When I began thinking out this column, I was going to try to spin-zone the Celtics latest five game stretch and argue that dropping from third in the East to sixth is a good thing for them.
But it’s not and I couldn’t.
Instead of a potential first round match-up against the Hornets with home court advantage, the C’s are now looking at a series against Miami that will primarily be played on the road. Not only are the Heat a better team than the Hornets across the board, but they’re much more experienced, which is one advantage the Celtics had over the Hornets.
In reality, it doesn’t matter much which team the Celtics see in the first round (assuming they even get there at this point). The Hawks, Heat, Hornets, Pacers and Bulls are all essentially the same caliber team, and the Celtics probably have the same chances of beating or losing to all of them in a seven-game series. But as I just mentioned, the key here for the C’s is to actually make the playoffs and with a tough five-game road stretch on the horizon, it is imperative that the Celtics stop the bleeding sooner rather than later. That started with last nights game against the 76ers — THANK GOD they managed to win that one — and it continues tonight with a must-win game at home against Orlando. Following tonight’s game, they get another shot at redemption against Toronto, and boy would that be a clutch game for the Celtics to win. Not like they have any shot at catching the Raptors anymore for the Atlantic title, but it would be a good win to have under they’re belt come playoffs.
The obvious reason for the Celtics poor brand of basketball as of late, is the absence of Jae Crowder and believe it or not, losing Jerebko the past two games has hurt them more than you might think. These past four games without Crowder have been ugly, to say the least and the more I watch them play without him, the more I think he might be the MVP of this team. Now that’s not a knock against Isaiah, because I think we can all agree that if he went down (knock on wood), his offense would be irreplaceable. There’s no arguing that. But with ball handlers such as Turner, Smart, and even Bradley the Celtics could make due in Thomas’ absence. Crowder on the other hand, is tough to replace even if we did have a legitimate back-up small forward. As much as I hated watching Crowder shoot 3-pointers in the beginning of the season, I’m much more comfortable with him shooting than I am with Turner, Jerebko, or even Smart. And there’s no denying how integral he is to their defense, as a man-to-man defender and simply from the intensity he brings to the court. That being said, that’s no excuse for how poorly the Celtics have been playing without him and even though it’ll be hard, they have to find a way to stay afloat this last month or so because this Celtics team has shown the league too much grit and fight to roll over and die now with just 13 games left before playoffs.
I understand that Boston’s depth at the swing man position is thin, but I’m under the impression that Brad and the rest of the guys on this team can find a way to tough out the final games of the season without Crowder and sneak into the playoffs. To do this, someone other than Isaiah Thomas and Jared Sullinger is going to have to pick up the slack considerably. I’m all for starting Turner at small forward, regardless of whether or not that disrupts the second unit that has been so great for us all season. Smart is great, but he’s just too short to match up against some of these small forwards. Plus, it’s not like Brad can’t “sick him” on opposing small forwards when he comes off the bench.
Turner and Smart are the two guys that I believe need to crank it up a notch in order for the Celtics to be apart of the playoff picture at the end of the season but the uptick in production doesn’t need to be refined to just those two guys. Amir Johnson had a good night last night and I believe he is a guy Brad needs to lean on a bit more. Throughout the season I’ve been baffled at how little Stevens uses him some games because he’s a viable scoring option on offense and sadly he’s the closest thing to a rim protector this Celtics team has (outside of maybe Jordan Mickey). Another guy that needs to step it up a bit is Kelly Olynyk. I understand he’s still shaking off some of the rust from that shoulder injury, but the Celtics really need him to get comfortable again and start contributing if they want to make a run at reclaiming that third seed in the East.
R.J. Hunter is my dark horse candidate to make an impact through these final 13 games of the season. At 6-foot-5-inches and wiry he’s a bit undersized to play small-forward but he’s a legitimate scoring threat and his length could make-up for what he lacks in weight on the defensive end. He had a solid outing against Toronto last week so look for him to make some more contributions down the stretch.