We’re a little more than three weeks into the season, and the Celtics haven’t exactly looked like world-beaters. With a 6-5 record and without a particularly brutal schedule (at least in terms of strength of opponents), they haven’t played to the level that got them to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season. But instead of worrying about the ins and outs of every too-close game with the Wizards and surprising loss to the Pistons, Celtics fans would lower their collective blood pressure by considering the big picture over the day-to-day.
It may be tough to brush off losses, but you can bet that Doc Rivers isn’t sweating the small stuff. The Celtics were 15-17 at least year’s makeshift All-Star break. Rivers couldn’t have been happy with the record, but he must have been confident enough in the process, because panic never set in. At the end of the season, the Celtics were right where they hoped they’d be, and you could argue that they exceeded expectations by making it to a deciding game with the Heat.
With that in mind, the following serves as a kind of viewer’s guide for watching the Celtics through the early part of the season. Focusing on the process over the results, these are plays that I watch for in a typical regular season game. They’re plays I rewind my DVR for when I watch a game the next day. They’re plays that help me decipher, in my own mind at least, how well the Celtics are playing regardless of the score. The following is a list of things to watch for, and things to ignore, as you watch the Celtics over the next month or so.
Give new rotations a chance: Ten Celtics are currently playing 13 or more minutes per game as Rivers experiments with different lineups. Some new lineups perform well. Others are spectacular flops. The point is not to get too concerned over whether a lineup of Leandro Barbosa, Jason Terry, Jeff Green, Paul Pierce, and Jared Sullinger gets outscored by eight points in five minutes. That’s a lineup you’d never see in a playoff game, where Rivers is likely to limit the rotation to eight players, with a ninth getting time here and there. Every lineup isn’t going to work, and that’s OK.
Forget about minutes: Don’t get bent out of shape over the day-to-day rationing of playing time. If Jeff Green plays 25 minutes one night and 15 the next, it doesn’t mean he took a step backward. If Courtney Lee barely sniffs the floor in a game, it doesn’t mean he’s in the doghouse. Ignore the knee-jerk reactions that come with playing time for one game and instead focus on how a player performs in the time allotted. If Green plays all of his minutes with the first unit, that’s significant. If he plays in crunch time, that’s also big. Efficiency and shooting percentage are also things to consider.
Rebounding does matter: It’s early, but the Celtics are currently 21st in the league in total rebounding and last in the league in offensive rebounding percentage. The Celtics are no longer built to be among the league’s best rebounding teams, so you shouldn’t be worried about rebounding differential, per se. What you should worry about is poor rebounding effort. Failures in boxing out. Poor defensive rotations that lead to wide-open put-backs for the other team. Rivers will tell you that rebounding differential isn’t a focus, but the Celtics ranked second in the NBA in total rebounding during the championship season of 2007-08 and the next season in which they went 62-20. Rebounding does matter, and it’s always something to keep an eye on.
Stop focusing on Avery Bradley’s absence: Bradley is a big part of the plan for second half of the season, and there’s a tendency to believe that the Celtics’ perimeter defense will be vastly improved upon his return. That may be true, but it masks the deficiencies the Celtics have in playing pick-and-roll defense with their current roster. Instead of wishing for Bradley, Celtics fans’ time would be better spent trying to figure out how Rajon Rondo, Courtney Lee, and Jason Terry can defend the league’s best backcourts. Another key here is the Celtics big men; Kevin Garnett seems to be the only one who can adequately defend the play at this point. If Jared Sullinger improves in this area, he’ll be an even bigger asset.
Pay close attention to Rondo’s chemistry with the new players: Ask Ray Allen about this. If you’ve got good chemistry with Rondo, you’re golden. That’s what happened to Bradley last season to get him into the starting lineup. How Rondo uses various teammates is one of the most fascinating things to watch on this team. In focus this season are Lee, Terry, Green, Sullinger, and Chris Wilcox. Does Rondo look for [insert new teammate here] on the break? Does he trust [teammate] with the ball in crunch time? Look at Rondo’s face after [teammate] makes a turnover. Lots of fascinating stuff here.
Ride out Sullinger’s growing pains: Immediately after the NBA Draft in June, fans were debating whether Fab Melo or Sullinger was the better pick. Five months later and Sullinger is competing for a spot in the starting lineup while Melo is in the D-League. Our perceptions of Sullinger have changed drastically in a short time, and because of that it’s unrealistic to expect Sullinger to adapt seamlessly to the NBA. Just because he plays great one night doesn’t mean something’s wrong if he has an off game the next night. Evaluate Sullinger compared to other rookies and you’ll cause yourself a lot less grief.
Are the veterans being efficient?: With limited minutes, the total numbers won’t be there for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce during the season. Instead of worrying about scoring averages, give Pierce and Garnett the good ‘ole eye test. You’ve seen these guys play enough over the years. Do they look as good as in years past?
Rondo’s control: One of my favorite parts of watching basketball is seeing all the little things Rondo does during a game that don’t show up in the stat sheet. During a game last week Rondo had Pierce open on the wing during a 4-on-3 break. As Pierce called for the ball, Rondo drove the lane. “Oh no, he missed him” I thought. Wrong. Rondo kicked the ball out after drawing two defenders into the lane, giving Pierce an even more wide open 3-pointer than he had before. In other words, Rondo was in total control. The other plays I look for from Rondo are the ones where he creates an easy basket out of thin air, usually with a bounce pass. If Rondo is making these kinds of plays, he’s doing just fine.
So this isn’t a one-way conversation, what are some of the things you watch for during a typical regular-season game? What worries you? Which stuff do you brush off? Happy Thanksgiving, all.