about the mystical time of wonderful fantasy known as the future.  On July 31, 2007, the future officially arrived and morphed into the present with the acquisition of Kevin Garnett.  While the idea of trying to make moves that are beneficial in both the short and long term is optimal, it makes sense to me for the here and now to be the clear priority so long as this team is built around Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen.  Posey played an integral role on a championship team a season ago, and his clutch shooting, rugged defense, general intensity and ability to play multiple positions would all have been important for this year's squad.  If it were my decision, we would have considered those last two years of Posey's deal simply part of the price to pay to acquire an important piece for making runs over the next two seasons.

But with all that said, a few important points to note: I became absurdly enamored with Posey last season and probably hold an unhealthy admiration for him (I'll always be a fan of his, no matter where he plays), and it isn't my name that goes on the checks or my bank account that the money comes from.  It was also Danny Ainge and not me who did a heckuva job in building a championship team in 2007-08, and while I wasn't happy with the Posey decision, I think Ainge has to have earned a bit of faith from us.

@tH: I just re-watched He Got Game a couple days ago... who's got a better stroke, Jesus Shuttlesworth or Larry the Legend?

CB: Confession time: I've never seen the movie.  And if we're just talking about Ray Allen and Larry Legend as a result (rather than Ray's fictional character), it stands to reason that I'll be smote down by ghosts of Celtics past if I choose any non-Larry answer.  So the Legend it is.  But it sure is sweet to watch Ray shoot.

@tH: One of the things that surprised a lot of people last postseason was Boston's performances on the road. Are there any underlying factors that can be pinpointed as potential causes, and do you anticipate that being an issue this year?


CB: Truth be told, I still don't get it.  Certainly, the opponents get better in the playoffs, and the arena atmospheres get more intense, which makes it a bit tougher to play.  But the Celtics had their most trouble in the first two rounds, and the Hawks don't fall into that "competition is better" category the way the Cavs, Pistons and Lakers did.  This was a team that went 31-10 on the road all season and suddenly became night-and-day depending on the venue.  While homecourt is an important factor in the playoffs, this was a team that went a good portion of the season (especially the back end) without really being challenged, and the three stars had never played a series together before last spring.  I don't have any better explanation than the fact that while they had several veterans they weren't expeienced as a team (should that even make more of a difference on the road than at home?) and that perhaps the jitters got to them a bit more on the road early on.

Those things considered, so far as this year is concerned, yes and no: Getting homecourt advantage is an issue because the Celtics are not head-and-shoulders better than the rest of the Eastern Conference.  As they did last year, the Cavaliers are going to provide an enormous challenge, and the Magic looked much improved before losing Jameer Nelson to injury.  While I believe the Celtics can win any series no matter where the games are being played, it would be huge to not be in a situation where the Celtics necessarily needed to win a game at Quicken Loans Arena in particular, where the Cavs have only lost once all season (to the Lakers on Sunday).  But as far as the earlier rounds of the playoffs are concerned, while the Celtics will likely continue to play better basketball at home than on the road (nothing unusual there), I would be surprised to see a disparity anywhere near last year's level.

@tH: An imaginary 2 on 2 game: CP3 and David West vs. Rondo and KG. Who wins?


CB: The Celtics, simply because of how difficult it is to win a game if you don't live to finish it.  Only one of these four players would kill to win (a good thing perhaps in the eyes of some?), and that would be the large individual with sweat dripping down his forehead and veins bulging before the game even starts. 

And if for some reason unbeknownst to me, ATH decides he is illegalizing homicide in this game, I'm still going with the Celtics.  Defense, defense, defense.  It would be tough, but I think those two are more capable of stopping the two Hornets than the other way around.

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