With the benefit of hindsight, you can point to the first game after the break last year as the turning point of that season and possibly the entire Big Three era. Last February, the Celtics opened the second half in Utah and lost the game and Kevin Garnett, who injured his right knee going up for an alley-oop and hasn't been the same since.
That Celtics team was in a lot better position than this one. At the All-Star break last year, the Celtics were 44-11 and had the most wins in the NBA. This year, the Celtics are a pedestrian 32-18, and a season that started with the promise of a run at the Bulls' record of 72 regular-season wins now would take a 28-2 mark in the final 30 games to reach 60 wins. Even a team with a leprechaun as its mascot doesn't get that lucky.
This will be the second straight season the Celtics' win total declines. The Green won 66 games and the NBA title in 2007-08. Last season, with Garnett hoops hors de combat for 23 of the 27 games after the All-Star break, the progeny of the parquet managed to grab 62 wins.
This is a Celtics' season that has been baffling on many fronts -- the team's inability to close out games, its propensity toward lackadaisical play, its absence of on-court chemistry. Coach Doc Rivers and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge are searching for answers, and so are we.
So, here are a starting five of questions about the Celtics as they start the second half:
1. Will Ray Allen still be a Celtic after the trade deadline? Tonight's game could mark the final appearance of the contemporary Big Three of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. It will definitely mark the final game the Celtics play before the league's 3 p.m. trade deadline on Thursday. It's pretty clear by now that the Celtics have done everything but put Allen on eBay to let teams know he is available for the right deal. He is simultaneously the most disposable and desirable of the Big Three in a trade because of his $19.7 million expiring contract. Cap space is more coveted than LeBron James by NBA GMs. Wisely, Ainge realizes he can't just give Allen away, which is why, according to recent Yahoo! Sports reports, he has explored deals for Andre Iguodala, Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis and Caron Butler, the latter of whom ended up going to Dallas. I have one more suggestion, how about replacing Allen with another UConn standout?
2. Will Kevin Garnett's right knee be right in the second half? The Celtics were 23-5 before Garnett got kicked in his surgically-repaired right knee in consecutive losses to the Los Angeles Clippers (Baron Davis's buzzer-beater) and Golden State. He missed 10 games with what the team termed a hyperextension. Now, he's limping around like Willis Reed and his emphatic alley-oop flushes have been cringe-worthy alley-oops misses. Since returning, Garnett hasn't recorded a single double-double or reached the 20-point plateau in 10 games while the Celtics have gone 5-5. Both look like shells of their former selves. It's apparent that the Celtics need more than Garnett's mere presence. They need him to be a dominating presence again on the court.
3. Can the Celtics rediscover their defensive mojo? Rivers has repeatedly said that what concerns him most about his team's stretch of uninspired basketball is its inability to generate stops on the defensive end when needed. That is the chief culprit in the team's inability to hold a lead. It's one thing to blow double-digit second-half advantages against teams with championship timbres like the Magic (twice, including a 19-0 third-quarter run by Orlando on Super Bowl Sunday) and the Lakers. It's another to do it against a New Orleans team minus Chris Paul. The Celtics still lead the league in fewest point allowed (93.7 average), but they're not a good man-to-man defensive team. Too many individual defenders let their man beat them and then look for help, leading to breakdowns. Pierce and Rajon Rondo in particular are capable of better defense.
4. Is Marquis Daniels a difference-maker? I derisively referred to Daniels as "The Missing Link," after he had the most talked about green thumb this side of Martha Stewart. However, after missing 28 games with torn ligaments in his left thumb, it's obvious why Rivers kept referencing Daniels's return. The 6-6 Daniels can back up Rondo at the point, is capable of creating his own shot off the bench, and provides the team with desperately needed defense and athleticism off the bench (Tony Allen is not a defensive stopper). Maybe it wasn't an accident that the Celtics were 16-4 with Daniels for the first 20 games before the thumb injury. The Celtics still need to investigate a true backup point guard, but Daniels looks he could be this team's version of James Posey.
5. Can the Celtics rebound? Literally. Boston struggles on the boards. The Celtics are the second-worst rebounding team in the NBA, once again behind Golden State. Rasheed Wallace hasn't averaged fewer than 5 rebounds per game since his rookie season with Washington in 1995-96, when he pulled down 4.6 rebounds per game. This year he is averaging 4.2, although in fairness he is logging a career-low 23.7 minutes per game. The Celtics need more on the glass from Glen Davis (if he is not dealt) and 'Sheed to offset KG's diminished ability around the rim. Part of the Celtics' inability to get stops is tied to giving teams second-chance points.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.