Commentary

Celtics' obstacle course continues

Leandro Barbosa's season-ending injury latest blow to Danny Ainge's plans

Updated: February 13, 2013, 2:03 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- A couple of weeks back, after his team lost two starters to season-ending injuries, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge sat courtside at TD Garden with a cluster of reporters and offered an optimistic state of the union address.

"We've been through it before, we'll go through it again," Ainge said of the season-ending maladies to Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger, not knowing just how right he was. "Injuries are part of the game. We have to deal with it the best we can."

[+] EnlargeDanny Ainge
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyDanny Ainge's options are limited if he wants to replenish the Celtics' roster.

Welcome to Survivor: Boston. The Celtics entered training camp overflowing with so much depth that they cut ties with two players on partially guaranteed contracts while trimming down to the 15-man maximum. But the 2012-13 season has proven to be another war of attrition.

Less than a month into the season, veteran center Darko Milicic suggested he was homesick while playing a nonexistent role and was granted his release. In January, the Celtics elected to cut ties with second-round draft pick Kris Joseph (and midseason acquisition Jarvis Varnado) to save money and free roster space. Later that month, both Rondo (ACL) and Sullinger (back) suffered their injuries.

On Monday night in Charlotte, reserve guard Leandro Barbosa tore his left ACL during a drive to the basket late in the third quarter. An MRI on Tuesday morning confirmed the diagnosis and the Celtics announced that he, too, would be out for the season. Boston fans everywhere continue to shake their heads at their team's recent injury misfortunes.

The Celtics will wrap up the first half of the season on Wednesday with a visit from the Chicago Bulls and will dress a mere 10 healthy bodies -- one of whom is rookie first-round pick Fab Melo, who is shuttling back and forth from Maine of the D-League while providing emergency depth.

In a way, the loss of Barbosa hardly comes as a surprise. This team has become conditioned to bad news. The Celtics have been tortured by health woes since raising their 17th championship banner after a miraculously healthy 2008 campaign.

Kevin Garnett's late-season knee surgery derailed the team's title defense in 2009; Kendrick Perkins blew out his ACL in Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals; Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal combined for something less than one healthy O'Neal in 2011, the same season Rondo dislocated his elbow in the playoffs; and Boston watched last year as both Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox lost their seasons to heart ailments, while Avery Bradley -- fresh off supplanting Ray Allen in the starting lineup -- had his playoffs curtailed by shoulder woes.

While most outside observers still consider Boston a nursing home with veterans Garnett (36), Paul Pierce (35) and Jason Terry (35) at the helm, the Celtics assembled a young core this offseason. Ainge thought Boston's overall depth, combined with that jolt of youthfulness, would push the team over the hump after it fell just minutes shy of reaching the NBA Finals last season.

Boston remains undeterred from its lofty goals, but still is figuring out how to manage amid the bumps and bruises. The Barbosa injury is just the latest hurdle in a 2012-13 obstacle course that has gotten more difficult to navigate each day.

The Celtics stumbled late in Monday's loss to the Bobcats, snapping a season-best seven-game winning streak (Boston's first loss since Rondo's ACL injury was diagnosed). Coming off a triple-overtime thriller against Denver the night before, Boston simply had nothing left in the tank in Charlotte and let a winnable game slip away.

That shouldn't diminish or deter this team. Many disregarded Doc Rivers' advice and wrote the obituary for his team after Rondo went down. Armchair general managers flooded the Trade Machine with hypothetical deals for Pierce and Garnett when Sullinger was lost.

The grumblings for Ainge to cast his eyes to a future when Rondo and Sullinger will be back on the floor have started anew with the loss of Barbosa, but the Celtics appear committed to seeing what this group -- battered as it may be -- is capable of.

The Celtics will add some bodies sooner than later -- Ainge promised to fill out the 15-man roster by the end of February -- but expectations should be tempered considering what's available in a free-agent pool that Boston has been hesitant to wade into so far.

If the Celtics elect to go the best-available free-agent route, the team is unlikely to find rotation-caliber players. If they were out there, they probably would have been snatched up by now.

Boston's trade options have been thinned by its depleted depth, which means Ainge likely will be searching the scrap heap (before and after the trade deadline) for emergency depth -- players who might not have the overall talent of those already on the roster but can fill a glaring need (such as rebounding or ball-handling).

Even with those potential additions, the Celtics will be forced to -- as Garnett frequently has suggested of late -- "consolidate." The number of available bodies is dwindling, but Boston's win total is rising. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but nothing has around here in recent seasons.

A couple of weeks back, before Boston built is winning streak, Ainge noted, "It's going to be tough, but we'll find another way to win."

Can the Celtics possibly continue to find different ways to win in the face of unrelenting adversity? History suggests they may. Rule out the Celtics at your own peril.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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