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Monday, December 17, 2012
Waiting for a savior

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

In the week that has passed since our last foray into the mailbag -- one that had readers optimistic with Boston (finally) trending in a positive direction -- the Celtics have lost two of three and needed double overtime to defeat the Dirk Nowitzki-less Mavericks in a cringe-filled effort.

A rather uninspired Texas two-step saw the Celtics endure back-to-back losses in Houston and San Antonio, erasing any goodwill that a two-game winning streak had built previously and prolonging this Dramamine-demanding roller-coaster ride to open the 2012-13 campaign.

Some good news fluttered in Monday, however, with Avery Bradley making his return to full-contact activity at the team's off-day practice in Chicago.

Let's (cautiously) rip open the strings of the Celtics Mailbag and see what's on your minds:

Q: Has the return of Avery Bradley really become this team's last hope? I don't think Bradley will completely shore up this less-than-stellar interior defense, even with his great on-the-ball defense. The Celtics might get tougher, but they need much more. -- Joe (Salem, N.H.)

Avery Bradley
Bradley's aggressive defense and on-court energy should provide an immediate boost to the Celtics, but he might have to shake off some rust.

A: Anyone pinning all their hopes on a third-year guard with less than 100 games of NBA experience is probably disillusioned. Will Bradley help? Absolutely. His on-ball defense (including his ability to press full court) will be a boost, and the trickle-down effect will be less dribble penetration that bigs have to rotate to cover. The other immediate impact will be on a bench that is likely to see Jason Terry and Courtney Lee come off the pine (adding a nice complementary combination of offense and defense to the second unit). Bradley can help bring some much-needed consistency to the Celtics' rotation. But let's keep in mind that it might take some time to get there because (1) Bradley has to shake off some rust after seven months away from contact and (2) the bench guard rotation must be worked out. (How will coach Doc Rivers split minutes with Terry, Lee and even Leandro Barbosa?) The idea of Bradley as a savior is misguided, but he can help this team in a big way.

Q: What do you think has been the Celtics' biggest obstacle, mental or otherwise, that's kept them from really coming together? -- @SpaceKappa (via Twitter)

A: An inability to put together 48 minutes of consistent basketball is absolutely tormenting this team. It has to be maddening for Rivers because his team has made tremendous strides offensively and has been relatively healthy (everyone not named Bradley, at least), yet the defense struggled out of the gate, role players have been all over the map and the team can't take two steps forward without taking one step back. I really do think that, when this team gets over the hump and puts together a little stretch of wins, it will take flight. But how do the Celtics get to that point? It might be mental at this point, and Rivers has to find a way to get his team to bring 48 minutes of intensity without letting frustrations snowball when adversity appears.

Q: Do we have any chance of turning this thing around and putting together some nice multiple-game winning streaks, and making a deep run in the playoffs? Or are the Celtics just a first-round stepping stone for someone? -- Concerned Fan (Seymour, Conn.)

A: If last season taught us anything, it's to be cautious with the panic button. Are the Celtics underperforming? Absolutely. Is Boston in danger of digging itself a hole it can't climb fully out of? Potentially. But this jagged start to the new season isn't worth getting too worked up about just yet. Let's face it, Boston is six games behind the top-seeded Knicks with 59 games to go. There's a lot of basketball to be played. That's not to absolve the Celtics from this disappointing start. This team is too talented to be a loss from .500. But I've seen too many encouraging glimpses from this team to not believe it will be a factor in the playoffs if it works through these early-season woes.

Courtney Lee
Despite the chatter about the Celtics possibly trading Courtney Lee, don't expect them to be so hasty. They signed Lee to a four-year deal because they see him as a key part of their future.

