These are trying times for the Celtics, whose main purpose tonight is to make the Mavericks, who visit the Garden (8 ET, ESPN), look older than they are.
They had high hopes this season for Jeff Green, who came in the controversial Kendrick Perkins trade, only to see Green diagnosed with an aeortic aneurysm during a routine physical. He’s gone for the season following surgery. They lost out on David West when the free agent chose the Pacers instead, which was a slap in the face for a proud Boston franchise. Paul Pierce missed the first few games of the season, which the Celtics opened by losing three straight. And while the Celtics peeled off a four-game winning streak, they fattened up on sweets, beating the Wizards twice, along with the Nets and Pistons.
And now we’ll see what a team that starts 50-year-old Jermaine O’Neal is made of, because the Celtics get the Mavericks, then the Bulls, then travel to Indiana before returning for Oklahoma City. Either the Celtics will show the grit of a veteran team, or watch the young Sixers continue their threatened takeover in the Atlantic Division.
The most beneficial way for the Celtics to survive, says coach Doc Rivers in the Boston Herald, is to start flexing muscle:
“I think we’ve got a tough group of guys; we just haven’t all bought in yet. It’ll come. I’m not that concerned by it. I just know we need it.
“We’ve got to be a hit-first team, and we’ll get there.”
The coach said he saw positive signs yesterday, and it helps that his players recognize there has been a problem.
“He’s right — especially in the Indiana game,” Rajon Rondo said. “It was an ugly game both ways, but they beat us. They pushed us out of our offense.
“They just did what we usually do to teams in the past and we haven’t done it in a while. It was a good wake-up call. He needed to address it.”
The Celtics aren’t likely to put down the physical hammer inside — Jermaine O’Neal will take charges and make hits, but Kevin Garnett’s instinct is to move aside and block the shot — so the physical game has to start outside and continue.
The real issue is whether the Celtics lost a fair measure of toughness when Perkins left. In addition, the Celtics sent Big Baby Davis to the Magic for Brandon Bass, who certainly looks the part (and has played rather well in spurts) but whose personality says otherwise. Of course, there’s no questioning the toughness of Rondo or Pierce. As for Kevin Garnett, insert your own punchline here.
With Miami and Chicago clearly better teams at this point, it appears the KG-Ray Allen-Pierce era could end meekly this spring. Only Pierce is guaranteed to return, and the Celtics will then build around Rondo, since this is his team now. If this is indeed the end, Rivers wants his team to go down fighting. Not in the strictest definition, but at least when it comes to grabbing a rebound and making someone think twice before going to the rim.