Commentary

C's mailbag: Some lingering concerns

Injury woes, inconsistent play cloud Boston's nine-game win streak

Updated: December 11, 2010, 1:05 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

Winning streaks have a way of keeping the workload light for our Celtics Mailbag letter carrier. But, the Celtics have a way of keeping things interesting even when they're riding a nine-game winning streak, so there are few days off for our postman.

Even after a thrilling 102-101 win on the second night of a back-to-back Thursday in Philadelphia, highlighted by spry Kevin Garnett's alley-oop layup off a Rajon Rondo feed with 1.4 seconds remaining, mailbaggers are worried about mounting injuries and inconsistent play (even if Boston has been able to overcome both, so far, while not losing since Nov. 21 in Toronto).

As the Celtics enjoy a much-deserved (and much-needed) day off while trekking to Charlotte for Saturday evening's tilt with the Bobcats, let's tackle all the hodgepodge of lingering questions in Celtic Nation.

Q: How many more games will Boston's winning streak last? -- Patrick (Sweet Home Alabama)

A: The optimist might suggest that Boston should rip through the next five games (Charlotte, New York, Atlanta, Indiana and Philadelphia) and boast a 14-game streak when it visits Orlando on Christmas Day. The extreme optimist is thumping his chest about the potential for a 19-game streak before San Antonio comes to town on Jan. 5. The pessimist thinks the Celtics are doomed for a letdown every night (he's still jaded from last season), so we'll lean on the realist, who probably says injuries and the odds will catch up with Boston sooner or later.

The Knicks are playing well and will be a tough matchup Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, while the Hawks will be waiting (and rested) the next night in Boston (disregard the Celtics' thrashing of Atlanta last month; this one will be closer). We'd be remiss, however, if we didn't point out that Boston's winning streak could potentially stretch to 33 games before a showdown with the Lakers on Jan. 30 (the same Los Angeles team that boasts the NBA record of 33 straight wins). Yes, it's a pipe dream, but fun to ponder.

Q: Do you think the Celtics are playing like the best team in the NBA, and do you think they can have another big postseason run? -- Peyton (Midlothian, Va.)

A: Are the Celtics playing the best basketball in the league right now? Probably not. In fact, the most impressive aspect of this nine-game winning streak is how they've gutted out wins, particularly in the face of injuries and illnesses. The scary part for other teams has to be this: If the Celtics are capable of winning nine straight games amidst roster flux, what happens when they've got 15 healthy bodies, including Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O'Neal and Delonte West? The Celtics trotted out rookie Semih Erden in a starting role Thursday night and still found a way to win. That tells us Boston certainly has a chance for another postseason sprint.

Q: When will Jermaine O'Neal return and, when Kendrick Perkins comes back from his knee injury, do you think Jermaine will be in the rotations of bigs? -- Shamir (Rutherford, N.J.)

A: Jermaine O'Neal resumed individual on-court activities this week and is working out in Waltham each day attempting to clear the final hurdles in order for Boston's medical staff to allow him to rejoin full-team activities. O'Neal said last weekend in New Jersey that he hoped the thumbs-up would come as early as this weekend, which means we could see him back on the practice court with his teammates as early as the start of next week. With Shaq still ailing, the Celtics could certainly use Jermaine O'Neal back on the active roster, but coach Doc Rivers has stressed that he does not want Jermaine O'Neal on an NBA court unless he's 100 percent. Boston simply can't afford a relapse. And even when Kendrick Perkins resumes his starting duties, I think the Celtics will have no trouble finding minutes up front for both O'Neals. In fact, they'll be happy they have both (presuming they can both get healthy at the same time).

Q: What are the chances that the Celtics call someone up from the Maine Red Claws of D-League to replace Delonte West? Someone like Northeastern's Matt Janning? -- Scott (Boston)

A: Let me put aside my Husky pom-poms for a moment and suggest that, unless things get real dicey due to injuries, I'm not sure the Celtics need to reach to the D-League right now (or ever). Even with only 11 healthy bodies Thursday night in Philadelphia, Rivers still managed to keep rookies Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody off the floor, while Von Wafer logged about five minutes. That suggests to me that it's more likely those rookies could be sent on assignment for reps, instead of anyone else being injected into the Boston system mid-stream. After all, Rivers is comfortable going with a playoff-like, eight-man rotation to get through if it means avoiding shuffling the Boston roster (any call-up would result in the Celtics needing to make an accompanying roster move since they're at the league limit with 15 players).

Back to Janning. He certainly proved he's an NBA-caliber player by latching on in Phoenix before the season.

