As this Celtics team drags its limping body through the dog days of January, every day that passes sees expectations lowered another notch. No longer are the Celts worried about executing in late-game situations. Now, they are happy to keep an opponent's lead within single digits in the second half. Sure, this group wants to win games, but they seem to know deep down inside that even on their best nights winning remains an unlikely scenario.
Instead, they must convince themselves that they are making progress as individuals and maybe, just maybe, slowly figuring out how to play as a team. Sure, there were good signs of team-oriented improvement in the loss to Toronto, and many more positives (especially defensively) taken against Detroit team that, granted, was sleepwalking through much of the contest. There were also just as many warning flags raised in a close-yet-ugly loss to Atlanta two days ago.
Still, the last three games for the Celtics have mostly been about individuals and how they have handled their increased responsibilities on this depleted team. "The Nine" suiting up for the Celtics have been just about as fun to watch collectively as the short-lived ABC drama of the same name, but among the collective disappointment have been some moments of solid individual displays. So here's my ranking, from best to worst, of how each of the nine available C's players have performed over the last three games since injuries to Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine reduced the rotation to its current number.
1) Rajon Rondo
Rajon gets the top spot not because he has put up the best numbers over the past three games, but because he has been the only one to continually bring a much-needed aggressiveness to the team over that stretch.
The aggressiveness is not only on the defensive end (eight steals over the last three games). Rondo has been the only Celtic to consistently attack the hoop on offense. His tour de force came against Detroit, where he scored a career-high 23 points by getting to the line at will (9-12 free throws). But even when he's not getting fouled like he was against Detroit, Rondo is driving to the basket and looking for opportunities to get shots or get his teammates better looks. In addition to averaging 12 points a game over the last three games, Rajon has averaged five rebounds, a little over five assists, and only a single turnover. His 16 to 3 assist-to-turnover ratio over that span is perhaps his most impressive accomplishment.
2) Gerald Green
With every reliable perimeter threat (Pierce, Wally, Delonte, Tony Allen) out, the Celts really had no other option than to rely on Gerald to provide consistent points outside the paint. And, aside from a bad shooting night against Toronto, Gerald has risen to the challenge.
Against Detroit and Atlanta, Gerald picked up his game on the offensive end another notch and started shooting with confidence. Going 18 of 28 from the floor and 5 of 10 from three-point land over the last two, Gerald's stroke has certainly improved, and he looks to be getting more comfortable in his scoring role every game.
It was especially entertaining watching Gerald match up against Rip Hamilton of Detroit, as they both ran each other off multiple picks to get good looks. Gerald's game is starting to remind me a lot of Hamilton's, especially how they both come into their shots so well after a catch off a screen. Rip is certainly a much better ball handler than Gerald (and comes off curls much tighter), and Gerald is the superior leaper (and has better range). But in terms of running off of picks and shooting those mid-range jumpers, the similarities are uncanny. And that is one of the highest complements that can be given to young GG, whose game is still evolving by the day.
3) Al Jefferson
Al would have the top spot if he hadn't had so many stretches of offensive timidity and defensive stupidity over the last three games.
To be sure, Al has been a beast on the boards, pulling down 22 and 17 against Detroit and Atlanta. The C's haven't seen that type of domination on the boards in back-to-back games in quite a while. It's great to see Al finally combine his great hands with some good, fundamental rebounding position.
Defensively, Al is still a work in progress. He showed decent flashes against the Hawks and Pistons, but far too often he was committing stupid fouls at the top of the key or letting guys like Zaza Pachulia abuse him in the post.
Offensively, Al is still falling into stretches where he is a non-factor and doesn't know what to do. On this team, with all its injuries, Al has to be getting up at least 20 shots a game. But far too often, when an opponent doubles him early, it takes Al completely out of his game, and he becomes invisible and tentative when the C's need him taking it strong to the hoop. The most discouraging aspect of the last three games: Al has only eight total free throws attempted in that span. He should be getting to the line eight times a night. He needs to take it to his defenders more often and draw contact rather that try off-balance baby hooks close to the basket.
4) Sebastian Telfair
Unlike many of his eight other teammates, Telfair has been consistent, if unspectacular, over the last three contests. Averaging 12 points and 4.3 assists, his numbers aren't enough to wrestle to starting job from Delonte once he gets back, but he's been serviceable. At times, the offense has look stagnant and confused with Sebastian running the show. But he has also shown a willingness to execute the game plan by probing the defense with his dribble and attempting to set up the big guys when he can.
