Two weeks. Eight games. The regular-season finish line is in sight and, while the Boston Celtics are not exactly sprinting to close out this marathon, they are clearly pacing themselves with the goal of leaving as much in the tank as possible for the postseason obstacle course.
Losers of seven of their last nine games and clinging to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics have left their fans with more questions than answers as the playoffs near. That's where we come in with this week's Celtics Mailbag.
Q: What's the better strategy, limp into the sixth or seventh seed and hope for the best? Or rest everyone, get the eighth seed, and hope you can give the Heat trouble with a well-rested team? -- Sean (Hudson, Mass.)
A: I wrote this weekend that it'd be a real bummer if we didn't get a Celtics-Heat series as it just wouldn't feel right if the two paths didn't cross. That said, the best strategy for Boston is almost certainly to hold firm to that seventh seed and hope to still be standing in the conference finals. At this point, Boston might need the early rounds to reestablish its chemistry and continuity, and maybe rebuild some of its confidence. Celtics players still firmly believe they can compete with anyone in the East, but the ideal strategy for playoff longevity is to avoid the conference's best team for as long as possible. Remember, the playoffs are an unpredictable place.
Q: There's no chance the Bucks catch the Celtics, right? RIGHT?! -- Dominic (South Boston, Mass.)
A: A 1½-game edge does little to inspire confidence, particularly given the way Boston has played lately. That said, I think the Celtics realized a couple of weeks back that, by even doing just the bare minimum, they were probably going to back into the seventh seed. Of the Bucks' nine remaining games, five are against winning teams and four of those are on the road. The Celtics, on the other hand, play five of their final eight against teams under .500 and three of those are at home (Boston's next three games are visits from Detroit, Cleveland and Washington). Unless the Bucks get hot and the Celtics simply can't tread water, I see Boston keeping Milwaukee at arm's length. A couple of wins during this homestand might be enough to salt away seventh heaven.
Q: Who do you think the Celtics are more comfortable facing in the first round of the playoffs? -- Daniel (Modesto, Calif.)
A: For the sake of this argument, let's assume we're honing in on the Knicks and Pacers as the potential foes in the East's 2-7 matchup. Boston came up with a big win in Indiana last month (Jeff Green's buzzer-beating layup being the difference), but I just don't like the idea of facing a defensive juggernaut out of the gates. The Pacers are far and away the best defensive team in the league, whether you judge by defensive rating (95.7 points per 100 possessions; next closest is Memphis at 98.2) or points per possession (0.859, next closest is Memphis at 0.889, according to Synergy Sports data). A matchup with Indy is winnable, but would put tremendous stress on Boston's defense to keep games manageable, and those ugly low-scoring games tend to turn into real grinds (ain't nobody got time for that). The Knicks present plenty of problems for Boston, but if you're choosing between the league's best defense and a league-average one (New York is 16th with a defensive rating of 103.1), you hope for a Garden series.
Q: After what the Knicks have done to Boston in the past week, and how awful the Celtics look without KG, do they really stand a chance against New York in a seven-game series? Have the chances of getting back to the East finals really been "sprained" with KG's ankle? Or when he returns do they have a puncher's chance? -- Mike (Atlanta)
A: First off, I see what you did there with the sprained reference. As for a series with the Knicks, it would be no picnic, but there are a couple of reasons to like Boston's chances: (1) those 3-pointers won't fall as easily for New York in the postseason; (2) the Celtics play well at Madison Square Garden (Tuesday's stinkfest notwithstanding), and (3) there's a little bit of a revenge factor after New York won the season series for the first time in a decade and will soon clinch the Atlantic Division title, ending Boston's five-year title reign. Oh sure, there are just as many reasons to be fearful of that series, but it sure appears the most endearing of potential first-round matchups. As for Boston's playoff chances overall, so long as they get healthy, you have to like their experience in an underwhelming East. They won't be an easy out.
Q: What's your playoff rotation? Shavlik Randolph should make it (over Chris Wilcox?) IMHO -- Tron (Waltham, Mass.)
A: Even as president of the Shavlik Randolph Fan Club, I think we still need to see a bit more of him over the next eight games before we know if there are playoff minutes in his future. From the team that found floor time for Ryan Hollins last season, I think there's potential for Randolph to carve out a small role, particularly against teams that go big. I really want to see him get some time alongside Kevin Garnett because it might take some of the wear and tear off Garnett up front and could also play to Randolph's strengths as a defender and rebounder.
As for the rotation, I think we'll see a squeeze down to an eight-man core with Jeff Green and Terry playing big minutes backing up the starters (assuming Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee stick with the first unit when Garnett returns). Wilcox and Randolph might ultimately share those big-man minutes, depending on the opponent or who's playing best at that point. Wild cards like Jordan Crawford might get reined in a bit and utilized in shake-things-up situations.
Q: Any chance that Terrence Williams carves out a bigger role on this team over the final eight games? -- Nick (Londonderry, N.H.)
A: Williams made the most of 22 minutes on Monday in Minnesota, finishing with a season-high 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting to go along with six rebounds, five assists and no turnovers. He's been more aggressive going at the basket, but it hasn't hindered his ball security. As Crawford encounters a bit of a rough patch, Williams is making a case for a longer look. One thing that will help Williams' cause is more focus and crisper execution on the defensive end. Not sure he can do enough to crack the guard rotation, particularly with Crawford still the preferred wild-card option, but it's clear that Williams can help this team beyond this season (and as emergency guard depth in the playoffs).
Q: Free DJ? -- Samuel (Bloomington, Ind.)
A: In super limited touches, you have to actually like DJ White's efficiency. He's shooting 61.5 percent (8 of 13 overall) and generated 1.062 points per possession (17 points in 16 plays), according to Synergy data. The trouble is, beyond a rare outburst of blocks, he's still picking up Boston's defensive system and looks a bit up-and-down at that end of the floor. I think the Celtics like his long-term potential if they can mold him a bit. Thin on bigs, 20 total minutes of floor time in six games without Garnett suggests he's probably not going to break through this season, but he's one of the guys who will be especially interesting to watch during summer ball.
Q: Everyone talks about Rajon Rondo being hurt, or KG and Pierce missing time. Why does no one ever mention Jared Sullinger? -- @gfmorris (via Twitter)
A: Given Boston's guard depth (at least before Leandro Barbosa suffered his own season-ending ACL injury), there was a line of thinking that Sullinger's loss was actually harder to endure than that of Rondo's. It's hard not to argue that Boston really misses Sullinger's presence on the glass, and he had just ascended to that starting role when the back acted up. While Rondo gets most of the attention, Sullinger's loss can't be understated. Given the strides he had made defensively, Sullinger would have been a real luxury for this team to have available.