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Thursday, March 18, 2010
Mailbag: Why are C's so inconsistent?

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

If there was a theme in this week's mailbag, it's that readers are consistently livid about the inconsistent play of the Boston Celtics.

Not even three consecutive lopsided home victories -- all featuring appearances by Gino on the JumboTron -- could help rally our readers' spirits. Needless to say, most of you guys have eyes on this upcoming stretch that features eight straight Western Conference opponents (five of the seven teams they play appear playoff bound), before a visit from the Eastern Conference-leading Cavaliers on Easter Sunday.

Most inquisitors wanted to know when (or whether) the Green will play to their full potential (especially against top talent), while others have given up hope on the regular season and are wondering what the team must do to position itself for success in the postseason. The most despondent of the bunch wanted to start building the roster for next season.

So let's check in with them all as part of this week's mailbag:

On the ledge | Eyes on the postseason | Ready for next year

On the ledge

Q: Watching the Celtics, I am so frustrated. I saw them against the Cavaliers and wanted to yell at them. What is the matter with them?!?! I want them to get in the gym and practice until they're ready, until they're serious! I don't want to hear any excuses about injuries, age, or boredom. We are their fans and they think they can be bored, just let games slide by? Well, pretty soon when you say, "Oh we'll get the next one," there won't be a next one? Am I the only one with that kind of mindset? -- Frustrated (New York City)

A: Nope, you're among the majority in this week's mailbag (at least of those who sent e-mail before back-to-back wins over the Pistons and Knicks). In fact, we're just going to let you vent up here, and we'll tackle all of your queries in the questions below from other readers just as angry as you …

Q: We hear the same old story from the Celtics after a loss. "We'll turn it around," or "We'll get better this is a great team still." But every time they lose to a team they should beat, especially at home, it makes me less confident that they can compete for a championship. What do you think? -- Chase (Logan, Ohio)

A: I'll admit that when Kevin Garnett went on yet another "I'm not gonna sit up here and try to make excuses for anything" rant after the embarrassing loss to the Grizzlies last week, I caught myself rolling my eyes. As I wrote after that game, the Celtics have delivered the same tired spin after each of their recent losses. On the one hand, it's probably better than hearing a player say, "Yeah, we stink, we're just going to pack it in." But we're 67 games into the 2009-10 season, and we're still waiting for this team to back up its words on the court. The hard part is, they turn around and produce back-to-back wins like Monday's thrashing of the Pistons and Wednesday's stomping of the Knicks, and you start thinking, "Maybe this team really is for real." But we need to see it against top competition. Until then, it appears to be a seesaw season until the playoffs arrive. So buckle up, enjoy the ride, and we'll find out soon enough if the Celtics can fulfill these promises.

Q: The Celtics have packed it in for the year. The Big Three have gotten old on us. They have issues playing hard and they are the highest payed players. They have game checks I could buy a house with and yet they have issues playing hard. It's crazy how every game they say, "Well, the other team played harder than us," or, "They hustled for loose balls and we didn't," because they have ONE ring! Like Michael Jordan would say, if you only win one ring, that is luck, so that year they just got lucky. -- Kenny (Boston)

A: Ouch, Kenny. Scathing. I think we can all agree that the team has endured motivation issues. Coach Doc Rivers noted as much as the beginning of the season -- long before these struggles began -- stressing that the Celtics would be their own toughest opponent, trying to find the proper motivation each night when they were clearly destined for the postseason. The problem here is that the Celtics were 2-1 against the brass of the Eastern Conference after a Christmas Day victory over Orlando, and are 0-8 against the Hawks, Magic and Cavaliers since then. Sure, that coincides with the rash of injuries, but you'd think that alone would provide the team with a little regular-season motivation. It hasn't happened. Trying to guess how this team will evolve (or crumble) moving forward is pure guesswork at this point. The only answer is to truly wait for the postseason, when we'll find out once and for all whether this was a motivation issue or simply a degradation of talent.

Q: Do you think the Celtics' season is over after losing at home the way they have been losing? -- Joe (Cincinnati)

A: The 12 losses at home this season are simply inexcusable, so it's nice to see the team take care of business the last three games. When you see a team like Chicago, which is desperately trying to claw its way into the postseason with a comparable 19-13 mark at home, you can't help but shake your head at Boston's 21-12 mark. The fans had every right to boo the team after that effort against Memphis last week. I don't care if it had been the third night of a mythical back-to-back-to-back, you need to bring a little bit more than that on your home turf. Heck, even Ray Allen felt like he let down fans that pay big bucks to attend these games. Kendrick Perkins offered an interesting take a couple weeks back noting that, given Boston's sterling 22-12 road record, some players in the locker room are fearless to go on the road in the postseason. Trouble is, I'm not sure there's any quality teams that are going to fear coming into the TD Garden given Boston's struggles. Not only are teams coming in excited to play under those 17 banners, but they're coming in thinking, "We can beat this team," which is a result of Boston's struggles this season.

Eyes on the postseason

Q: What are the odds that Boston rests Paul Pierce and Ray Allen more for the remaining regular season games? I don't think they'll fall farther than No. 3 seed in the East (based on the Hawks' recent slide), and it seems that they would be better off in giving more minutes to Tony Allen, Marquis Daniels and Michael Finley, at least for the short term. -- Brian (Williamsville, N.Y.)