Q: I was shocked to read your recent piece on Shaquille O'Neal's knee injury. It surprised me that a story on an 18-year NBA veteran would ignore the overwhelming evidence that suggests that Shaq has rarely been reluctant to miss regular-season games due to minor injuries. The quote you used about Shaq never thinking this day would come flies in the face of how he has approached most of his career, especially when one considers his uninspiring approach to rehab during his stops in Los Angeles and Cleveland. As you can probably tell, I don't like Shaq; I am a Lakers fan and found it offensive that he came into each season in progressively worse shape after the 1999-2000 season. While I am admittedly biased, I think that any article that discusses Shaquille O'Neal's injury history is deeply flawed if it does not at least mention the fact that he has played more than 70 games just twice in the last nine seasons. Further, the suggestion that Shaq has ever adopted an "old-school" approach to playing through injuries is inconsistent with 18 years of evidence. -- Mike (Chicago)

A: I think we can agree that gauging when an injured player should be back on the court is difficult for anyone besides the player and his team's medical staff, since they are the only ones privy to the sort of information that could best make that determination. I'll defer to the history buffs on O'Neal's past, but I get the sense that, especially at age 38, Shaq is really fighting through this lingering right knee issue, knowing the Celtics don't have any sort of depth up front right now. Was Shaq ready to come back in Miami when Jermaine O'Neal could no longer go on his sore left knee? Probably not, but the Celtics needed a veteran big on the floor. So I'll give Shaq the benefit of the doubt when he talks about wanting to take medication or receive a shot to numb the pain in the area around his shin and calf, just so he can gut out 20 minutes for his team. If his conditioning was an issue in the past, Shaq certainly came to Boston in phenomenal shape and seems to be giving everything he's got to this team.

[+] EnlargeJermaine O'neal
Layne Murdoch/Getty ImagesWe could see Jermaine O'Neal back on the court with his teammates next week, but Doc Rivers has said he doesn't want to rush him.

Q: Have you noticed an improved Shaq free-throw percentage this year? I usually just pray that he makes one out of two when he gets to the line, but I am starting to raise the bar to two makes out of three attempts. Will Shaq bless us with his career high in free-throw percentage this year? -- Jason (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)

A: Only three times in the 15 games that Shaq has gotten to the line this season has he shot below .500 (in fact, 13 of his 34 total misses came in that trifecta of games). And while his current free-throw percentage (55.8 percent) is way up from last season (49.6 percent), it's closer to his career average (52.7 percent) than it is to his career-high (62.2 percent in 2002-03 with the Lakers). If Shaq can maintain a free-throw percentage around 55 percent, I think he's exceeding expectations.

Q: I was wondering what you thought of the Celtics' chances for success in five years. Do you see a Rondo-Bradley backcourt of the future working out? Does Big Baby play a bigger role? Can we win any games? -- Jake (Clemson, S.C.)

A: Love the question, but I hate putting too much thought into it because we just don't know what this team is going to look like beyond this year (particularly if there's a lockout). I'm of the belief that a lot of these veterans could dance off into the sunset if Boston wins another title this year, maybe bringing about an overhaul that originally seemed slated for the summer of 2012. I think Bradley can be a very good player in this league -- particularly defensively -- but we need to see his shot blossom in order to project him as the type of shooting guard that Boston will need when (or if) Ray Allen hangs up his high-tops. With Davis, he's playing so well -- and so often -- right now that he might actually price himself out of town depending on the bigs Boston is able to bring back next season. Clearly, the Celtics would love to keep this Davis around and, eventually, let him thrive in the starting lineup.

Q: Just wanted to say that my 16-year-old daughter bought tickets for her Rondo-loving friend and herself. They attended [last Wednesday's] game [against the Nets] to celebrate her friend's Sweet 16. They are both so disappointed that Rondo is not playing. I feel so sad for them. -- Michele (Stroudsburg, Pa.)

A: Situations like that are understandably frustrating, but thus are the perils of being a sports fan. Much like those fans disappointed by the injuries that sidelined Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony on recent visits to the Garden -- the only visit to Boston during the regular season for those two superstars -- it's bittersweet when a favorite hometown player can't suit up. Coaches and players are well aware that fans pay good money to see games and that they want to see stars on the floor. Alas, those players and coaches are also getting paid to win championships, which sometimes leads to erring on the side of caution when it comes to injuries.

Q: I just learned about the documentary "The Association: Boston Celtics" and managed to see the first episode. It was great. Please tell me details for watching it on TV or on demand. -- Martin (Pelham, Mass.)

A: Phew, I thought I was going to have to send my own e-mail in order to shamelessly plug our work. In all seriousness, I actually got a lot of feedback from visitors wanting to know more about the show and when it airs next. Hop HERE to watch Episode 1 and find all the details for the upcoming airings. The next episode is slated to run on Jan. 21.

Q: Hey Chris, what is the square root of 12? Thanks. -- John (Zephyrhills, Florida)

A: 3.46410161513775. No, I didn't Google it. I owned the Human Calculator as a kid. Though, all it did was make me want to own sweaters like Amazing Discoveries host Mike Levey.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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