Also, his three-point shot has shown recent improvement, which can only help him open up the driving lanes that he needs to be effective on offense. His overall shooting has been pretty bad (13-38 over the last three games) and his defense continues to be frustrating, especially when he doesn't fight through picks and allows the guys he's guarding easy midrange shots. Compared to Rondo's recent play, Telfair's play doesn't look as good, but he has hardly been the worst player on the floor in any of the games.
5) Ryan Gomes
Ever since Pierce went down, Gomes has seemed lost on this team. When the C's needed his experience and leadership the most, he seemed to disappear for games at a time. Ryan has picked it up recently, and shown at times the type of aggressiveness that has marked his time in Green. Averaging 12.3 points, six rebounds and two assists over the last three, Ryan hasn't been invisible. But he also hasn't been the reliable, productive backbone that he was in the first two months of the season.
He shows flashes of the old Ryan for stretches, but then seems to blend back into the crowd without making much of an impact for long periods of time. His elbow jumper – which he was hitting at the beginning of the season – hasn't been falling with any regularity. His rebounding, especially on the offensive end, hasn't had the same consistent passion and energy that it usually has. Defensively, he's been up and down. Much of it may have to do with the fact that he's been asked to switch between the power and small forward spots more than he's used to, and that has affected his confidence in his game (sound familiar, Delonte?).
Still, he has brought much more to the past three games than he was when Pierce first went down, so maybe he's settling into his new role.
6) Michael Olowokandi
The Kandiman hasn't seen a whole lot of court time over the last three games (44 total minutes) and he hasn't made a huge impact in the box scores (four points, nine rebounds total), but he has also played the best interior defense on the team over that span. The lone veteran on this merry band of youngsters provided some inspired D for stretches against Toronto and Detroit, helping in an area where the C's have desperately needed it.
Olowokandi has also been very active at setting good, solid picks when he's on the court, as he looked to free up the C's shooters. The activity off the ball on offense that the Kandiman has shown in limited minutes should be something that Al, Perk, Powe and Gomes should be providing every night.
7) Leon Powe
You'd think that with Perk hobbled and Gomes up and down, in addition to the aggressiveness he always seems to bring to the court, Leon would see more court time than the 13.6 he's averaged in the last three. He has done nothing since his 12-rebound effort against the Raptors. Since that outburst, Leon's court time has been spotty and his production nonexistent in the last two against Detroit and Atlanta. After that effort against Detroit, Leon has grabbed only two boards and scored two points in 24 minutes in the last two, rendering himself mostly inconsequential in both games.
He did do a good job of drawing an offensive foul against Joe Johnson in the Atlanta game, but that contribution was mostly negated when he combined with Al Jefferson to tip what would have been a defensive rebound into the C's own hoop earlier in the game. Hopefully he can duplicate his Toronto performance in the coming weeks and not let the Detroit and Atlanta failures affect him.
8) Allan Ray
Allan certainly wouldn't be seeing a minute of court time if any of the injured bodies were suiting up, but he has been as good as can be expected from a marginal NBA player of his caliber. He has shown that he can be just as bad of a shooter (4-15 against Toronto and Detroit) as he can be a good one (6-9, 3-5 from 3-point land against Atlanta). He has also shown a willingness to take it to the hoop when he has an opening, and has capitalized, getting to the line 15 times over that span. However, outside of his spotty shooting and occasional aggressive drives to the hoop, Ray really hasn't shown anything else. He has one steal, two assists and five rebounds over the last three games in 62 total minutes.
9) Kendrick Perkins
Perk should get a little bit of a break because he has still been battling the plantar fasciitis that sidelined him for 10 games in November, and it is certainly admirable that he is trying to play through it and help a team that desperately needs bodies. But Perk has been nothing short of horrible lately. He doesn't have the same aggressiveness on the boards, his defense hasn't been up to the standard we've come to expect from him, and every time he touches the ball it seems to result in a turnover. In short, he has been the least effective Celtics player over these last three games – and that's saying something.
Either Perk needs to bite the bullet and take his time to heal from this thing, or Doc needs to stop trying to force it with him. You can usually tell pretty early when Perk just doesn't have it going, and when that happens, the Kandiman should be getting those minutes. Perk isn't going to "develop" with these minutes as much as he is going to hurt the team and worsen his own injury. I wouldn't hold it against him if he shut it down again, because he's not doing much to help the C's on the court anyway.
These rankings are completely subjective to my own expectations on each player and how they've stepped up in the absence of the key rotation guys. Once those guys slowly start to come back, the expectations and roles of the above players will obviously change. But until then, we can only watch and evaluate how each of them has taken the opportunities presented. And once "the nine" becomes 10, 11 and 12, the C's may once again have a chance to expect to win a few games.