There seems to be an increasing relief in Doc Rivers’ voice when he talks about why his team has the second-best record in the NBA, behind only San Antonio.
Here’s something to take: The core of Paul Pierce [stats], Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo [stats] not only has remained on the floor but has conspired to play the best two-way basketball in the league.
What follows are grades for an inspirational first half in the NBA meat grinder:
The Celtics captain has had better seasons, but it’s hard to carry the debate too far when you consider how efficient the offense has been. He remains one of the most inventive, relentless scorers in the league and the Celtic most capable of taking over a game offensively.
He leads the NBA in assists, is second in steals and has provided the Celtics with their best moments when he’s at his best. Perhaps no other player in the league can affect a game as much without scoring, though that’s not a theory he should want to test too much. Though he occasionally passes up makable shots for that next assist, it’s hard to argue with the results. He’s also hitting more jumpers, which is his next frontier.
When Rajon Rondo has found him early, O’Neal generally has staked the Celtics to a rock-solid advantage. He’s creaky, and the floor boards groan when he falls, but Shaq has made the life of Kevin Garnett, especially, a dream just through his presence. He’s averaging 20.7 minutes per game and it’s clear the experiment has worked here, unlike last year when the veteran center joined LeBron James in Cleveland. Most of all, Shaq seems to respect his surroundings — something else that didn’t happen with the Cavaliers. He’ll continue to get all the rest he needs to guarantee optimum court time come April.
Feel free to wrangle over the time-worn debate that Garnett, who’s averaging less than 15 points (14.9) for the second straight season, should spend more time scoring in the paint. But the Celtics aren’t the Eastern Conference leaders without his ability to orchestrate one of the best defenses in basketball like a barking middle linebacker. His abrasive nature seems to be at an all-time high, considering the number of people — players and others — who have called Garnett out this season. But Doc Rivers’ message on this is clear: Don’t go changin’.
Big Baby still can get lost. Let him hit one too many 20-footers, and he goes from one of this team’s best energy players to a scrapper who has lost sight of his role. But he’s played well enough to warrant serious discussion for the league’s Sixth Man Award. The 39 charges he’s taken offer a tangible window into Davis’ intangible benefits. When he worried aloud about his role on media day, he should have just underlined “all of the above.” Eighty percent of the time he’s simply done what’s needed, whether it’s rebounding (one of those areas where he can drift) or guarding 7-footers. He’s become remarkably good in the latter area, which shouldn’t be underestimated considering the Celtics’ season-long health issue in the paint.
It’s hard to conceive of a more efficient scorer in the league right now. Percentage-wise, Allen is shooting well above his overall (50 vs. 45) and 3-point (46 vs. 40) career averages. That he now owns the NBA’s career 3-point record is a nice reward, but the bigger deal is his ongoing status, at age 35, as the league’s best pure shooter. The hidden bonus is the energy he expends every night guarding one of the best scorers on the opposing team. He’s a vital part of this team’s Kobe Bryant game plan.
It’s all about the nuances with Daniels, and up until he suffered a bruised spinal cord Feb. 6 against Orlando, the swingman was arguably the Celts’ most important player off the bench next to Glen Davis. His play marked a nice rebound from his forgettable end to the 2009-10 season, when he never regained confidence after attempting to come back from thumb surgery. The timing of his return now is anyone’s guess, but the real Daniels has been on display this season. He’s the player who seems to find every backcut on the floor.
Often you want to shout at the rookie 7-footer to grab a rebound or to put a body on someone. But prior to straining his groin, Erden was playing important minutes due to injuries to the O’Neals. He has skill but needs to build his NBA motor — never an easy task for a young international newcomer.
The rookie out of Notre Dame clearly gets it. He brings energy to each opportunity (witness his steamrolling of the Nets’ Travis Outlaw last Wednesday in their race for a loose ball), and has a quick-enough release on his jumper to survive at the NBA level. That’s all the Celtics are asking of him right now.
The grade is mainly for Perkins’ ability to come back early from reconstructive knee surgery in the offseason. There is not a more committed player on this team in the area of conditioning and just plain hard work. His free throw percentage remains perilously close to his overall shooting percentage (58-56), but this team’s defensive value took an important step with his return.
When paired with Delonte West during training camp, Robinson thrived as the league’s smallest shooting guard. With West on the shelf, he’s been asked to be something he’s not — a backup point guard. Robinson simply doesn’t have the sense of control required to run an offense, and that becomes more apparent the longer West is out. It’s also affected Robinson’s strength — his shooting (40 percent).
Peer pressure has forced Wafer to buy into being a better defender, and as the guard has admitted, he wouldn’t be on this team right now if he hadn’t seen the light. He’s an explosive offensive talent who is also prone to occasional wildness. But given the opportunity during the last two weeks, Wafer has made a strong case for keeping his job.
Rivers has become an old hand at juggling injuries. He cut his teeth while attempting to manage Grant Hill in Orlando. But he actually seems to be getting better at it. This time, with Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, Delonte West and Marquis Daniels on the shelf for prolonged stretches, the team continues to hold on to the best record in the Eastern Conference. Rivers has lamented the bench’s inability to form an identity under these conditions, but overall, his team never has lost its defense-first work ethic. No one in this self-correcting system even thinks about stepping out of line.
Jermaine O’Neal’s brittle history isn’t a mystery, and general manager Danny Ainge knew the risk of signing the center to a midlevel contract. You know Shaquille O’Neal will go in and out of the shop. Delonte West and Marquis Daniels were low-risk, minimum signings that should pay the biggest dividend down the road. The ultimate test here will come in April, which might be the first time the Celtics actually have a full rotation.
INCOMPLETE: Avery Bradley, Jermaine O’Neal, Delonte West