Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Basketball Break - Celts road getting bumpy

Marion: You're not the man I knew ten years ago.
Indy: It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark

It's March 11 and the NBA season is chugging into the regular season homestretch. With 18 games left on the schedule, the Celtics stand just 1.5 games in back of LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference, with a game left versus the Cavs to seal the head-to-head advantage (currently 2-1 in favor of the Celts).

By all accounts, it would seem the Celtics are in prime position to re-take the top spot in the conference and assure themselves home court for the 10-week slog through the playoffs.

But there is danger lurking for the Green. Danger in the form of sprained knees, twisted ankles, surgically repaired thumbs and concussions. Injuries have the left the Celtics in a vulnerable position, especially at this crucial time when one loss can send a team tumbling out of a prime playoff slot.

Losing two-fifths of your starting five is an obvious problem - Kevin Garnett remains sidelined by a sprained knee and Rajon Rondo is no out with a sprained ankle - but it's the other casualties that are troubling. The Celts have made do without Tony Allen - out since the winter with a bad thumb - but losing both Glen Davis and Brian Scalabrine is especially troubling because now the Celts have no cushion for their big men. It's all hands on deck for the whole roster.

What does this mean? More minutes for Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe and Mikki Moore, for one. For Moore, it's not a big deal - he is probably thrilled to have the chance to go from 12 minutes a night to 20+. But for Perkins and Powe, it gets a bit more dicey; after all, both of them played big minutes through last year's title run, all 110 games' worth. All that wear and tear on the tires means those guys are probably feeling a little worn out by now.

But it gets a little more troubling when you consider the following: No Garnett and Rondo means more of the scoring and play making load falls to 30-something stars Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Allen, who might be the most well-conditioned player I have ever seen, probably will be all right, since his game is less about contact and more about running off screens and jump shots.

Pierce, on the other hand, might be in some danger. As a scorer, he does anything and everything he can to get his shots and create offense, whether it's his patented dribble-drive jumper or crashing to the rim. The problem with both of those scenarios is, of course, that both invite serious contact from the opposition. Whereas Allen can avoid that by using screens and picks, Pierce's game is all about contact - always has been, always will - and that is why he is so effective.

Pierce is already playing major minutes and bearing the brunt of the scoring load, and has had an assortment of minor to mid-major injuries over the last two seasons. All it takes is one hip check or hard foul from a goon playing for the Knicks, Nets or Wizards or some other going nowhere team to put Pierce out of action for a spell, dooming the Celts pursuit of the home court advantage.

And that's really the biggest worry of all - last season's run, glorious as it was, showed that home court advantage can be a saving grace for a team. Extended to seven games in Rounds 1 & 2 by the Hawks and Cavs, respectively, the Celtics would have been doomed if they hadn't had the benefit of four home games per series (where they held serve, 4-0, in both rounds) instead of the three they would have had as a lower seed.

So hold your breath, Celts fans, and pray the ranks of the walking wounded don't continue their expansion on Causeway Street. Otherwise, the quest for Banner 18 may become quixotic in the face of so much attrition.

No comments: