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Monday, March 11, 2013
Sowing seeds of playoff thoughts

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

Twenty games to go and it's a sprint to the finish. You know the drill by now, let's rip open the Celtics Mailbag -- one that's starting to bubble with playoff seeding questions -- and see what's on readers' minds as we enter the stretch run:

Q: Do you see the Celtics as content with the No. 7 seed and resting Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett a bit down the stretch? Or resting and trying to move up to No. 4? -- Wes (Geneva, Ill.)

A: In recent years, the Celtics have put an emphasis on two things late in the season: (1) playing their best basketball when the playoffs begin and (2) being as healthy as possible. Celtics coach Doc Rivers will not sacrifice either to climb a spot or two in the standings. As he noted last week in Indiana, "It's definitely more important to be right. If you're injured or not right, it doesn't matter what seed you are, you'll be going home soon." Now, all that said, the Celtics are acutely aware that they entered the week only 2 games out from hosting a home playoff series and must try to balance a desire to climb with keeping their players upright.

Q: Which would be better for C's: sixth seed or fourth? Compare and contrast. -- @HanoilG (via Twitter)

Green
Jeff Green's shaky outing against the Thunder left some fans wondering if the team can count on him going forward.

A: I love that you added the compare and contrast line as if to prevent a one-word response. C'mon man, brevity ain't my thing. If you asked me to rank the seven other playoff teams in terms of whom the Celtics should most aim to avoid, that list would look something like this: (1) Miami; (2) Miami; (3) Miami; (4) Miami; (5) Chicago; (6) Indiana; (7) Brooklyn; (8) Everyone else. I know some will think it's crazy to have the Bulls that high given their own inconsistencies, but that team -- with or without Derrick Rose -- can grind down opponents with defense and size. I'm not saying the Celtics couldn't win that series, but it's not good for their long-term playoff health. So whatever seed allows Boston avoid the Heat and Bulls the longest would be most advantageous in my mind. If getting the fourth seed means seeing the Bulls in Round 1 and Heat in Round 2, well, thanks, but no thanks. Give me the 3-6 or 2-7 matchups, even if this team has to open on the road, as the Knicks and Pacers simply are not as daunting given their own flaws.

Q: Gimme the Heat in Round 1! -- CallMeCrazy (Boston)

A: Crazy, indeed. Listen, I know there's a line of thought that suggests playing Miami early, presumably while Boston is freshest, would be ideal. I subscribed to it a bit last season when the Celtics surged to the finish line of the regular season. Not this year. Let someone else try to take the giant down a peg a bit before you've got to fight that battle.

Q: I know I may be in the minority on this one, but I am having a hard time looking forward to this year's playoffs. I have watched the Heat completely dismantle the top teams in the NBA and am having trouble seeing anyone really challenging them this year. With injuries piling up in the East -- to every team but Miami -- and then watching Indiana get beat last night, not by LeBron James, but by Mario Chalmers scoring 26 points and Chris Bosh seemingly making every shot that left his hands, I am disheartened that the playoffs may lack the competitive nature that I prefer. Can you offer any glimmer of hope on this matter? -- Cooper (Fort Wayne, Ind.)

A: Nope.

Just kidding (sort of). Listen, the Heat often look like they are on a different level. Facing them is daunting, but I don't think that should diminish anyone's excitement for the postseason. Too many crazy things can happen (hey there, 2011-12 Bulls). But this brings up a larger point that I've tried to stress: Just enjoy this ride. Given all the adversity that Boston has faced, it's been fun to watch this team reinvent itself a bit and play some excellent basketball. I've heard a lot of people say, "This team can't win a title, so why did they even bother to keep the core together?" Maybe it's time to dial back expectations for a change. Sure, those 17 banners set a lofty annual benchmark, but it could be just as fun to see what a scrappy bunch of defensive-minded underdogs can do in the playoffs.

Q: After the game against OKC, I'm beginning to get concerned about which Jeff Green will show up in the playoffs -- the attacking, aggressive Green or the floating, hesitant Green? What's your take? -- Doe (Estonia)

A: It's a bit surprising that Green struggled as much as he did in his first game back in Oklahoma City (especially after the nice effort he put together the first time the teams played earlier this season). That said, it's one game. As we wrote last week, Green has been nothing short of spectacular since Rajon Rondo went down. We'll chalk Sunday's effort up as an overhyped outlier. The Celtics absolutely need Green performing at a high level to have success in the postseason and one poor shooting performance shouldn't discourage us from thinking he's capable of stepping up on that stage. Consistency is absolutely the key for Green moving forward. You just have to hope the loud nights outweigh the quiet ones moving forward.

