ORLANDO - The semblance of positivity that emanated from the Celtics locker room Wednesday night in Oklahoma City was warranted. As poorly as they have played for chunks of this abbreviated season, they remain a modest winning streak away from climbing to the top of the Atlantic Division.
They have the talent to play with the Heat and Bulls in spurts, and the Big Three have shown that they are capable of putting together one final run - if circumstances are optimal.
But things have been far from optimal. Each of the Big Three has missed games, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen because of injuries, Kevin Garnett for personal reasons. And Rajon Rondo has missed 10 games, eight with a sprained right wrist and two with a suspension.
Of the 32 games the Celtics played before the All-Star break, the Big Four started only 16. Coach Doc Rivers is banking that the quartet will remain healthy and well-behaved for the final 34 games. They will start Tuesday’s game at Cleveland together, but the question is, who will be the center?
That is the team’s most pressing need. When president of basketball operations Danny Ainge compiled the roster, he was assuming Jermaine O’Neal would be a dependable asset, and that hasn’t been the case.
O’Neal has turned into a solid defensive center and shot blocker and he has grown into his role after insisting for weeks that he was capable of more offense. But the issue is his health. He has missed games with bone bruises in both knees, a sore hamstring, a sore shoulder, and now a sprained left wrist.
He cannot be blamed for his body betraying him. O’Neal came to the NBA directly out of high school and has played more than 25,000 minutes on legs that have been a source of discomfort for years.
So if the Celtics keep asking O’Neal to play 22 minutes per game and he continues to pound his body by taking charges, they can expect him to keep missing games.
As for Chris Wilcox, his strained right adductor is his third injury in 32 games, and none of them have been caused by contact. He strained his left shoulder in the season’s second game and missed three games. He strained his left calf during practice and missed six games.
When Wilcox returned, he immediately became a contributor off the bench and spot starter for O’Neal. But just when he gains the confidence of Rivers, who told Wilcox in training camp that he needed to be tougher, he goes down again.
It is uncertain how long O’Neal and Wilcox will be out, but the certainty is that the Celtics need to bring in another big man now. The pickings are slim, with players such as Kyrylo Fesenko and Earl Barron being the most attractive because of their experience.
As Rivers pointed out Wednesday, they don’t need Dwight Howard, they just need a healthy big man who can play defense and rebound, and is astute enough to learn the system.
While Greg Stiemsma was a nice story in early January and has played well in stretches, opponents have scouted him and discovered that what kept him in the NBADL were his defensive deficiencies. He is good enough for spot minutes, but to hand him a primary role won’t help the Celtics make a serious run.
Ainge liked this roster when training camp began, but seeing 32 games has allowed him to assess his bench, and there are glaring issues. The acquisition of Mickael Pietrus has made Sasha Pavlovic little more than a cheerleader. He seems to have lost Rivers’s trust along with Marquis Daniels, who is shooting just 32 percent from the field, most of those attempts within 10 feet.
There is no need to break up the Big Four, because the Celtics have so much salary cap space this summer that they can determine their own fate instead of acquiring another team’s misfit. But Ainge can reconstruct the bench and give the team a dependable center - “talented’’ is asking too much in this market - to help the cause.
The fact that O’Neal and Wilcox were injured in the same game - the same quarter - may be prophetic. The Celtics have depended on both to produce, but their faith has reaped no benefits. They have lacked a dependable center since Kendrick Perkins was traded to Oklahoma City last season and Nenad Krstic signed with CSKA Moscow just before the lockout began. The latter has turned out to be a more damaging move than expected.
So this team is capable of making things interesting. On Wednesday, they outplayed the best team in the Western Conference in the second half, without two starters and with Pietrus playing power forward.
Ainge should have all the encouragement he needs to know that a change is necessary - just not with the Big Four.