A: The Celtics are certainly in a tough position -- one they've put themselves in with their inconsistent play, for two main reasons:

1. The Celtics actually find themselves in a dogfight with the Hawks for the No. 3 seed. (What's more, they don't have the tiebreaker against Atlanta should they finish with a matching record, so they're another game behind in that race with 16 to go.) Why is a single playoff position so important? As we've noted recently, the No. 4 seed projects to have a playoff path that features the Bucks, Cavaliers and Magic (if the top seeds take care of business). Conversely, the No. 3 seed currently projects to a much more accommodating path -- at least for Boston -- of the Bobcats, Magic and Cavaliers.

Sure, the Celtics are 2-5 against the Magic and Cavaliers, but I do think they match up well against those teams (and unlike the Hawks, at least they've beaten those teams). One of this team's goals should be to avoid young and athletic squads like the Bucks and Hawks -- otherwise, it's easy to envision a replay of the past two seasons, where the team was pushed to its first-round limits. I also don't think it's an advantageous matchup for Boston to see Cleveland in the second round, considering the Cavaliers are likely to waltz through an eighth seed.

2. The Celtics, dogged by injuries and inconsistent play, need to reestablish the entire Big Three before the postseason, which means it's hard to rest those guys when even they desperately crave game action to work through the kinks. Let's just say it was easier to get everyone on the same page when the Celtics were routinely thrashing opponents by 25 points during the 2007-08 season. Allen's not so much of an issue, so I do think it would be prudent to lean on Daniels, Finley, and TA to give his legs a rest over the final six weeks.

Ready for next year

Q: Let's talk about the offseason. I think the Celts should pick up a shooter that can play different positions (either Rasual Butler or Travis Outlaw) and someone that can REBOUND THE BALL! Rasheed Wallace plays no defense (he gets lucky reaching in for steals). -- Kenyatta (Jackson, Miss.)

A: If we're talking about big men, priority No. 1 might be to lock up Kendrick Perkins before he reaches free agency after the 2010-11 season. But that could be a situation similar to Rajon Rondo, where the team bounces numbers throughout the offseason, then maybe gets something done early in the new campaign. But rebounding is certainly an issue for this team. Shelden Williams has been dusted off for the sole purpose of trying to get some consistency on the glass lately. For a team that plays defense as well as the Celtics, rebounding numbers should seemingly be much higher -- regardless of personnel -- and we'll even excuse the lack of offensive boards, since the Green do shoot at a high percentage. It's way too early to project how this roster will shape up, but I think the early priorities would be to target the type of players who slay the Celtics: a high-energy rebounder (in the mold of Anderson Varejao) and a bench scorer (in the mold of Jamal Crawford).

Q: Can they buy out 'Sheed's contract or something? Watching him, he has no intensity. When guys are ready to charge the basket or take a shot, I seem him mentally yawning, maybe putting out an arm to look like he's putting up some effort. And the threes!! I won't get started on his threes. Sometimes I'd rather see Shelden Williams playing than Wallace. -- Roberto (New York City)

A: I'm not a capologist, but I believe you'd be looking at eating $12 million (if you paid his contract out in full) to get rid of Wallace. That's not happening (and neither is a discounted buyout). When Rivers sits there and stresses that he "sees it" in his guys and stresses that he needs to "get it out of them," part of me wonders how much of that is directed at Wallace. He's certainly got something left in the tank -- we've seen it in flashes (the Toronto game in January). I think the Celtics are simply hoping he's truly the type that will somehow flip the switch in the postseason. Then again, Rivers sounded pretty down on Wallace after the Cleveland game, noting he, "didn't give us anything." And Shelden Williams is working his way back into relevance thanks in large part to Wallace's struggles.

Q: Is it just me or is the Danny Ainge management era a bust? I love our Big Three, but right from the very beginning, even with the championship, I knew this team needed to bring in young talent to groom for when Paul Pierce, KG and Ray Allen started to decline. The team was somewhat broken up after the championship and he has done nothing since to keep a good mix of young players. Any thoughts? -- Jennifer (Virginia)

A: I think you're being a bit harsh. When the Big Three was assembled, I think everyone envisioned at least a three-year window. Injuries and age might have simply caught up with Boston quicker than Ainge & Co. could have imagined. I think Boston did a good job building a championship-caliber roster the past two seasons. Last year the frontcourt simply got ravaged with late-season injuries to Garnett and Leon Powe. This year, Boston again couldn't anticipate the decline of Wallace, who has been a monster disappointment. But I like the late-season additions of Nate Robinson and Michael Finley. I think that solidifies an already quality bench that simply needs to play with consistent energy. Ainge has plenty of work to do this offseason and will be hamstrung by the salary cap, which will really force him to be creative in assembling next year's roster. As for developing young players, I know that's a sore spot when people see players like Bill Walker dropping multiple 20-point games with the Knicks, but remember that Boston's roster is so deep -- and they're games have rarely been blowouts this year -- so development was a challenging task. As Rivers noted before the game against the Knicks, he would have had to sit Pierce, Ray Allen or Marquis Daniels in order to get Walker extra court time. That wasn't happening. Let's also remember that the Knicks' offensive style is conducive to scoring and to examine a players' entire stat line before judging his full development on another team.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.