- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Celtics will look to contain Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers.The Boston Celtics (15-17, 4-9 away) reach the official midway point of the condensed 2011-12 season Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers (13-18, 8-9 home) at Quicken Loans Arena (7 p.m., CSN). To preview the matchup (and the second half of the season), we play a game of 3-on-3 with ESPN Boston's Greg Payne and CelticsHub's Brian Robb.
1. What's the biggest change you'd like to see from the Celtics in the second half of the season?
Payne: A more efficient offense. The Celtics are in the bottom half of the league in terms of offensive efficiency, and they weren't able to develop a reliable offensive balance among their starting 5. I'd like to see them increase their offensive pace and figure out how to re-establish Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett as their three primary and consistent offensive weapons.
Robb: A consistent effort on the defensive glass. Boston does not have the horses to win the rebounding battle every night, but there are enough talented rebounders on this squad for the C's to hold their own. Injuries up front have taken their toll on the C's in this department over the past couple weeks, making the team look like a worse rebounding squad than it really is. However, with everyone expected back in action (besides Jermaine O'Neal) on Tuesday, Boston needs to get back on track in this department and start denying their opponents unending second-chance opportunities.
Forsberg: Health might have been the biggest factor in the Celtics' first-half woes, but it's hard to imagine that getting much better when the team will be playing a whopping 34 games in 59 days, jam-packed with road games and grueling back-to-backs. With that in mind, I think Boston needs a spark from the end of its bench since those players will remain vital to keeping the team afloat (and avoid the lapses that plagued them over the first 32 games). Can someone like Marquis Daniels or Keyon Dooling or Sasha Pavlovic put together a strong string of games? Or can a rookie like JaJuan Johnson or E'Twaun Moore or Greg Stiemsma take their play to another level to aid the team over a key stretch? If Boston wants to climb in the seedings, it needs some reserves to play bigger roles.
2. What should worry the Celtics most in the second half of the year?
Payne: Injuries, still. For the Celtics to secure at least the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference (which means avoiding Miami and Chicago in the first round of the playoffs), they'll need their top guns healthy, and they'll need to be able to develop a consistent bench rotation. Every starter has already missed time and Brandon Bass, the team's top reserve, is still out (though expected to return Tuesday against the Cavaliers). These guys need to be able to stay on the court for the Celtics to have any hope of playoff success.
Robb: The offense. The turnover rate is as high as ever, the C's don't have the personnel to get to the free throw line consistently, and are unable to create second-chance opportunities for themselves. Having all three of those issues within one offense is a major problem. The return of Bass should help with floor spacing and give Boston some added offensive punch, but the majority of these problems will not go away anytime soon. My fear is the only solution to these problems may be some different personnel that could arrive in the upcoming weeks.
Forsberg: Can Paul Pierce shake himself out of this season-long shooting slump? It's hard to complain much when Pierce played at an All-Star level for a good portion of the first half, but his shot just won't fall this season and the Celtics' offense will be much aided by him getting on track. If it doesn't, Pierce has to get back to being sort of the all-purpose guy he was when Boston was playing its best basketball this season (picking up his efforts as a facilitator and rebounder while Rajon Rondo was sidelined). Pierce has quietly proven to be maybe the most important member of the Big Three in recent seasons and the team needs him playing at his best in order to thrive. The worry is whether he'll ever be truly healthy enough to do that as he grinds through this condensed season.
3. These Varejao-less Cavaliers, contenders or pretenders? Who wins?
Payne: The Celtics win on Tuesday. The Cavs have a strong, young nucleus, but Varejao is capable of wreaking havoc on the Celtics more so than anyone else on Cleveland's roster. Without his rebounding and overall feistiness, Cleveland won't have its biggest advantage and the C's prevail.
Robb: Pretenders. Rookie Kyrie Irving is having a tremendous year, and clearly a lot of the younger pieces of this roster have progressed considerably since last season, but let's not kid ourselves. Talent-wise this isn't a playoff team with or without Varejao in the improved Eastern Conference and the C's will take the first step in ensuring that tonight with a hard-fought win on the road on Tuesday.
Forsberg: With a healthy Varejao, I actually think this is a somewhat scary team (maybe not a playoff team, but one that's going to be enough of a pest to knock off better teams as the Celtics found out during that 11-point rally at the Garden earlier this season). And they have some quality wins lately, topping the Mavericks, Clippers, and Pacers this month. Losing Varejao really hurt their chances to muscle into the playoffs, but they'll hang around if the rest of the East's lower seeds don't get their act together. As for Tuesday night, it's unfathomable that the Celtics don't come out inspired and try to get this ship sailing in the right direction. If this team has a desire to make waves this season -- and not risk being torn apart at the deadline -- it has to start winning games like this immediately.