It's difficult to really value the Boston Celtics' recent victory over the Sacramento Kings. Calling the Kings a bad basketball team isn't completely fair, they do have some level of talent in spite of their 17-30 record on the season. However, when they came to TD Garden on Wednesday night, they brought with them some of the worst play that has been on show all season. Highlights of the constant futility were multiple missed open layups, an inability to play team defense and a shooting percentage of 39 that was bloated by a second half of garbage time.
Because of the Kings inability to run an effective team on either end of the floor, despite their advantage in the paint on paper, the Celtics' impressive display and victory must be considered lightly. Yes, Leandro Barbosa, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry played well in Rajon Rondo's absence. Brandon Bass even impressed in his 38 minutes on the floor after an early injury to Jared Sullinger forced him onto the floor. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce combined for 19 rebounds, nine assists and 29 points. But no, Lee and Avery Bradley weren't tasked with running the offense against any kind of resiliency in a clutch situation. Terry and Barbosa's ability to defend the perimeter was similarly left unchallenged, while the Celtics' bigs were able to execute for similar reasons.
What was promising, was the fact that the Celtics got contributions from their whole roster. Every healthy body played, with eight players finishing the game with at least seven points. Even though the opposition wasn't playoff caliber, the ability to execute and effort that existed post-Rondo was as impressive as ever. Couple that display with the double over-time victory over the Miami Heat, and Celtics fans could be forgiven for thinking that their season may have more life in it than most think.
The Celtics can't be ruled out from making a run in the playoffs. The fragility of the Eastern Conference puts just three surefire contenders in their way. Along with the Miami Heat, who are clearly the favorites despite their somewhat inconsistent regular season, the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers will both feel confident of competing for that elusive spot in the NBA Finals. Even with a healthy Rondo, the Celtics would have needed to compensate their lack of individual talent compared to those teams, with intelligence from the coaching staff and team execution on the floor to be competitive.
A blueprint was laid out against the Heat on Sunday night. Fortunately for the Celtics, Rondo wasn't a primary part of the Celtics' defensive gameplan to stop the big three. With Avery Bradley fully healthy after his shoulder issues entering the year, the Celtics have a shutdown shooting guard who can contain Dwyane Wade. Paul Pierce may be a limited offensive weapon at this point in his career, but he has always played good defense against Lebron James. James can't be stopped, but making him earn every point he gets is something few players can do. Pierce does that. The final part of the big three, Chris Bosh, presents the problem of length that should hurt the Celtics significantly. However, because Bosh plays so far from the basket and is much more of a finesse finisher than dominant force, Kevin Garnett has never felt outmatched in their duels.
Beating the Heat in a seven-game-series requires you to do many things. The most important thing to do is contain the big three however. The Celtics have the pieces in place to do that, even if they are overmatched elsewhere. If Jared Sullinger can overcome his back issues and continue to develop into the player he is proving to be, the Celtics would actually match up very well with the Heats' starting five as Courtney Lee and Mario Chalmers finish off both lineups. Surpassed the starters, the Heat have much different styles of players. Ray Allen doesn't need any introduction, while Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Norris Cole, Joel Anthony and Mike Miller all offer different difficulties to oppose. For the most part, the Heat have veterans to rely on who have proven themselves repeatedly at this level and in the post-season. The Celtics have less experience, but no less potential.
Even though the Celtics' bench doesn't have the same kind of experience as the Heat's, there is plenty of potential to get quality play on the court. Barbosa and Terry are both proven scorers at any level. Brandon Bass is a former starter, while Chris Wilcox and Jason Collins can both compete with the Heats' bigs. The key for the Celtics is Jeff Green. From a sheer physical abilities perspective, Jeff Green has the ability to take over any team's opposing bench players. However, Green is still adjusting after missing last season for heart surgery. How Green continues to develop over the coming months will be crucial if they find themselves facing the Heat again in the playoffs.
The Heat are obviously the most talented team in the NBA, so it's safe to say that they offer the Celtics their toughest test. However, if the New York Knicks are executing to the same level they have for most of this regular season, then they would also be favorites in any series with the Celtics.
Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire get most of the headlines in New York, for contrasting reasons, but the Knicks' greatest advantage in the playoffs will be their ability to stretch the Celtics' defense around the perimeter. The Knicks essentially start just one big man, with either Tyson Chandler or Stoudemire working inside, while the remainder of their offense is predicated on driving to the basket to set up outside three point attempts. From a sheer matchup point of view, the Celtics have enough guard and small forward depth to stick with the Knicks, but it is the quality of that depth that becomes the issue. Anthony would be the primary focus, and would likely draw the attention of Paul Pierce, while J.R. Smith coming from the bench would attract the interest of Avery Bradley. Smith and Anthony are the team's two primary scoring threats, but Jason Kidd and Steve Novak are pinpoint outside shooters, while Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert have the potential to crack open defenses in multiple ways from the perimeter. On the interior, Kevin Garnett and Sullinger would need to match the physicality of Chandler and Stoudemire, something that would be incredibly difficult for the Boston duo.
The Indiana Pacers don't have the stars or experience of the Heat and Knicks, but they are arguably the most balanced team in the East. Crucially, the Pacers rank first in rebounds per game, with 45.8, primarily because of center Roy Hibbert, small forward Paul George and power forward David West all averaging over seven rebounds per game. Hibbert, George and West's ability to power their way past defenders would cause major matchup problems for the Celtics' interior defense. Add in the expected return of Danny Granger, who has missed all of this season through injury, and the Pacers would have too much size and athleticism for the Celtics to cope. The Celtics' defensive strength isn't about fighting back teams who want to overpower them, their defensive strength is about intelligence. Matching up to the Pacers' brute force isn't something they would be able to do. That interior power would force double teams and negate the defensive ability of Bradley and Lee on the perimeter. It would also make life more difficult for Barbosa when he is driving to the basket on the opposing end.
Even though they competed fearlessly against the Miami Heat last year, the Celtics' best opportunity to beat the Pacers would come from their huge championship advantage and post-season experience. The Pacers don't have the same track record of winning in recent years that this Celtics team has learned from.