LOS ANGELES - Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is in the tough position of having to determine whether his veteran team can make a run in the Eastern Conference or whether moves should be made.
The Celtics have made a push to stay intact by winning seven of nine games since the All-Star break, including Monday night’s 94-85 victory against the Clippers, the type of athletic, above-the-rim team that gave the Celtics fits in the first half.
Defense has been a constant, but Boston was able to score late in Monday’s game at Staples Center, something it failed to do Sunday against the Lakers. Ahead 5 points with 2:41 left in Sunday’s game, the Celtics went scoreless the rest of the way.
Ahead 5 points with 2:47 left Monday night, the Celtics iced the game with 11 points.
That sense of urgency is making an impression on management, especially Ainge, who watched Monday’s game in person before flying back to Boston Tuesday to find out whether Chris Wilcox (out indefinitely after a heart exam) or Jermaine O’Neal (wrist) will play again this season.
The trade deadline is Thursday, and Ainge could make a major move that shapes the future of the organization. That responsibility is not lost on him. But he may opt to make only a minor move.
“I guess it’s unique from where we’ve been over the last five years, but I think it’s common around the league for other teams,’’ Ainge said. “So this is where we are right now. I don’t feel like we have to do anything other than we eventually need to get another big body. But I don’t think we have to make a trade at all.’’
Obtaining a center will be difficult because the Celtics are unlikely to sacrifice a first-round pick to sign a stopgap player. Also, quality centers are scarce, and will cost a lot.
“No one wants to give up bigs who can help you win,’’ Ainge said. “But we need another big body at some point, depending on the results. If Chris and Jermaine can play, that changes things, we don’t need any more bigs.’’
The likelihood that Wilcox and O’Neal will be available soon is remote, however, so Ainge will listen to potential offers to acquire a center. That puts more pressure on a team that’s trying to secure wins on its most significant road swing in years.
“These times are probably more stressful on players and coaches trying to figure out what’s going to happen and there’s a lot of talk going on, but more stress on them than me,’’ said Ainge.
After watching his team battle the Lakers to the final seconds and then beat a Clippers team that was projected to compete for the Western Conference title, coach Doc Rivers is impressed.
“We’ve played two terrific games here,’’ Rivers said. “We get on a plane Saturday and play a [3:30] game and then another game the next night and play well in both games. That says a lot about the character of our team right now.
“It would have been a total difference if we had lost [Monday night]. We’d be looking at ourselves saying, ‘Wow, we are right there and we can’t close them out.’ So that last six minutes was huge for us, we needed this game.’’
Rivers appears convinced that none of the Big Three will be moved by Thursday.
“Obviously we’re going to try to improve our team, but we don’t want to lose anybody,’’ he said. “I don’t think we will.’’
The veterans insist the team still is improving, especially since the players began training camp in such poor physical condition after the lockout.
“It’s momentum, man,’’ forward Kevin Garnett said of the past two games. “We’re trying to get better. We don’t have a lot of practice time, and with these games coming so rapidly, shootarounds are focused, just for momentum and how long we’re on the road right now. You can’t dig yourself a hole and try to make it up at the end of the road trip. These games are very precious for us.’’
The ultimate decision-maker will be Ainge, who historically has refused to allow himself to be swayed by a couple of good games. He watched the past two in person and said there has been a difference in the team’s play. But has it been dramatic enough to keep the roster together?
“I feel like this is a tough year for everybody,’’ Ainge said. “I feel like our team has been sporadic, inconsistent . . . spectacular at times and bad at times.’’