After losing to Cleveland 107-104 on Wednesday night, the Celtics fell to nine games under .500 at 11-20. They have lost 7 of 8, including 6 of 7 without Paul Pierce. They have gone from a 10-13 first-place team in the pitiful Atlantic to a slowly sinking fourth-place team, leading only a Philly team that just lost one of the best players in the NBA.
So then why do I feel so good about the Celtics today?
Because as the Pierce-less C's continue to sink, they are finally starting to sync. And after the first four games of the recently completed five-game West Coast trip, that seemed an impossibility.
Al Jefferson discovers that even when Paul Pierce isn't playing, he can get easy baskets when the offense is clicking. (Steve Babineau/Getty Images)
While certain individuals saw jumps in their performances, the team as a whole was completely discombobulated without Pierce. No one knew what to expect out of their teammates, or even themselves, and it led to some long nights as the C's got blown out by Denver, Golden State, the Clippers, and Seattle.
In not a single one of those games did the C's have a reasonable shot at winning. Every one of those games looked like these guys were playing together for the first time. If you would have uttered "team defense" within earshot of anyone in green you may have well yelled "beezelblap" while dancing the jig, and gotten the same blank, confused stare.
Such confusion was a common occurrence on the first four games of the West-Coast trip, perhaps reaching its head near the end of the Seattle game, when Al Jefferson, retreating on defense, emphatically pointed at Rajon Rondo to cover a wide-open Earl Watson right before Watson hit a game-sealing three.
But when the schedule gods intervened and gifted the C's a game against the equally dismal Trail Blazers, the C's used the inferior competition to their advantage. They worked on defensive coordination. They worked on pick and rolls. They worked on all the team-oriented plays they were unable to schedule practice time for. And when they were finished working on their team-play against Portland, they finally gained some much-needed confidence in some of the aforementioned basic principles of NBA basketball.
And against Cleveland, that confidence showed. Sure, they lost. But they played by far their best game since the Pierce injury, and perhaps one of their best five games of the year. No longer were the defensive rotations late or the product of guesswork. No longer were opposing guard penetrations a foregone conclusion. No longer were the continual layup lines allowed. No longer were the lazy passes, hesitant rolls off of picks, or late recognition of double-teams.
The Celtics played like a team, on both ends of the floor, for almost the entire game, and almost pulled off the upset because of it.
And in a season of rampant injuries, falling expectations, and future wishes, such things are about as good as it gets in green these days.
For much of the season, Sebastian has seemed on a different page from his teammates, and definitely on a different page from his coach, and he seemed to lose confidence in his ability to run the offense. But I thought he had his best stretch of point-play for the C's in that second quarter. Telfair keyed a solid second unit performance in the quarter by setting up his teammates with perfect passes. He fed Kendrick Perkins when the big man had good post position for an easy hoop. He hit Gerald Green at the perfect time coming off picks. He drove into the defense and found the open perimeter shooters. For the second game in a row, he found Gerald racing toward the basket for a perfect alley-oop. He pulled up and hit 15-foot jumpers when his defender went under screens.
Basically, he did everything expected of him as a point guard, and it was great to watch.
His timing on the roll was perfect more than a few times against Cleveland, and the guards (mainly Tony Allen and Delonte) did a good job of getting his the ball at the right time. Seeing the coordination between Al and the guards on these plays was perhaps the best offensive example of how this team has started to click much better.
As for Perkins, well, he still doesn't possess the best hands in the world for the pick and roll, but he makes up for it by setting much better picks, and he was the recipient of a nice pass from Green in the second, and got to the line for his work. And Ryan Gomes, while more of a "pop" guy than a "roll" one, also continues to have great timing on coming off picks and receiving the ball.
What all of this shows is that players are starting to feel more comfortable with one another, and are able to communicate much more easily on the offensive end because of it.
Since he came back to the lineup against the Clippers, Wally has played in five games and shot 18 of 64 for 28 percent. That is a horrible number for the career 49.5 percent shooter. But more importantly, while Wally has struggled with his shot, he is still averaging more than 30 minutes a game. That means that for about two-thirds of each of the last five games, the C's have essentially been playing 4 on 5, because when Wally's not hitting his shots, he's really not doing too much else to help the team (sure, he's a decent passer and can set some picks, but his defensive deficiencies more than negate those).
If Wally is still bothered by his ankles, perhaps he should go the Pierce route and sit at the end of the bench until he's completely ready to contribute.
But since Pierce has been out, Tony has been the best player on the C's (Al is a close second). Over the past six games, Tony has been stuffing the stat sheet, averaging 19.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2 steals a game.
But perhaps along with the increased offensive output, the best development has been the resuscitation of the old defensive Tony Allen. The steals over these last few games and fast breaks they have led to are something that no other player on the C's can provide, and don't show any signs of tapering off. And although he had a huge challenge in guarding LeBron James, he held his own admirably, forcing many difficult shots for The Anointed One (who of course made his fair share).
Tommy's best gem of the night came near the end of the third quarter, after Damon Jones hit a three to put the Cavs up 79-75:
"I'd like to wipe that smirk right off of Damon Jones' face. That's one cocky kid. If I had the opportunity, I'd run right up his chest."
God bless you, Tommy. I don't know what we'll do when you retire.