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Mailbag: Praising your first-place Celtics

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff  December 10, 2013 07:16 AM

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"Dominant" isn't a label we thought we'd be applying to these Celtics, but over the last two games, the team has been historically so.

Boston took those fast starts and tied them neatly into wins over the Nuggets Friday and Knicks Sunday. The 114-73 thrashing of the Knicks was New York's third-worse home loss in team history. The dismal Nets are up next Tuesday night in Brooklyn.

“What Boston came in here and did was an embarrassment,” said Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. “To lose like that on our home court, I think everyone should be [ticked] off right now.”

The Atlantic Division may be dreadful, but the first-place Celtics aren't just winning, they're winning impressively. At 10-12 the Celtics are on pace to win 37 games, surpassing even generous expectations before the season started. If it isn't clear by now, this Brad Stevens guy can coach. The Celtics are 8th in the league in defensive rating and total rebounding. Jordan Crawford is 13th in the NBA in touches for a team that is doing just fine, thank you, without starting point guard Rajon Rondo.

For the first time all season, I'm willing to admit these wins might not be flashes in the pan. Crawford leads off this week's Celtics mailbag.

-- Two of you on Twitter helped piece together the first question on Eastern Conference Player of the Week Jordan Crawford.

Those comments led me to look up the touches stat, where I was surprised to see Crawford trailing only players like John Wall, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving in touches per game. The Celtics use Crawford a lot, and they use him in all sorts of ways, from handling the ball to catching and jacking the 12 3-pointers he took vs. the Knicks. Despite all that use, Crawford has an assist-to-turnover ratio of around 5:2.

"I think the best part about it is he's picking his spots extremely well, and he's defending extremely well," said Stevens. "This is not about what guys could do yesterday or what they've done in the past; it's about what you can do to get better and improve yourself."

Crawford is Stevens' perfect muse, the erratic, shoot-first player he can mold into a plucky winner. He still takes the random 30-footer with 10 seconds left on the shot clock and no rebounders under the basket, but he's doing it less. Just the threat of Crawford pulling up and draining a shot seems to have defenses on their toes.

The Celtics aren't going to sit Rondo for Crawford (sorry "they're better without Rondo!" crowd), but Crawford is making a case that he deserves to keep his minutes when Rondo returns. The problem is that Avery Bradley is the perfect compliment to Rondo, and you need his defense. Courtney Lee has also played well. If Crawford needs touches to do well, and Rondo comes back and dominates the ball, I still see Crawford as the odd man out, at least in terms of playing major minutes.

It's a good problem for the Celtics to have. If Crawford can't convince Stevens to let him play, perhaps he can convince internet's No. 1 Celtics fan to get on his side:

As a Celtic for the past 50 plus years, I am pleased to see the direction they have taken this year with their sincere effort of rebuilding with youth. I believe we are going in the right direction. However, can you see the Celtics improving after this year with the the addition of free agents and if so who might they go after ? Also, if they should finish with a win total that gives them a lower pick in next year's draft who are some of the lower first round players that might fit into their system?
Sonny, Ft. Meyers, Fla.

wallacetrap.jpgTwo good questions here. Kris Humphries and Keith Bogans come off the books after this season, but the Celtics still face a tight salary cap situation going forward in order to meet the 2014-15 salary-cap line of $58.679 million. At the moment the Celtics have around $48.2 million committed to nine players next year, and that's assuming they bring Crawford back. By the time they fill out the roster, it doesn't leave much room to sign any of the top free agents like Luol Deng, Pau Gasol, Zach Randolph, or Gordon Hayward.

One place where they may have luck is in a trade. The C's received a $10.3 million exception in the Nets deal which they can use in the short window between July 10 and July 12. (Baxter Holmes explains the trade exception here).

Do you think Danny could get Amer Osik from the Rockets? Would a trade of Humphries for Osik make sense? Seems like there's an opportunity here for the Celtics to get a legitimate NBA center and to move salaries as well. It also looks like an Osik for Humphries deal would work well for the Rockets. What do you think?
Tom, Middlebury, Vt.

That's a good thought, Tom, provided the Rockets can't get more for Asik, who has more upside. Houston is going to trade him, though, so maybe the teams can make a deal work. The important thing to remember with any potential deal Danny Ainge makes is that the Celtics aren't going to sacrifice the future to win this year, no matter how well they're playing. This deal would meet that criteria, but it's also a tougher sell for Houston.

-- Here's a brief interlude for my favorite play from Sunday's win over the Knicks (courtesy of @MrTrpleDouble10).

Are there any success stories from the D-league? Do the Celtics have anybody down there that has potential?
Mark, Manchester

Chris Wright, a 6-foot-8-inch forward out of Dayton, leads the Red Claws with an average of 24 points and 7.5 rebounds in the team's first five games. Wright is shooting 56 percent from the floor. He went undrafted in 2011 and was waived on Oct. 26 as the Raptors trimmed their roster down to 15. The high-flying swingman can fill it up -- he almost made the Raptors the year before, too -- but Toronto cut him again while he continues to work on his perimeter game.

Frank Gaines, a 6-foot-3-inch guard out Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, has hit 52 percent of his 3-pointers in five games.

-- And here's a question I wish someone asked about Kelly Olynyk:

Is the Celtics' recent success tied in part to Kelly Olynyk's absence due to injury?
Gary, Boston

For now, yes. In eight games since the rookie went down with an ankle injury the Celtics are 6-2. It's anecdotal at this point, but Boston has given up 90 points per game in those eight games while giving up 103.6 points in the previous eight games with him in the lineup. That's not all on Olynyk, of course. It couldn't possibly be. Based on the eye test, though, Olynyk has struggled on defense early in his career as bigger players take advantage of him in the post and smaller players catch him out of position. He's also struggled to find his shot, shooting 38 percent from the floor with a true-shooting percentage (factoring in 3-pointers and free throws) which ranks second worst on the team.

Olynyk should be be a fine player going forward, but at the moment the steadying influence of Kris Humphries is helping the Celtics win games.

As always, you can ask your mailbag questions here or on Twitter.

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