Predictably Pooped, Probably Progressing

With the onslaught of injuries the players left standing were becoming a bit frazzled even before the trade deadline turnover that changed a third of the roster. In the ensuing two weeks the load has not lightened for the Big Four as the new additions were playing one handed since in the other hand they were carrying flash cards on the offense and defense. Performances from our stars have become increasingly erratic and it is actually rather encouraging that they’ve won this many during a time of adjustment. Still, it is rather numbing that even with bringing in five healthy bodies they Celtics have been limited to a game day roster of ten—the Big Four, Bradley, and the newbies.

Doc is still forced to deploy his troops out of position as our big man corps has been reduced to one center, one power forward and Murphy. The long sought power three, Jeff Green has been utilized quite a bit as a four (where he played out of position his entire career at OKC) due to the shortage of backup bigs. That, combined with the absence of both Wafer and West, has rippled down to rob Doc’s ability to adequately rest either Pierce or Allen. Nate’s relative inability to play quarterback and then his trade, along with West’s suspension, broken wrist, and now sprained ankle, and Bradley’s slowed development, means that Rondo has lacked adequate backup for the entire season. I’ve actually been waiting for the Big Four to falter, thinking it inevitable, and have been impressed with how well they have done. It is not that they crater, more that they miss a beat—an off game or flat and errant shots in a game’s latter stages. In Rondo’s case it seems to have been a drop off in his ability to finish at the basket, passes off just enough to make his shooters adjust and give defenders a split second to recover, or opposing points flashing by him as he is so wont to do to them.

Speaking of Murphy, not only does it seem he is having a lot of trouble knocking off the rust, he appears to be having the most trouble picking up the Celtics’ schemes. A couple of times a year I find myself writing about the Celtics needing player qualities not always (perhaps infrequently) found on the résumés of NBA players. To play for the Green a player needs to be able to sublimate his substantial ego into the team identity, understand and see the whole court rather than only the opponent in front of him, and comprehend the effects of ball and player movement on both offense and defense. This is not a trivial requirement! The list of players that failed on one or more portions of this Celtic Way is long and sad with Banks, Ricky Davis, Sam Cassell, Patrick O’Bryant, and most recently Nate Robinson all examples of players whose skills failed to mesh well with the Green.

On the other hand not all the news is discouraging. Jeff Green is barking defensive coverage from the sideline and filling the fast break lanes like a thoroughbred. Krstic is shooting well and stretching the floor, expected, and rebounding like a force, not so expected. Both are occasionally out of position on rotations but rapidly improving. Pavlovic shows indications of being a strong defender and with his size gives the C’s a tool to slow big guards and an additional backup at small forward. His outside shot diversifies the C’s offense and gives the second team some added firepower. Carlos Arroyo, in his first game and after only one practice, ran a play to which he had not yet been introduced! This augurs well for his ability to provide some court generalship and give Rondo enough rest to let Rajon go full tilt for the minutes he is on the court. Of the new guys, only Murphy still seems totally out of step. Even if that continues, hitting on four out of five guys introduced two-thirds of the way through the season is quite a high percentage. Even if Murphy proves to be a “fail,” that will only be a big deal if the O’Neal’s don’t return.

Doc is force feeding the new guys minutes, probably a good idea anyway but an absolute necessity since they are the only backups. They already look noticeably more in tune and in the Philly game actually out-performed the first-teamers, at least in efficiency. Admittedly that is due in part to the fact that the Big Four had a pretty dismal game, but as the new guys pick up the pace, the relief for the starters should start to pay dividends as the Big Four get enough rest to regain their effectiveness. The return of Big Baby, West, and Shaq will all help this process. If we can reach a point where everybody can play “fresh” then Doc can turn his attention to building the familiarity and chemistry of various groupings. I think that if you told me that a third of the roster would be replaced and another third would be in the trainer’s room, I would have been perfectly happy with a 5-3 record in the 16 days following the trade deadline. At least I would have been happy if I also saw things improving. So even though we are riding a two game losing streak, I see the sun breaking through the clouds. So let’s enjoy this unexpected second season and look forward to the Third Season in May and June. It is always interesting watching a team come together, and this year we get to do it twice. Unlike Doc, we don’t have to run on two hours of sleep because of watching film and plotting ways to mesh a new unit; so let’s sit back and glory in the fact that we get bonus coverage and it looks like the Championship chances are the same or better.