It’s become evident the Celtics won’t have time to build much cohesion for the postseason with the roster they expect to field for Game 1 of the first round.
They clinched a playoff spot Wednesday by virtue of their 98-93 victory over the Detroit Pistons, and the 76ers loss to the Bobcats. While the playoffs were a foregone conclusion inside the Celtics locker room, even after Rajon Rondo’s torn ACL, clinching a spot with two weeks left in the regular season provides a sense of urgency.
There is precious time to shore up an inconsistent roster, improve on rebounding and become steadier offensively. But if the Celtics are going to be a formidable playoff opponent, as they promise, unconcerned about losing home-court advantage and facing most likely New York or Indiana, they’ll have to improve dramatically without key pieces such as Kevin Garnett.
The struggles have been apparent with Garnett resting his inflamed left ankle the past 12 days. On Wednesday, the Pistons played volleyball against the backboard to collect a whopping 25 offensive rebounds, the most against the Celtics in more than eight years, and what should have been a comfortable victory suddenly turned tense when Detroit whittled an 18-point deficit to 2 with the ball.
Good thing Detroit still has Charlie Villanueva to pull defeats out of potential victories. He missed the potential go-ahead 3-pointer, then a potential tying long-range shot in the final minute. The Celtics walked away knowing it shouldn’t have been this close and they also have to become more efficient when they have large leads.
The Celtics haven’t used Garnett’s absence as an excuse, as they could have in losing four of the seven games he has missed. What Garnett’s omission from the lineup has allowed Celtics coach Doc Rivers to try is using Paul Pierce and Jeff Green simultaneously, which has been effective.
It was once thought that Green and Pierce couldn’t play at the same time because they play the same position, but Rivers has moved Green to shooting guard, giving opponents various matchup problems. On Wednesday, it worked to perfection.
Green finished with 34 points on 13-of-19 shooting and Pierce added 17 points and five assists. Green seized the opportunity to be aggressive with the Pistons having no one to defend him, while Pierce played distributor and it was good enough to compensate for the gaping hole in the paint that allowed Pistons center Greg Monroe to nab a game-high 17 rebounds. Rookie Andre Drummond collected nine in just 21 minutes.
Teams are going to gash the Celtics in the paint without Garnett’s defensive prowess and aggression, and Chris Wilcox and Shavlik Randolph aren’t enough to combat the surge. So the Celtics have to figure out ways to win when they can’t rebound.
The first method is to play defense, as they did Wednesday, holding the Pistons to 36.6 percent shooting. The second is to score efficiently, which they did also. The Celtics don’t need to be even an average rebounding team to survive. Boston is 29th in the NBA in total rebounding. The Heat are 30th, the Spurs are is 22d, the Hawks are 23d, the Clippers are 20th, the Knicks are 26th.
When you are unable to rebound, the other basketball senses have to become stronger. The Celtics have to pay better attention to detail, take care of the ball, and also allow Pierce and Green to take more of the offensive load.
“Every shootaround, every practice is quality time well spent,” guard Jason Terry said. “For us, it’s all about execution offensively and defensively. Shoring up our [defensive] coverages. We’ve got some new guys who aren’t familiar with our terminology or our schemes.
“I don’t know how many rebounds Kevin is averaging, but we definitely miss some in that respect. We know we’re probably going to be outrebounded every night but we have to get the [loose] balls.”
To combat their lack of size, the Celtics have to master the little things against the league’s elite teams. They have to exploit Pierce and Green darting to the basket against undersized opposition, and Green has to be more assertive when there are no other thriving options.
“You have seen a lot of flashes of that this year,” Pierce said about Green being the primary offensive option. “A lot of times teams come into this game really focused on what I’m trying to do and the scouting report. And you’ve got a guy like Jeff who can put up big numbers like that, who can take over like that. It’s fun, it’s fun to watch and to be a part of.”
The Celtics have to make the most of Garnett’s absence because there will be some nights during the playoffs when Garnett plays as if he’s closing in on age 37. There has to be a game plan with him on the bench. While Garnett and Pierce were saviors in years past, the Celtics have to save themselves as a team this postseason, not relying on star power to endure.
“Well there’s some value in winning and there’s also a lot of value in getting some of these other guys some playing time and some confidence going into the playoffs,” Pierce said. “The playoffs is a totally different game, it’s nothing like the regular season. But at least these guys will go out there and get their feet wet. See some shots go in, rebound the ball and get some experience while they’re out there.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe