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Thursday, December 15, 2011
Christmas Countdown: Worst-case scenario

By Chris Forsberg

Jermaine O'Neal
Jermaine O'Neal played in just 24 games last season for the Celtics.
Editor’s note: From Dec. 12-23, we’ll countdown to the Celtics’ Christmas matchup with the Knicks (Dec. 25 at 12 p.m. ET) by hitting on 12 big topics facing the Green this season.

WALTHAM, Mass. -- For a championship-driven Celtics squad, the worst-case scenario for the 2011-12 season is maybe the most likely scenario. If Boston doesn’t win a world championship, it doesn’t reach its goal. Ever since this core won a title in its first season together, there have been no silver linings and no room for silver medals.

So what are some potential hurdles to accomplishing that goal this season?

Health is paramount. The one thing the Celtics have simply been unable to overcome in the Big Three era is injuries. With so much money tied up in its stars, the team has been left crossing its fingers on big-time efforts from a low-priced supporting cast. And when injuries have cropped up, Boston simply hasn’t had the depth to sustain in recent seasons.

Boston simply need more from its bench this season and coach Doc Rivers knows it.

“I do like [the bench] because we have some veterans on it, guys that know how to play,” said Rivers. “Keyon [Dooling] will be terrific, and Brandon [Bass] and [Chris] Wilcox, they should be great, too. You know you have that and you have [Marquis Daniels] and then Jeff [Green], that’s a veteran bench right there. The [backup shooting guard] will be determined, someone’s going to have take that. I do think there will be times where we’ll play 10 guys, 11 guys this year. I think everyone is going to have to do that.”

But the bench can’t carry this team. Which is why health of its starts is so important. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce were extraordinarily healthy last season, missing only 13 games between them (and that was with Allen and Pierce sitting out the final two games of the regular season for rest). Instead, it was Rajon Rondo, Shaquille O’Neal, and Jermaine O’Neal that couldn’t stay upright. The Celtics will lean heavy on Rondo and O’Neal again this year.

So it’s not encouraging to see Rondo (sprained right ankle), Pierce (sore right heel) and top reserve Jeff Green (undisclosed injury) sidelined early in training camp. An injury to a starter puts cap-strapped Boston in a tough spot to remain competitive with the Eastern Conference’s top dogs.

And everyone is wondering if O’Neal, limited to a mere 24 games last season while battling a chronic knee ailment, can withstand the rigors of a condensed, game-heavy season.

Heck, that’s a question for the Boston roster as a whole.

The Celtics could very well struggle during the regular season, especially on the second night of the 19 back-to-backs (and one back-to-back-to-back) on their schedule. And that’s daunting because Boston simply isn’t equipped to claw its way through the playoffs as a low seed, sacrificing home-court advantage early in the postseason and having to go through maybe both Miami and Chicago on its Finals path. We saw how that worked out last year.

The Celtics also have to remain financially responsible with eyes towards preserving that cap space they’ve worked so hard to maintain this summer (when deals expire for Garnett, Allen, and O’Neal). If the team makes a deadline move in March, it can’t take on a big-money, long-term deal without being confident that player is a building block for the future.

The ultimate worst-case scenario for Boston is sacrificing the long-term benefit of the team for a short-term gamble, and coming away with no title this season.

Despite the obstacles, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge still believes his team can win with this cast.

“I think our guys still feel they can win and we’ll just have to see,” said Ainge. “I mean, it’s hard to know when guys are getting older how much they have left. They’ve surprised me the last couple years. I remember two years ago when it was looking very good [in the] second half of the year, and they got to Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the road. I guess they had a lot left in the tank.”

Enough to get through the 2011-12 season and make one final championship run with this core? That’s the only-case scenario to the veterans on this team.