Green still have a ways to go
SAN FRANCISCO — There is no sense of accomplishment for the Celtics. Not in February. The Celtics are far past basking in the glory of regular-season accomplishments.
They want to bask in June. There is a distinct difference between the first half this season and last season, when the Celtics were reeling after a loss in New Orleans, in which Darren Collison scored 13 fourth-quarter points to drop Boston to 32-18.
Boston stumbled to an 18-14 finish and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Garnett was playing on one leg, the Celtics didn’t take the lesser opponents seriously, and they were below-average at home.
Those deficiencies have dissipated after 54 games this season. The Celtics overcame the hype and superb talent of the Heat to hold the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for most of the first half.
They were able to keep their cornerstones mostly healthy, save a nine-game absence by Garnett with a strained right calf that initially was feared to be worse. And despite massive injuries to their frontcourt, the Celtics have developed an even stronger chemistry with the presence of the attention-grabbing Shaquille O’Neal.
Boston’s primary goal in the final 28 games is to secure the No. 1 seed while beginning to pare playing time for their aging veterans. The schedule is advantageous. The Celtics only have one meeting left with Miami, Chicago, San Antonio, and Atlanta and are done with Orlando.
The schedule is filled with winnable games if the Celtics focus, and that hasn’t been an issue nearly as much as last season.
“I think we’re better [than last year] just because of our depth,’’ Garnett said. “With the experience we have on our team, I think [it] plays parts in different parts of the season, probably the deeper you go into playoff mode, postseason. We have a nice group of older players mixed with new generation players. We have a great coach with a great system that works for everybody. When you put those things in the mixing pot, you have what you have.
“We’re a team that tries to take it a game at a time, try to be consistent with that, so I don’t see the second half of the season being different.’’
It seems as if the Celtics have spent the entire first half in a holding pattern waiting to get their full roster back. They waited for Kendrick Perkins, and then Jermaine O’Neal to get healthy. Now it’s Delonte West, Shaquille O’Neal, and Jermaine O’Neal (again) who are out. They will need them healthy so they can use that depth and build an on-court chemistry that’s always apparent in the locker room.
“We have a lot stuff to work on,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “The second unit being the main thing. Up to this point, we’ve logged zero seconds [with the projected] second unit and we won’t do it on this trip. But we need a lot of work tightening up our execution defensively and offensively. And we’re going to do that this second half.’’
West can serve as a capable backup to Rajon Rondo and give the energizer some rest down the stretch. Rondo is 15th in the NBA at 37.7 minutes per game and while Rivers maintains that overworking Rondo is not a concern, he wouldn’t mind West providing some relief.
The O’Neals can provide defensive depth in the paint and prevent Rivers from having to play the valuable forward Glen Davis at center.
Perkins has returned to his starting center role and fared surprisingly well for coming off ACL surgery, averaging 7.5 points and 8.2 rebounds. Shaquille O’Neal, even at his advanced age, is more offensively skilled than Perkins, and Jermaine O’Neal was becoming a defensive factor before left knee problems forced surgery.
There is still much left to accomplish in Boston. The Heat are just percentage points behind the Celtics and have been stellar against every team besides Boston. So there will be nightly pressure to win and avoid letdowns on back-to-backs, where they are a disappointing 6-7 on the second night.
“We are not where we want to be,’’ Paul Pierce said. “I mean, I know it sounds crazy, still at the top of the East and we have the best record, but I don’t think we are near where we want to be. We battled a lot of injuries. We battled inconsistent play over the last couple of weeks. We are just fortunate to be in the position that we have. I’m just waiting to see what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks when we get about 95 percent healthy, to see what’s really going to happen.’’
The Celtics are wary of believing good health will cure their inconsistencies. There needs to be better execution against the lesser teams. The first half was punctuated with stunning losses to Cleveland, Toronto, Detroit, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte.
There have been times when Rondo losses interest or turns into a passive leader and the offense is stagnant. There is almost certainly going to be another player in the huddle come Thursday as Rivers confirmed the Celtics are seeking a backup to Pierce since Marquis Daniels will be out for a while.
But the cornerstones of the Celtics have no intention of letting up or losing focus. That was last year’s problem.
“We have to be sharp on all fronts,’’ said Ray Allen. “Everybody has to settle in and know what we’re trying to do. The finish line for us is closing out this regular season. We see that finish line, we want to be on point on all fronts. We don’t want to throw any games away. Somebody beats us, you say fine. We’ll deal with it and learn. But we don’t want to give anything away.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.