HOUSTON — Basketball logic dictates that the Celtics’ season should be dead by now, yet it still has a pulse. In fact, this battered, bruised, and gutted team is not only surviving but winning.
Around the league, observers say there’s actually little surprise that this depleted Hub crew is still a tough out, is still in the playoff race, cobbling together victories even without its floor general, its best rebounder, and its speedy reserve spark plug.
“If there’s one team, coach and players, that could possibly hold the ship together a little bit,” an Eastern Conference scout said, “it’s the Celtics.”
Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau, a former Celtics assistant, isn’t shocked by the Celtics’ resolve.
“They’ve been down players before,” he said, “and they’ve always managed to get around it.”
Yes, but the injuries they’ve faced this season have been brutal, with Rajon Rondo (knee), Jared Sullinger (back), and Leandro Barbosa (knee) all out for the season.
It almost seems fitting that the man in charge of this wounded bunch is affectionately known as “Doc.” (Or course, coach Doc Rivers always points out that “Doc” is just a nickname.)
For anyone aiming to forecast the second half of this Celtics campaign, they must dissect the first, which is divided into two sections: pre- and post-Rondo.
The latter is what the Celtics will face in their final 30 regular-season games, but so far, the results without him are promising: eight wins, one loss.
Is that a true barometer for the second half? Not necessarily, not with nine of Boston’s first 11 games after the All-Star break on the road, and not with the Celtics having only 10 healthy players.
“It’s going to be necessary [to add players] just for us to even have practice,” forward Paul Pierce said. “We have to have a guard, maybe another big man.”
Pierce pointed out that Celtics assistant coach Tyronn Lue filled in during a recent team walkthrough — as good a sign as any that the Celtics need reinforcements.
With the Feb. 21 trade deadline looming, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said patience is key.
“We need to find the right fits,” Ainge said. “Sometimes it’s not always the best players, but we’re trying to find and identify the guys who fit our needs the most over the next week.”
Time is something the Celtics can’t really afford, just like a top-tier player, the type that will be flocking to this city for All-Star festivities this weekend.
No, salary cap restrictions will limit the Celtics’ chances of signing an impact “name” fans crave. They also lack the obvious assets to be serious players in a trade.
However, Ainge is known for being a bold dealmaker, so (almost) anything could happen.
In that same vein, the 2011-12 Celtics taught us that what happens in the first half isn’t always what takes place after intermission.
That team, whose season was shortened by the lockout, had a 15-17 record at the All-Star break.
Obituaries were being prepared. Graves were being dug. Doom and gloom all around.
But those Celtics then won 24 of their next 34 games, clinched their fifth division title in a row, and advanced to within a game of the NBA Finals.
Barring a blockbuster addition, it would require a Herculean effort for this team to make a similar push, even in a relatively weak Eastern Conference. Why? Too many irreplaceable missing pieces, especially one who has come up huge in the playoffs: Rondo.
With the Celtics’ recent success, there is still a faction of fans that believes the team is better off without him, something that has been hotly debated.
“It’s hogwash that they’re better without Rondo,” the Eastern Conference scout said. “Teams prepared more for what they were going to do to contain Rondo than what they were going to do with [Kevin] Garnett or Pierce.”
The scout added of the Celtics’ success without Rondo, the NBA’s assists leader (11.1 per game), “It’s a total testament to Doc and his staff.
“Other places, I think the roof would’ve collapsed, it would’ve been a free fall. But you have a safety net in the coach, and you have a guy in the locker room in Garnett, and you have a guy like Pierce, who can close out games.”
Said a Western Conference scout: “Hey, in the East, when they get to the playoffs, people are going to get nervous — because it’s Doc and KG and Paul Pierce.”
The 35-year-old Pierce and the 36-year-old Garnett relish proving doubters wrong, but in the winter of their careers, each will shoulder a heavier load than usual the rest of the season.
“You cannot underestimate what Pierce and Garnett bring to that team,” Thibodeau said. “Doc has been through everything imaginable, is a great coach, provides great leadership for them.
“Just like last year, everyone had written them off. You can never write this team off.”
The injuries the Celtics have sustained have wiped out what was once considered this team’s greatest strength: depth. Ancient history, that.
Avery Bradley, who needed surgery on both his shoulders before he could play this season, said that, before the team went on break, there was much discussion about staying in shape because most of the remaining Celtics realize their minutes will skyrocket.
“Everybody’s really been on that because we don’t have that many people, so we need to make sure over the break that we stay right, for the team,” he said.
No matter the injuries or the challenges, Rivers said the Celtics “choose to live.”
He added: “We’re not going to just roll over.”
Veteran guard Jason Terry said the Celtics’ resiliency starts with their coach.
“Doc has never given up on us,” he said. “He said our goal is still the same — and we believe him.”
Terry then referred to the All-Star break as a good opportunity to step back, regroup, and prepare for what he called a “magical run.”
“Because it is going to be magical,” Terry added, with emphasis.
“And we all believe that.”