<
>

Celtics decide to take it easy

WALTHAM, Mass. -- If you're looking for a silver lining to the Boston Celtics' recent struggles, here it is: Four consecutive losses made the team's decision on how to handle Kevin Garnett's ankle injury remarkably simpler.

Boston entered the week with a two-game pad on each side of the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Given their recent struggles, the likelihood of the Celtics making a move up the standings is minimal and their only remaining regular-season goal, standings-wise, should be fending off any late-season charge from the Milwaukee Bucks.

So with Garnett dealing with inflammation in his left ankle, the team has erred heavy on the side of caution and will rest Garnett for what president of basketball operations Danny Ainge suggested Monday will be two weeks.

Conspiracy theorists (especially those in the 305 area code) will suggest the Celtics are simply posturing, content to settle for a low seeding that guarantees they won't cross paths with the streaking Miami Heat any earlier than the conference finals. The trouble with that logic is that it presupposes that Boston has another choice.

No, beset by injuries and plagued by inconsistencies, the Celtics have no other choice but to accept this fate and hope that some extended rest for Garnett puts them in the best possible position to make another postseason charge.

Let's be honest, a Boston team that is 12-23 away from TD Garden this season -- the worst road record of any current playoff-bound team -- should have zero desire to navigate a postseason path that will essentially guarantee no home-court advantage. Just a week ago, before the Heat invaded TD Garden, the Celtics were preaching a desire to move up as high as the No. 4 seed for a chance at at least a taste of home cooking, and computer simulations confirmed it was a realistic goal.

Four losses in six days and two starters sidelined by injuries have squashed that desire. So now it's Plan B: Operation Get Right, Stay Right.

You don't need assistant general manager/stats wizard Mike Zarren's calculator to know the Celtics still have mathematical potential to climb in the seedings. But nothing about this team's play lately should suggest they could actually do so. Winless in their past five games on the road, the six remaining tilts away from TD Garden are reason enough to believe Boston will tread water at best.

What's more, sixth-seeded Chicago has one of the easiest remaining schedules (only four games versus teams with records better than .500) and holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Boston. The Celtics still have one head-to-head battle looming with fifth-seeded Atlanta on Friday night, but the Hawks have a favorable slate as well (seven of their final 12 are against teams with records under .500, five of which are at home).

The rest of the field might already be out of reach.

And those Bucks? Well, they've lost six of their past eight, including three in a row. Seven of their final 13 games are against teams over .500, including four on the road. Milwaukee is 10-15 since the start of February and even a desire to avoid the Heat at all costs might not be enough to jolt them from their eighth-seeded slumber.

If the Celtics had beaten the Heat last Monday and had even a remotely successful road trip, the idea of moving up might have been intriguing enough that they could have considered rushing Garnett back and going full throttle to the regular-season finish line.

But given the events of last week, that decision made itself. So what should Operation Get Right, Stay Right entail?

1. Calming the inflammation: The Celtics' odds of achieving their lofty championship goal this postseason is minuscule given the injury woes they've already encountered. Their odds without a healthy Garnett? Nonexistent. So Garnett ought to stay on the trainer's table until every trace of inflammation disappears. It's a bonus that every other achy part of 36-year-old Garnett gets rest too. As Ainge noted Monday, "We need to get him fresh anyway."

2. Fix the defense: This one's easier said than done without Garnett as the anchor, but Boston needs to correct the slippage that has plagued its defense over the past four games. In the 22 contests from Rajon Rondo's injury to the start of this four-game skid, Boston went 16-6 and owned a defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 96.7. These last four games that number has skyrocketed to 105.9. Preached captain Paul Pierce, "[Defense has] got to be our backbone, the defensive end of the court. On this road trip, we really didn't have a backbone there, teams kind of had their way." If Boston is to have success in the playoffs, it needs to start with defense.

3. Tighten up: It's not just the defense that has seen slippage. Boston's turnover rate is up 17 percent over the past four games and, while the offense has been fairly potent, it has been prone to lulls and the floor spacing has been atrocious at times. While the Celtics can't lean on their usual rotations without Garnett on the floor, it's imperative that they get individual players firing on all cylinders. That starts with getting more consistency out of the likes of Jeff Green and Jason Terry (it is high time the JET starts to climb). Buying Pierce some additional rest down the stretch wouldn't be the worst idea either.

4. Stay in your lane: There are games on the schedule that ought to bring out the best in Boston, including Tuesday's national TV showdown with the Atlantic Division-leading Knicks and Sunday's Easter rematch in New York. "Well, not only the New York Knicks, but the fact that we've been on a losing streak is clear enough motivation for us to try to get back on track at home," Pierce said. "The time is winding down right now, going into the playoffs, so the sense of urgency has really got to pick up, game by game."

The Celtics will want to ramp up, but the win-loss record shouldn't be the barometer for the final three weeks of the regular season. Boston can go 7-6 so long as it maintains its position.

And gets itself right.