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Celtics are looking for answers

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  February 1, 2010 12:49 PM

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Here is the question you need to ask yourself if you're Celtics hoops czar Danny Ainge today: After watching your team get swept by Orlando, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Lakers in the last four days to seal the first losing month (6-8) of the new Big Three Era, do you still believe that as currently constituted your team is good enough to bring home Banner No. 18?

That we're even asking such a query five games before the All-Star break speaks to how much the Celtics have underwhelmed and underachieved to this point. Many, myself included, agreed with Rasheed Wallace's proclamation that these Celtics could challenge the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' all-time NBA-record mark of 72-10. Now, it's far from a fait accompli that they'll even be among the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics woke up this morning in Washington in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a 29-16 record. By comparison, they were 36-9 at this point each of the last two seasons.

Yesterday's loss to the Lakers is cause for some soul-searching. The Celtics had an 11-point fourth quarter lead and blew it, allowing the Lakers to impose their will in what Magic Johnson used to call "winning time." The Magic did the same thing to the Celtics on Thursday night, clawing back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit.

Spare me the bemoaning of the offensive foul call on Paul Pierce. He pushed off. You could see that from the nosebleed-inducing ninth level of the Garden. It was the proper call.

Now, Ainge has to decide between today and the Green's next meeting with the Lakers -- Feb. 18, coincidentally the NBA's trading deadline -- what the correct call is with this Celtics team. Does he make a minor move like adding a backup point guard? Or does he trade Ray Allen and his $18.77 million expiring contract and blow up the Big Three?

Here are four more questions about the Celtics that determine the answer to the above:

1. Is the current incarnation of KG good enough to win a title? It's been five games since Kevin Garnett returned from his hyperextended right knee. He has averaged 12.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. The Celtics can get by with KG's current offense, but not his defense. It was jarring to watch Lakers center Andrew Bynum dunk over KG twice, just as jarring as it was to watch Rashard Lewis blow by him with the game on the line in Orlando.

Bynum, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds, said after the game that he and LA power forward Pau Gasol were "kicking their [expletive] on the inside." The Celtics are still tied for tops in the league in fewest points allowed per game (93.8), but Garnett looks like he lacks the explosiveness to be an eraser in the back like in the past. Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the game that what bothered him the most about his team's recent play was its inability to get timely (read: fourth quarter) stops as it has in the past.

2. Can Rajon Rondo be counted on to take and make shots in crunch time? Rondo dominated the second and third quarters yesterday, but he might as well have sat in the stands for the fourth. Rondo was 9 of 14 with 21 points and 11 assists after three quarters. He had no points on 0-for-2 shooting and one assist in the fourth quarter.

The Lakers dared Rondo to shoot from the outside and he looked like he'd rather go to dinner with Chris Paul than shoot. With the Celtics up 2 with 2:23 to go, Rondo passed up an open jumper and ended up getting called for traveling. Rondo's reluctance to shoot from outside of 10-feet in crunch time turns the Celtics' offense into a 4-on-5 affair.

"We wanted him to take those shots, not make them obviously, but take them," Gasol said. "Then we can live with that because it's not something he relies on or that he wants to do. He wants to get into the lane for the layup or for setting other teammates up."

3. Is Ray Allen still a reliable late-game option? The 34-year-old Allen is one of the greatest shooters of all-time, but he is shooting a career-low 33.9 percent from 3-point range and woefully missed the potential winner against the Lakers. If Allen can't consistently knock down shots, the Celtics need to find someone who can. With Allen misfiring, Boston's only late-game option capable of creating his own offense is Pierce. The Celtics need another option so they can put teams in the type of bind that Atlanta did on Friday night, when they had both Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford going one-on-one and scoring at will in the fourth quarter.

After hitting his first seven shots against Orlando, Allen went 7 for 28 the rest of the way against the Magic, Hawks and Lakers. The Celtics overcame his off-target shooting in the playoffs two years ago. They can't do it now.

4. Is Marquis Daniels the missing link? It sounds crazy to say that the Celtics' championship hopes -- and the future of the Big Three -- rest on the recovering thumb of Marquis Daniels. However, with Daniels the Celtics are 16-4, without him they are 13-12. Of course Pierce and KG also missed time during that stint, but perhaps Daniels is the missing ingredient. He gives Boston a ball-handler to back up Rondo and is an athletic slasher on one end and a defensive stopper on the other. Without him, the Celtics bench is somewhat one-dimensional from a veteran standpoint because Eddie House, Wallace, and Brian Scalabrine seem to be in perpetual orbit with the 3-point line, unable to escape the arc's gravitational pull.

* * *
I don't envy Ainge answering these questions. Because there are no easy answers for the Celtics right now.
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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