Celtics still in position to win

BOSTON -- After consummating the most jarring, controversial and gut-wrenching trade in the NBA on Thursday, the Boston Celtics took one game to mourn the loss of their "brother" Kendrick Perkins before turning their attention back to the task at hand -- raising Banner 18.

But did Celtics boss Danny Ainge's decision to gamble on a roster overhaul rather than a cosmetic touch-up torpedo Boston's chances of winning a championship?

Don't count on it. Lost in the hand-wringing over the Celtics' shocking move is that, when the game is hanging in the balance, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo are still available. The core of the team is intact, even after five players have moved on.

Go back and look at crunch time of that 2008 championship run. In the crucial final minutes, Perkins was usually watching from the bench, mostly because of his sketchy free throw shooting and limited offensive skills. Having one non-scorer (Rondo) on the floor was one thing. Having two was not palatable to coach Doc Rivers.

Look it up. In the 2008 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Perkins played 14 or fewer minutes in three of the six games and missed Game 5 because of a strained shoulder. His average in the series: 18 minutes a night.

Bostonians historically exhibit a tendency to overvalue their own (remember when Sox fans vehemently objected to talk of a Trot Nixon-for-Sammy Sosa swap?). Perkins was beloved by the Celtics brethren for his admirable dedication to his craft, his willingness to deliver a forearm shiver, his defensive presence, the temerity he demonstrated in returning from a serious knee injury and the chemistry he provided in a tight-knit locker room. He was a lunch-bucket guy in a lunch-bucket city and got the absolute most out of his talent. Would I want Perk on my team? Absolutely. Any day.

But would I consider all hope lost if I had to make the difficult decision to move him along? Sorry, got to draw the line there.

Perkins was all heart and soul, effort and intimidation. Those endearing qualities overshadowed the fact he couldn't catch the ball and struggled with agonizing difficulty to operate in the post. He was vertically challenged before his knee injury and has been anchored to the floor since. It's fair to assume that, as his rehabilitation continues and his conditioning improves, his agility will get better. It's also fair to wonder whether, after knee (and shoulder) surgery, he will ever be the same player. In the meantime, he's expected to miss the next two or three weeks because of an injury to his other knee.

No one in Boston will ever root against Perkins. He was the embodiment of a great teammate. But he is not irreplaceable.

Before the Celtics faded in Game 7 of last season's Finals to the Lakers without injured Perkins, they spread the floor with Rasheed Wallace knocking down 3s and built a 13-point lead. Then fatigue set in.

L.A. pounded Boston off the glass (with 15 of its 53 rebounds provided by Kobe Bryant) and the "length" of the Lakers became the hot topic.

Boston's offseason antidote was the influx of 7-footers (Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Semih Erden) to combat Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.

But, as the halfway mark of this season ticked by and the strangely erratic Lakers faded into a distant second in the West behind the San Antonio Spurs, the obvious need for someone young and reliable to spell both Pierce and Allen became more pressing.

Even though the Celtics are 3-0 against the Miami Heat, they were mindful of the Heat's frightening learning curve. It dawned on them that it wouldn't matter whether they could bang with the Lakers if they couldn't get past Miami in the East.

Thus, with Marquis Daniels seemingly done for the season with a spinal cord injury, the most glaring postseason need for the Celtics was someone to assist in the herculean task of chasing around LeBron James -- and Kobe, if it came to that. Rondo's end-to-end pursuit of King James last month was entertaining, but it was a stopgap, not a long-term solution.

Twenty-four-year-old Jeff Green can play small forward or power forward. He will be asked to assist in slowing up LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe.

Green also provides some flexibility should Rivers opt to go small with Garnett at the 5, a lineup that -- he has reminded anyone who will listen in the past five days -- helped the Celtics win that 2008 title. Back then, the Celtics had James Posey. Now, they have Green.

The Celtics love to spread the floor (if you had Rondo, you would, too), and Green and Nenad Krstic enable them to do that. The newcomers also will provide some legitimate offensive help off the bench, an elusive concept this season because of inconsistency (Nate Robinson) and injuries (Daniels, Delonte West, Erden).

A bench of Green, Glen Davis, Krstic and West is preferable to the previous incarnation. These guys are younger, more athletic and provide more interchangeable parts. West can ably back up Rondo or Allen. Green can spell Pierce or Garnett.

It is also clear the Celtics have more moves in mind. The salary dumps of Erden and Luke Harangody made room on the roster for the team to add extra help.

For starters, it looks like 6-foot-10 forward Troy Murphy is heading to Boston. He confirmed Tuesday to ESPN.com that he will sign with the Celtics over the Heat.

The list of other potential buyout options includes Corey Brewer and Dan Gadzuric.

The supersized fly in the ointment is the uncertain health of the O'Neals. Shaq already has missed 22 games with hip, leg and Achilles injuries. On the surface, it would seem unreasonable to expect him to be the redoubtable starting center he was earlier this season for the rest of the way.

Yet, when Shaq is healthy, he poses all sorts of challenges for opposing defenses. If you leave Shaq to double Garnett or Pierce, he will make you pay. If you leave him in single coverage, he will either overpower you on his own or find his teammates in single coverage. Shaq might be the oldest player in the league, but he's a deft passer and his footwork has always been exceptional for a man his size. It's no coincidence that Rondo's assists were off the charts when Shaq was anchoring the middle.

The Celtics were a better basketball team when Shaq -- not Perk -- was their starting center.

Nobody knows whether O'Neal can stay healthy throughout the postseason. He has shed some weight and is motivated in what many feel is his final season. He likes being part of the starting lineup and would love nothing more than to step onto the podium cradling the Larry O'Brien trophy in a Finals postgame news conference with the express intent of declaring, "Yo, Kobe. Now we're even!"

Ainge swears we haven't heard the last of Jermaine O'Neal, either. If that's true, he can be a big, shot-blocking veteran who accounts for an additional six fouls and can still score garbage buckets around the basket. Celtics sources claim JO could be back in as soon as three weeks.

If Shaq can't log critical minutes in April, May and June, there's no doubt this team is in trouble. (Note: We said "critical," not "substantial." Boston doesn't need 20-plus minutes a night from the Big Shamrock -- just 12 to 15 meaningful minutes.)

By rolling the dice at the trade deadline, Ainge swapped toughness and interior defense for versatility and perimeter defense. If the Celtics win it all, he will enhance his reputation as a fearless, innovative basketball executive.

But if they come up short, he will have some explaining to do. No one needs to tell Ainge that, after trading one of Boston's favorite sons, anything other than Banner 18 simply won't do.

Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.