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Thursday, December 6, 2012
Still searching for consistency

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

The Boston Celtics appear to be trending upward with their recent play, but the team is desperately seeking some consistency. With a monster home-and-home looming against Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia, let's dive into the Celtics Mailbag and see what's on your mind:

Q: Settle an argument for me: How is Brandon Bass playing this season? I say it's been a down year; my roommate thinks Bass has been solid. Who's right? -- Cody (Belmont, Mass.)

A: Sometimes it's hard to get a good read on Bass because, fair or not, his efforts typically blend into the scenery as he's running with a starting group that currently includes Jason Terry, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. Even still, we forget sometimes how well the Celtics as a whole played after Bass moved to the first unit last season.

Brandon Bass
Brandon Bass' effort has been solid, but he needs to shore up his shooting and help defense.

Here's what we know this season: Bass' scoring is down and he has struggled with his shot (career 49.1 percent from the field, Bass is shooting 45.6 percent through 18 games). But keep in mind that he's also playing four minutes less per game than last season and he has actually improved his rebound percentage (including a boost on the offensive glass). That doesn't exactly settle your bet, so here's one expert's take.

"He's been up and down, but mostly up," Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said before Wednesday's game. "I think his effort has been great, his rebounding has really improved this year. He still has to get better at the defensive rotation stuff, but he plays hard and that's all we can ask of him, and that's what he's doing."

Wednesday night was Bass' season in a nutshell: He had a rough (foul-plagued) first half against Minnesota, then responded with a monster third quarter as part of a quality 12-point, 8-rebound effort. Like Rivers suggested overall, the good has outweighed the bad.

Let's bottom line it: The Celtics are plus-12 when Bass is on the floor this season and minus-10 when he's off. Bass' impact will grow if he finds consistency with his shot and as he continues to settle into Boston's defensive system. Sorry, Cody, but at the moment he sure seems to be entrenched in the "solid" category.

Q: Do you think it's a bit premature and unfair for a lot of doubt falling on Courtney Lee's shoulders? I have watched every game so far and I see great effort, athleticism, a humbled and coachable player who is improving game by game, and I believe he has a ton of potential. -- Andy (San Diego, Calif.)

A: Lee is struggling to assert himself in limited minutes. It's not happenstance that three of his four double-digit scoring outputs have come on nights Rajon Rondo didn't dress and Lee's minutes got a boost. But even if you look at his per-36-minute numbers, his production is down overall, almost assuredly because his 3-point shot just isn't falling (a career 38.2 percent shooter, he's at 24 percent through 18 games). Let's check back with our expert.

"Courtney's been playing well the last six games," Rivers said before Wednesday's game. "You notice [his contributions] more because he was on the floor more [without Rondo], but he's in a good place, he really is. I thought it took him a while, but he's got it, you can see it. That doesn't guarantee great play every night, but his effort, his positioning defensively, offensively he's running the floor, he's doing a lot of things for us right now. That's been good. We need it, and it's going to serve us well."

Case in point: Lee didn't offer much in terms of production on Wednesday, but the Celtics clearly have found a reserve lineup that operates well when Terry and Lee share the floor while Rondo is on the bench. And Lee's defense has been consistent, even if he's still cleaning up his pick-and-roll defense (which Boston as a whole has been exploited on). Once his 3-point shot starts falling -- and it will eventually -- it will take some pressure off Lee's shoulders. While Avery Bradley's impending return could further dent Lee's minutes, I do think we'll see a more efficient Lee as the season progresses.

Courtney Lee
Courtney Lee has come on strong of late, with Doc Rivers saying, "He's doing a lot of things for us."

Q: With Bradley saying he's getting closer to resuming contact activities, and an already crowded guard rotation, do you see Lee and Leandro Barbosa splitting limited minutes? Or will one of them start to rack up DNPs? -- Ryan (San Diego, Calif.)

A: Maybe it's just the illness he's battling or just inconsistent minutes, but Barbosa has come back to earth a little bit over the past two weeks. He still has that potential for an offensive explosion and his defense is actually very good when he utilizes his speed to stay with opposing ball handlers. I think there's still room for all four guards to get decent minutes, but I do think Barbosa will ultimately be the one left fighting for his share. As the Celtics know all too well, injuries have a way of creating opportunities for others, and Barbosa will remain in the mix.

