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Celtics owe it to Rivers to shape up

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 26, 2012
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WINTER PARK, Fla. - As the Celtics prepared for an offday practice at Rollins College yesterday, there were more players on the sidelines getting taped, massaged, and iced than there were on the court taking jumpers.

Practice has turned into a mini-hospital ward, with ailing players attempting to salve themselves enough to participate. It is not likely this way in Oklahoma City or Indiana or Denver, where younger, fresher legs have taken less time to recover from the lockout.

Five rotation players missed Monday’s 87-56 victory over the Magic, and if Celtics coach Doc Rivers is lucky, only two will sit out tonight’s rematch in Orlando. Even Mickael Pietrus, who joined the team after taking a few weeks to rehabilitate his surgically repaired right knee, took just seven games to become one of the wounded when he sprained his shoulder against the Wizards last Sunday.

What we are learning 13 years after the last NBA lockout is that there is a mammoth difference between good physical conditioning and basketball shape. Not one Celtic reported to camp in poor shape. There were a bunch of lean guys who seemed ready to begin an abbreviated session, but the moment Rivers began five-on-five drills, it was apparent that they were not.

Paul Pierce went down with a bruised right heel. Chris Wilcox has already injured his shoulder and calf. Keyon Dooling has missed six games with a strained knee. Sasha Pavlovic sprained his left wrist. And Jermaine O’Neal has been slowed at times by sore knees.

Rivers admits his team was unprepared for the season, and that’s something he mistakenly takes responsibility for. He was not allowed contact with the players during the lockout. He could not give them workout regimens. He trusted his veteran core to report to camp not just fit, but in “basketball shape.’’

They failed him, and the Celtics haven’t resembled themselves until the past few days. Pierce shot 30 percent over a seven-game period before coming on the past two games. Kevin Garnett has labored on the court at times, and Rivers had to devise a five-minute-per-appearance plan.

Rivers said the only players to show up to Waltham prepared to start a season in 16 days were Ray Allen (no shocker there) and Rajon Rondo. The rest of the roster let the coach down because he trusted them too much.

“We were not ready to start the season, bottom line,’’ Rivers said a few days ago. “I said that in camp, you can see it. And we’re trying to get there.

“It’s difficult, and we will get there, but it’s not fun losing games when you’re trying to get right. You shouldn’t be trying to get right when the season starts, and we are. You can’t use the lockout as an excuse, because other teams didn’t; they came in ready. And it’s our fault.’’

The lack of conditioning and the injuries have hampered Rivers and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge in making an assessment as to whether they have a contender or a lottery team. The victory over the Magic - who went out and thumped the Pacers the next night by 19 points - was an indication that the talent remains and the execution is coming along.

As Pierce nears peak condition, Garnett gets his legs back, and Allen recovers from a jammed left ankle, Rivers is becoming more optimistic about his team. The good thing is that none of the injuries are season-ending, and the ailments have allowed players such as Avery Bradley and E’Twaun Moore to get valuable experience.

Asked if he believes the Celtics can compete for a title, Rivers said, “I do, but I’d like to find out for sure. And get us in shape, and get us healthy, and get us playing the right way, and then I could give you that answer.

“I did before camp started, before I saw any of them walk in the door. When they walked in the door, I said, ‘Boy, we’d better get in shape quick.’ I’d like to have a real answer, and it’s difficult to give you any kind of answer right now.’’

The Celtics’ two-game winning streak has given them a sense of encouragement, and Rivers is banking that his veteran players will take good enough care of themselves to be ready for a difficult final 75 percent of the season.

“I think I know who we are, I’d just like to see them,’’ he said. “I think we’re going to be a really good team but we’re not yet. We haven’t been. We’ve been in a couple of stretches. We played a nearly flawless defensive game the other night. It’d be nice to get all the working parts together in shape and in rhythm.’’

Rivers’s trust during the lockout has turned into impatience, and now it’s on the players to make up for their conditioning lapses. They owe that much to Doc, who changed the direction of the franchise with his faith in his veteran players.

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