Q: True or false: Rondo's over-dribbling killed Boston's offense when he was healthy. -- Matt (Torrance, Calif.)

A: In looking for reasons why the Celtics' offense has thrived without Rondo, observers often have fallen back on the notion that Rondo dribbled the ball too much and stunted offensive opportunities through a lack of ball movement. There's undoubtedly some truth to this. But I was curious about this idea that Rondo's presence somehow caused Boston to settle for an unhealthy amount of late-clock shots. Synergy Sports logs all possessions that end with less than four seconds on the shot clock. Take a look at a snapshot of the data:

Since losing Rondo, the Celtics actually have seen an uptick in late-clock possessions. Even still, Boston ranks tied for 18th in the league in possessions ending with less than four seconds. Now, this is an inexact science and the reasons for possessions ending late are varied. But the data seems to suggest that Rondo wasn't a glaring reason for Boston's late-clock possessions.

One thing that is interesting: Rondo has accounted for 104 of Boston's late-clock possessions this season (14.2 percent). That does suggest that the ball often ended in his hands (and he is credited with 91 late-clock shots). By means of comparison, new first-unit point guard Avery Bradley has only 32 late-clock possessions through 31 appearances.

There's plenty of debate to be had on this topic, but this data glance does nothing to suggest to me that Rondo's dribbling was an overwhelming issue in Boston's offensive stagnation. The Celtics still have a whole bunch of offensive issues to work out, with or without Rondo.

Q: Is pure point guard a dying position? Rondo is arguably the best pure point guard in the league, but he doesn't compare offensively to Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose or even Tony Parker. Are the Celts building around the wrong type of player? -- Brian (South Boston, Mass.)

A: Much of the offseason will likely be spent tackling this sort of question ad nauseam. Have the last few weeks shown us that maybe Rondo needs to tweak his game a bit in order to get the most out of Boston's offense? Absolutely. Is there any reason to believe he can't adjust to those changes? Absolutely not, and I think having his game under the microscope will only fuel him to adapt. What many conveniently forget is that Rondo's midrange game was stronger than ever this season (48 percent from 16 to 23 feet). The bigger concern with him has always been being aggressive at the hoop and getting to the charity stripe more often (which could aid his free throw shooting numbers). Again, there's an entire summer to overanalyze how Boston's offense needs to morph with Rondo, but I don't think his offensive talents are necessarily a hindrance to building around him moving forward.

Q: Why isn't Terrence Williams getting more playing time? The Celtics signed him to a multiyear deal, and we hardly see him out there. -- @Tashville401 (via Twitter)

A: Let's remember why Boston brought in the China 3 (Williams, DJ White and Shavlik Randolph): Emergency depth with hopes that they could provide serviceable minutes when called upon. As Rivers noted recently, "We're bringing them in to help fill our bench and to help us if we need it. I'm not bringing guys in to take any [core rotation] spots." Ignore the "multiyear deal" hype; that's standard for late-season contracts, giving the team the first opportunity to bring that player back next season. The Celtics like a lot about Williams' game and are trying to mold him into a backup ball handler. He's simply not going to take minutes away from the trio of Avery Bradley, Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, at least in games where Rivers crunches his rotation. I'd expect to see some of the younger guys get more minutes as the schedule lightens up, especially if Rivers makes the decision to rest veteran bodies.

Let's go "lightning round" to wrap up this week's bag.

Q: Do you believe the Boston Celtics can beat the Miami Heat in the playoffs the way they are playing without Rondo? -- @Stunaw (via Twitter)

A: Possible? Sure (hey, this is the guy who picked the Celtics to win the East at the start of the season). Likely? Probably not given the injuries. But that's why you play the games.

Q: With a young core of Rondo, Bradley, Green and Sullinger, how competitive do you see the C's being in 3-5 years? -- @TreeeJayy (via Twitter)

A: Popular misconception that this team is "old." They have old leaders that are key to their success in Pierce, Garnett and Terry. Future remains bright with that young nucleus (add in Lee and Bass as part of under-27 club). Twelve of 15 players on current roster are 30 or under.

Q: Amazing defense and mediocre offense. Sounds like the same story as last year. Can they break out of the cycle? -- @CjEuLnTICS (via Twitter)

A: Always bodes well to have a strong defense in the playoffs. Offensively, if they value the ball and commit to ball movement, they'll give themselves chances to win games.

Q: Can Doc afford to rest guys down the stretch? -- Paul (Las Vegas)

A: Sure. It wouldn't even surprise me to see Kevin Garnett catch a day on Tuesday (heck, the Celtics should have done it the last time they were in Charlotte). Not sure it's as big an issue for Pierce or Terry, who could always catch a small breather over the final games of the regular season.