The Boston Celtics thought Avery Bradley was the solution. However, four straight losses have proven otherwise.
While losing is certainly no fun, the Celtics may have just discovered the blueprint to re-establishing themselves as championship contenders in the process.
Following a four-game losing streak that began on Dec. 27, Boston responded with a season-high, six-game winning streak. Since then, they have lost four-straight games.
Calling this team streaky would be an understatement.
The Celtics are a team without direction. They’re a team playing without heart. But most importantly, they’re a team without an identity.
On any given night, it’s anyone’s guess as to which Boston team will show up.
Will it be the team that held its opponents to just 85.2 points per game during their winning streak? Or will it be the squad that has surrendered 97 points a night over these past four games?
Will it be the Celtics team that has limited opponents to 38.9 percent shooting from the field over those six games? Or will it be the team that was scorched by 45.8 percent shooting during their current losing streak?
Needless to say, this whole Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act is getting old.
Boston is at the halfway point of its season, and with their next three opponents likely playoff bound, it does not look to be getting easier anytime soon.
Now is the time to clean up this mess.
Here are three keys that are sure to return the Celtics back on the path towards respectability.
1. Protect the Rim
If there’s one thing we know about this Boston team, it’s that they have a glaring vulnerability when it comes to interior defense.
This is the same team that is ranked in the bottom five in both rebounding (No. 29) and blocks (No. 26).
Lately, opponents have been making them pay for it.
For starters, the Celtics are giving away far too many points in the paint. Opposing big men are practically having their way down low.
Over its last seven games, Boston has given up an average of 44 points in the paint per game. Opponents have scored 46 or more in four of those games. It’s a solid increase over the team’s season average of 41.6 per game (No. 16).
But it’s not just the big men. Opposing guards are cashing in on easy buckets too.
In their latest loss, 95-90 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics were manhandled by Kyrie Irving.
The second-year point guard poured in 40 points on 16-of-24 shooting. Sixteen of those points came inside the paint.
Irving scored another five points from the free-throw line, resulting from fouls on drives to the hoop.
That just can’t continue if Boston has any hopes of making another deep postseason run.
Secondly, the Celtics have been gifting their opponents with a multitude of second chance opportunities.
During its last 10 games, Boston has allowed opponents 12.1 offensive rebounds per game. That’s an increase from the 10.9 per game that the team had surrendered over their first 31 games this year.
Not only does an offensive rebound reset the shot clock for the opposition, but it also wipes out all the hard work the Celtics put in to make the original stop.That’s got to be disheartening.
These two issues combine to create the biggest problem that has been plaguing the team all season.
It should be the first thing Boston addresses, whether through the trade market or free agency.
2. Rediscover Shooting Touch
The Celtics shoot a lot of jump shots. In fact, they make up 71 percent of their offense.
However, as long as you’re making them, no one will complain.
On the season, Boston has converted on 45.6 percent of those shots, ranking No. 3 in the league.
Lately though, that has not been the case.
During their four-game losing streak, the Celtics have only shot 41.3 percent from the field. That’s a stunning drop off for a team that currently ranks No. 6 in the league in overall field-goal percentage.
Paul Pierce has felt it the worst.
The captain has shot just 24-of-74 (32.4 percent) from the field over his last five games, while averaging just 13.2 points per game. That includes four-straight games with just 15 points or less.
It gets worse from three-point range, where Pierce has only connected on 4-of-23 attempts (17.4 percent).
But he’s not alone.
In the last four games, Boston has only shot 18-of-64 (28.1 percent) from beyond the arc. They currently rank No. 28 in both three-pointers made and attempted per game, while ranking No. 25 in overall three-point shooting percentage (33.9 percent).
It all does not bode well for a team that’s only as good as its jump shot.
The Celtics have finished with a higher field-goal percentage than their opponent 21 times this season. They’re 17-4 in those games.
3. Start Jared Sullinger
What else does the guy have to do to prove he belongs in the starting lineup?
Sure, he might be a rookie. But he’s been arguably Boston’s best performer this season.
In the last 10 games, Sullinger is averaging 8.9 points and 9.0 rebounds per game in 26.3 minutes a night. He’s recorded 15 or more rebounds twice during that span.
Night in and night out, Sullinger has worked hard on the glass, providing the Celtics with multiple second-chance opportunities. He’s averaged 3.3 offensive rebounds per game during the month of January.
For a team that does not crash the boards, that’s saying a lot about the 20-year-old.
Furthermore, Sullinger has also been a force on the defensive side of the ball.
According to Synergy stats, he’s allowed just 0.724 points per play, ranking in the 91st percentile of the league. Sullinger ranks No. 6 in points per play among players with at least 275 total defensive plays. That’s better than Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah.
So what’s stopping him from shining as a starter? Brandon Bass?
You mean the guy who’s averaging 7.7 points and five rebounds per game?
Boston is a better team when Sullinger is on the floor.
He leads the team in plus/minus and they have only lost one of the seven games in which he’s played 28 minutes or more.
Sullinger is not only the answer for the future. He’s the answer now.
It’s as simple as that.
Summing It All Up
Things might look bad now, but remember it’s a long season.
The Celtics still have 41 games left. That’s more than enough time to make up their six-game deficit in the Atlantic Division.
Their first opportunity to do just that comes on Thursday, when the division-leading New York Knicks come into town.
Pick up a win then, followed by making these aforementioned adjustments, and Boston should be back in the thick of things in no time.
I guarantee it.
All stats used in this article are accurate as of January 22, 2013
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