Q: With Courtney Lee struggling, do you think the Celtics will be able to get the big man they desperately need in a straight-up trade? -- @Mossmatic (via Twitter)

A: I know people are frustrated with Boston's record and Lee's perceived slow start, but I think all this chatter about dealing him away is incredibly foolish and premature. Everyone is so hung up on his 3-point shooting -- admittedly abysmal at 28.6 percent -- that we don't stop to notice that Lee is shooting a career-best 45.2 percent from the floor overall. Think about that for a second. Imagine his potential shooting percentage if some of those 3s start falling. Aside from scoring, Lee's per-36-minutes numbers are just about in line with his career totals. Yes, he needs to clean up his turnovers (a woeful 16.9 percent this season) and he needs to figure out how to affect the game offensively on fewer shots than he's accustomed to. It's clearly a confidence issue, but Lee doesn't lack for confidence. He needs to keep the focus on the defensive end (where he has slipped a bit lately), and the shooting should come around on its own.

Q: There have been reports that the Celtics are "repeatedly" trying to trade Courtney Lee. Do you know anything behind this? Who, specifically, would we be trading for? What are realistic expectations for trades this season? -- Simba (Kenya)

A: I think Lee's name is coming up so frequently because of his shooting woes, not because the Celtics have a strong desire to move him. Yes, there's a bit of a logjam looming at the guard position with Bradley's return, but the Celtics inked Lee to a four-year deal because they see him as a key part of their core moving forward. It would be foolish to give up on him after the first quarter of his first season.

Q: I'm not pushing the panic button yet, but to me, we need another post presence. For all the things Brandon Bass does do, he's still undersized, he still doesn't have ONE post move, his range is 15 feet (take him 3 feet further and he loses his effectiveness), he keeps getting lost in a defense that he should be familiar with now, and falls easily for pump-fakes. -- PakkAttack (Orlando, Fla.)

A: It's no secret the Celtics are thin on pure size. The departure of Darko Milicic and the break-only-in-event-of-emergency nature of Jason Collins have left the team leaning on its collection of undersized bigs, and the team quickly discovered that pairing Bass and rookie Jared Sullinger led to less-than-desirable results. It appears the team is content to grind out the early portion of the season and see what is available at the trade (and waiver) deadline(s). Remember, the cap-strapped Celtics have one roster spot and little money to work with, so they can't reach too quickly to fill one need (particularly if something else -- such as a pure backup ball handler -- emerges as a bigger need over the next two months). Ultimately, I think we'll see Boston haul in a defensive-minded big down the road. Who that is almost certainly will be dictated by availability and market rate. As for Bass, he's clearly struggling here in December, and his defensive regression is troubling given that he had the benefit of last season with the team. But I think it's just a funk caused by some shooting woes (and Boston's overall defensive struggles that have exposed his defensive flaws at times).

Q: For a team that is great with ATO [after timeout] plays, why is it that they botch every end-of-game situation? Opponents know it's the elbow ISO. -- @GregEisenman (via Twitter)

A: A frustrated friend texted the other day convinced that Rivers is simply playing hangman when he pulls out the dry erase board before final-shot opportunities. (I jokingly replied that it would be hilarious if that game of hangman ended with the phrase always being P-I-E-R-C-E_E-L-B-O-W.) Here's what we know: The Celtics are 1-for-10 shooting in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime in one-possession games this season. Their only make: Kevin Garnett's jumper that forced overtime in Philadelphia. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo have missed all of their chances to produce winners (and, in the case of last week's Dallas game, missed badly). While there's something to be said for (1) going with something familiar with Pierce and (2) trying to get Rondo a game winner as he emerges as an offensive focal point, I do think it's fair to wonder whether Rivers needs to dig deeper into his bag of tricks. Yes, he has been forced to reconfigure his final plays without Ray Allen, but I don't think some more pick-and-roll activity would be a bad thing, particularly with an ability to spread so many shooters out on the floor.

Q: What do you think about this look for Josh Smith (@JSmooveNBA) Not bad, huh? -- @Kngcease (via Twitter)

A: The Hawks are 14-7 and currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference. You could almost make the case that digitally placing, say, Pierce in a Hawks uniform would make more sense at the moment. Sure, the Celtics would love a talent such as Smith, but it's probably best to set the bar a little lower for an in-season addition up front.