The Boston Celtics are in search of two things: more consistency and a big man. Neither will be particularly easy to find.
As back-to-back losses in Sacramento and Denver reminded us, the Celtics still are prone to their pre-All-Star break weaknesses and at times are unable to muster 48 minutes of sustained energy, which has contributed heavily to their 23-21 record (including a 2-3 mark to start this eight-game road trip).
There's still a very real chance that, with three remaining head-to-head matchups with the Philadelphia 76ers, including one on Friday in Philly, the Celtics could win the Atlantic Division (they're 1½ games back) and shuffle up as high as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Or Boston could continue its seesaw season and settle for the seventh seed, which projects to a first-round matchup with the Miami Heat. That's how fluid this season is turning out to be.
At the moment, the more pressing concern for Boston is acquiring a big man. For much of March, the Celtics have played without centers Jermaine O'Neal (left wrist) and Chris Wilcox (heart condition). During its 10 games this month, the team has been outrebounded by a ridiculous minus-120 differential (minus-53 on the offensive glass; minus-67 on the defensive end).
In a way, the Celtics are searching for the next P.J. Brown, who was signed by Boston in late February 2008 and played a small but important role for the NBA champs. But they'll settle for anyone over 6-foot-6 who simply can eat up a little playing time over the final 22 games of the regular season.
Having already endured its lumps, Boston has preached patience in its search for a big man. The team is eager to see who lands on the buyout scrapheap. The first viable option may be Ronny Turiaf, who was waived by Denver after being received as part of the three-way deal involving JaVale McGee,Nene and Nick Young between the Nuggets, Clippers and Wizards.
The Celtics are interested in seeing if a buyout player becomes available who is more intriguing than a D-Leaguer or someone like Chris Johnson, a 26-year-old with time logged in Boston who was recently waived by the Portland Trail Blazers.
"It's all 50/50," Rivers said. "That's probably why they've been bought out. Usually, if a guy's bought out, the other team has pretty much given up on him. And we're thinking we can resurrect whatever we see. Or sometimes the guy's just not happy in the place that he's at.
"It's always a risk, but in our case, it wouldn't be much of a risk if the guy was over 6-6. He would still be tall."
The Celtics elected not to sacrifice any future assets (draft picks or young players) to land a big man at the trade deadline. Asked recently if a report that Boston had eyes on Sacramento's J.J. Hickson was true, Rivers smiled and said the first time he even heard of it was in a San Francisco newspaper (suggesting it probably wasn't true).
With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror, Boston is hoping to get lucky, largely banking that the best available big will be lured to the Celtics by the opportunity to play quality minutes on a playoff-bound team (affording that player a chance to reestablish his value and enjoy a postseason experience).
But unless the Hornets have a change of heart and decide to seek a buyout with Chris Kaman, chances are the market will be slim. Heck, you can make the case that Boston has the second best available option in its backyard with Jermaine O'Neal.
The question is whether O'Neal can stay on the floor long enough to make an impact, and Rivers seems less than enthused about finding out, noting this week, "If [O'Neal] comes back, he comes back. If he doesn't, we've been pretty good."
Alas, beggars can't be choosers. So if O'Neal, who has missed the past 13 games, can convince the team his wrist (and knee and hamstring) can hold up for the final 20 contests in a reserve role, the team absolutely has to consider using him.
The alternatives simply might be less enticing.
Rivers said he wishes the Celtics could initiate contact with potential buyout candidates this week to gauge their interest. But until a player is cut free, that would be tampering. Still, Rivers doesn't want to have to play tug-of-war this week to land a body.
"I do think guys will buy out this year," Rivers said in Sacramento. "I think after the deadline, the guys who are trying to buy out, their team is frustrated right now because they just tried to trade those guys and they couldn't. So then it takes another five days of hurt feelings to get over that part, then it takes a little bit of time on the buyouts. Obviously the sooner the better."
The waiver deadline for playoff eligibility is Friday.
The Celtics have stressed they don't need to add a marquee name. Heck, the player they bring in might have to settle for a minimal reserve role. But simply adding a big man will take some wear and tear off the likes of Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass and Greg Stiemsma. And an addition could give the team a slight jolt simply by being a new face in the mix.
Regardless, the big-man issue soon will be resolved. The Celtics' inconsistencies? There's no end in sight just yet.