Q: Danny Ainge recently stated that Celtics are a bad rebounding team. Although this is obvious, it's great to hear him admit it, rather than tell us the team needs to gang rebound better. Will he inevitably make a move? And is there any chance he deals Bradley? -- Sam (San Diego, Calif.)

A: Did we just get back-to-back-to-back questions from San Diegans? (San Diego-ins? San Diego-uns? San Diego-ites?) Here's the thing: As much as people want to complain about rebounding, the Celtics sneakily rank fifth in the league with a defensive rebounding percentage of 74.3 percent. Yes, Boston shuns offensive rebounds and its unsightly 18.8 offensive rebounding percentage drags down its overall number. But here's the thing: If the Celtics shoot a high percentage and take care of the defensive glass, rebounding isn't an issue. Just look at Wednesday's win over the Timberwolves: Boston won the battle on the glass against one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA (at least when Kevin Love is healthy). Yes, the Celtics will seemingly eye a defense- and rebound-minded big man to fill out the roster later this season, but Jared Sullinger's arrival and Brandon Bass' improvements have helped Boston on the glass early in the 2012-13 season. As for giving up Bradley, unless you're getting a young big who can help this team long-term, I don't see why you move him, especially with a manageable contract.

Q: When do you think the Celtics will fill the 15th roster spot (if they do). After Jan. 5, but before the All-Star break? -- Tommy (@TP_King via Twitter)

A: So long as Boston can avoid a major injury and continue to make positive strides with the cast it currently has, I don't see any reason to rush a signing. Yes, the earlier you can integrate a new face, the better, but the players most likely to provide a postseason impact won't be available until the trade or waiver deadline. The rotation is already pretty crowded and will get even snugger when Bradley is back. I can see the Celtics waiting until the waiver deadline and signing the best available veteran big man for the stretch run (remember, their cap room limits them to maybe a minimum contract at best). I know there's an overreaction to early struggles and it's somewhat natural for fans to ponder whether Boston needs to ship out underperforming new faces as soon as they are eligible to be dealt. But sit tight; I don't think the team is in any sort of rush and trading those players would be a gross rush of judgment.

Q: Assistant coach Ty Lue is always sitting on the Celtics' bench during games chomping on a piece of gum. My brother and I have had an ongoing debate for several seasons now and we need someone to settle the argument: What kind of gum does he chew? My brother says bubble, but I don't see how anyone can chew that much gum and never be caught blowing a bubble! -- Sara (Toronto)

A: Of all the crazy stats we log, I'm ashamed we don't have a clearer snapshot on the Celtics' gum preferences. Here's what I do know: Before each game, the team throws out quite the assortment. If I remember correctly, there's everything from Double Bubble to Big Red to Spearmint and Juicy Fruit. Now, I have no idea why anyone would want to chew Big Red during a game, but I seem to recall Shaquille O'Neal was a big fan. We'll monitor the gum game and report back in a future 'bag if we get the answer.

Q: Don't you wish the Celtics could just bottle up that second half last night and play like that forever? The better they defend, the better they rebound. The help defense really bothered the Wolves in the second half and Boston always goes on runs when it makes stops. Is this a sign of things to come? -- Chris (Woburn, Mass.)

A: It's really so incredibly simple right? All it takes is playing sound defense and everything else takes care of itself. When guards don't allow dribble penetration, cracks don't form as the team scrambles with help defense. Suddenly, rebounding isn't an issue, and consistent stops lead to transition offense as Rondo pushes the ball up the floor. What Rivers has to keep stressing to his team is just how simple it is. If he can get all of his guys to buy into playing that brand of defense -- and making that priority No. 1 for 48 minutes -- then there's enough talent that the offense will put points on the scoreboard and give this team a consistent chance to win games (which wasn't true in recent seasons, but the offense is performing at an exceptional level even amid Boston's early-season struggles). As Rondo suggested last night, the Celtics can't get lulled by one game and have to maintain their defensive intensity moving forward. But if they can do that, this team is capable of ripping off the multiple-game win streaks they keep yearning for.