Commentary

Yes, Celtics have flaws

Full-game effort, rebounding and play against elite teams could be better

Updated: December 18, 2009, 11:38 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

The Celtics boast a double-digit win streak, own the best record in basketball and are headed toward a Christmas showdown against a top rival.

Sound familiar?

While Boston's 2009-10 campaign isn't quite as glossy as last season's 27-2 start, which featured a 19-game winning streak, there are still plenty of similarities between the campaigns.

Chief among the differences, however, is the fact that Celtics coach Doc Rivers likes the brand of basketball his team is playing, which suggests it can avoid the sort of 2-9 tailspin the 2008-09 squad endured starting with a holiday loss to the Lakers.

But despite all the good vibes around this season's team, given its current 11-game winning streak (one that's almost certain to grow with three games at TD Garden against teams with a combined 19 wins over the next five days), there's reason for Boston to tread carefully as it approaches a Christmas visit to Orlando.

Earlier this week we provided a list of 10 reasons the Celtics haven't lost since falling to the Magic on Nov. 20. It's time to examine what needs to be tightened up to ensure they remain at the front of the pack.

Become a 48-minute team

The Celtics are the first to admit they've rarely put together four quality quarters, even during their current winning streak. Boston has been prone to lulls that have allowed the opposition to hang close, and the team seems to wait until the fourth quarter to really take over (sometimes delaying until the final moments of that final frame).

"We are definitely not satisfied with where we are," said Celtics captain Paul Pierce. "Our goal is to put together a string where we play four quarters. Out of the past 11 games, we probably did that two or three times. We're still trying to come into our own as a team. Luckily it's still early in the season and we have a lot of room to grow."

"Two or three times" might be generous, too. Outside of wins over Charlotte and Chicago, the past 11 games haven't featured many rocking-chair affairs.

[+] EnlargeDoc Rivers
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireDoc Rivers knows if his team doesn't play 48 good minutes a game come playoff time, it won't last long.

Yet from the first days of training camp, the Celtics have been focused on the bigger picture. From the blank banner hanging above the court at the Sports Authority Training Center in Waltham to the No. 18 sign on the road leading to the practice facility to the picture of the Larry O'Brien trophy inside the Celtics' locker room at the Garden, it's clear what the goal is for this team.

"You don't have to play 48 minutes to win a game, but you have to play 48 minutes to win a playoff game," Rivers said. "That's the way we look at it. We're better, though; each game we've improved as the year has gone on. That's exactly what we want to do. We've had some lulls, and we'll probably have a couple more, who knows?"

Lulls are unavoidable, but a team that puts together four quarters of solid basketball will avoid staying in those lulls for a prolonged period of time.

Hang with the best

It's not hard to separate the contenders from the pretenders in the Eastern Conference this year. There are four top teams -- Boston, Orlando, Atlanta and Cleveland -- then there's everybody else. Heck, through Thursday's games, only the top five teams in the East had winning records (the Heat improved to 13-11 by topping Orlando).

Like any good team, the Celtics have feasted on the weaker squads. Their four losses are against Orlando (19-7), Atlanta (18-6), Phoenix (17-8) and Indiana (9-14), teams with a combined .643 winning percentage.

The Celtics' overall strength of schedule is currently ranked 28th in the NBA, with opponents boasting a .448 winning percentage through Wednesday's games. Only Cleveland (.444) and Denver (.432) have had easier slates (and both boasted the same record at 19-7).

The Celtics were playing their toughest competition when they dropped four of seven in November, including three Friday night games in a row at TD Garden.

While Rivers joked he'd have to "find out what's going on on Thursday nights" if the Friday struggles continued, he did acknowledge the Celtics played the most talented teams during that stretch. Fortunately for him, his players are aware there's work to be done against playoff-quality squads.

"I like our team's mindset," Rivers said. "Coaches are always thinking about getting better, but I love our team. In fact, they talk about it; you've seen it at games. They haven't been happy with half the wins, given the way they performed. That's not necessarily coming from me."

Hit the boards

The Celtics were dead last in the NBA in total rebounds (and 29th in rebounds per game) through Wednesday's games. Opponents have eaten the Green alive with offensive rebounds -- and the resulting second-chance points -- that have allowed more than a couple of teams to hang around longer than they should have.

"It's not the end product of the rebound," Rivers explained after a win last week over Washington. "It's stopping the ball penetration, getting back on defense, so we have our normal matchups. Then everybody can box out, because when we don't do that, [opponents] take advantage of us."

Regardless of the reason, the Celtics need to do a better fundamental job of putting bodies on bodies and boxing out in the defensive end. Pierce suggested last week that the onus was on the guards for long rebounds, as the big men have done their job beneath the basket.

Before Monday's win over Memphis, the Celtics had led the opposition in second-chance points just twice in the previous 10 games.

Other nitpicks

Two other areas the Celtics must fine-tune moving forward:

Free throw shooting remains in the middle of the pack percentage-wise, and the Celtics are in the lower third in total free throws attempted, suggesting they might be relying on perimeter jumpers more than the coaching staff might like. But looking at the game log for Rasheed Wallace indicates this area may already be improving, as Boston's sixth man is posting up more of late.

With Marquis Daniels sidelined until at least February, it seems important that the Celtics develop or pursue a backup point guard. The Green are leaning heavy on Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to aid the second unit in handling the ball, but in the interest of preserving them until the postseason -- and simply having another body on the bench the Celtics can trust to spell Rajon Rondo -- Boston must monitor that situation.

Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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