Well, not really. The Celtics are only 6-12 since Rondo was traded in December. Six games under .500, that's compared to the 9-14 record with Rondo on the team to start the year, or five games under .500. Maybe the 12 post-Rondo losses seem a lot more painful now as we watch Rajon Rondo flourish with his new playoff bound team in Dallas, but lets face it this team isn't that much worse off record wise without Rondo running the offense.
It's been a struggle over the past 18 games watching the growing pains of the young Celtics but recently things seem to be coming together after last night's victory over the Denver Nuggets they sit only 2 games out of the 8th spot in the playoffs. (No, you're not dreaming 2 GAMES OUT!)
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The news gets better for the C's too. After Sunday's game against the best team in the league, the Warriors, their schedule gets much easier. They finish off the road trip @Utah, and @Minnesota. Could they go 4-2 on this road trip??? And, after Golden State, the Celtics next 9 of 11 games are against teams that are under .500.
So I say all this to reiterate, the playoffs are not a stretch for this undermanned, undersized, gritty, scrappy, and slowly improving Boston Celtics team. They are one of 7 teams that are all within 5 1/2 games of each other. The Heat and Nets are currently in the 7th and 8th seeds respectively. Charlotte, Detroit, Indiana, and Orlando join Boston on the outside looking in. Now none of these teams are over .500, but in the East that has not been a pre-requisite for a playoff birth in recent years.
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Then there are the Pistons. They just straight up cut Josh Smith and since then have been playing the best basketball Detroit has seen since Rip and Chauncey were still around. They were a sleeper I was high on at the beginning of the year due to the addition of Stan Van Gundy. I thought he would be able to figure out the Josh Smith enigma and get him back to a productive player. I was wrong about the productive player part but he sure did figure out how to solve the problem, just plain get rid of the guy. SVG still has one of the best young pure centers in the league in Andre Drummond and a revitalized Brandon Jennings. As strange as this sounds, Detroit could be the biggest threat to the Celtics making a playoff push.
The Hornets and Pacers are both similar cases. They have playoff experience on the roster, yet due to injuries (Paul George, Big Al) or just flat out under achievement (George Hill, Lance Stephenson) they are floundering outside of the playoff picture. They both have been absolutely dreadful offensively this year though. Indiana is 29th in the league in overall offensive efficiency (according to Hollinger Rankings – points per 100 pos) with 97.5 points per 100 possessions. Charlotte ranks 28th in the league only slightly better at 98.4 points per 100 pos. Both pretty brutal numbers for teams that teams that last year were able to make up for lack of scoring on the defensive end, but this year the defensive numbers have also fallen drastically.
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So if the Magic, Pistons, Pacers, Hornets and Nets all have a chance of making the playoffs, I say why not Boston?
Five things need to happen in the next 3 months for the Celtics to make a run, as I see it.
- First off Jared Sullinger needs to embrace the role of the go-to guy in the post. Channel his Ohio State self, dominating down low even though he's undersized. Cedric Maxwell has been stressing it all year, Sullinger can be successful if he's shooting more free throws then 3-pointers. The past 6 games Sullinger has averaged 17.7ppg, 8.5 rpg and has shot 27 FT compared to 26 treys. Just saying, Max may be on to something.
- Secondly, Avery Bradley needs to be consistent. It's asking a ton from him to be a "go to scorer" and Brad Stevens is not expecting that from him. However, it is hugely important that he makes an impact on every game. Bradley's offensive confidence is very high right now, but we all have seen in the past that he can be a very streaky player. If his shot vanishes, he cant let it effect his defense as has been the case in the past.
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- Marcus Smart needs to emerge. He has shown flashes, and then will be a non factor for 2-3 games. The first round draft pick needs to make Brad Stevens play him more, not by demanding it but by taking advantage of his floor time with defense and intensity. Smart, Bradley, and Jae Crowder all on the floor at the same time may be most intimidating, physical, and annoying lineup on the defensive end in the East.
- I was not on the Evan Turner bandwagon at the beginning of the year, but I am starting to come around on him. Turner plays with confidence and a cockiness that he is the best player on the court at all time, the only problem is he usually isn't. For me, if he can use that and translate it to offensive production, screw it... play him 35 mins a night.
- Brad Stevens needs to promote winning. Brad Stevens has stressed defense and hustle to manufacture wins. The talent may not be there, so the schemes and motivation will be key down the stretch.
John Hollinger gives the Celtics a 28.7 percent chance to snag the 8th seed. Would you take those odds? Call me crazy, but in the East the Celtics have more than enough to challenge for the 8th seed.
- Sean Dutra
Follow me @seandutra on Twitter