If not for the snowflakes and crowded mall parking lots, you might have been able to trick yourself into thinking it was April this week as the hype and excitement surrounding the Boston Celtics jumped up a notch.
While the Celtics have quietly put together a league-best 12-game winning streak, interest surely peaked for Wednesday's thriller against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden and spilled into Thursday when All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo got shelved for a couple weeks in order to heal a sprained left ankle (and the other maladies he's battled in what some pundits -- including TNT's Charles Barkley -- have dubbed an MVP-caliber season).
Mounting injuries, plus a weariness about a post-Christmas collapse, means the Celtics Mailbag is still receiving as many letters as the North Pole this week. Let's dive into the sack:
Q: The Big 3 are playing at a very high level with limited minutes. Do you think Doc will extend their minutes due to all the injuries the team is facing right now? -- Kareem (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
A: Rivers might have no other choice as injuries have thinned a bench that now consists of three players who typically see limited time in rookies Avery Bradley, Luke Harangody and Von Wafer. I like what Rivers did Thursday, leaning on all of his available players on the second night of a back-to-back against an opponent he thought he could get away with that against. I do think you'll see starters extended in situations like Wednesday, a bigger game where Boston shortens to a playoff-like eight-man rotation. Getting back even just one or two players will do wonders for a team learning how to get by on the bare minimum. Alas, until that happens, you'll probably see plenty of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce (with Rivers doing his best to keep Kevin Garnett in his typical minute allotment).
Q: Do you think the low-top sneakers were the reason behind Rondo's ankle sprain? I think he should stick to high-tops instead. -- Lisa (Sunflower, Miss.)
A: After watching (and cringing at) the replay, I'm not sure there's any shoe that could have saved Rondo's left ankle on Wednesday. Rondo essentially put all his body weight onto the left ankle, his foot turned at an odd angle, as he tried to cut early in the fourth quarter against the Knicks. These guys get taped up pretty good before games and that probably helps negate some potential injuries, but something like this is just bad luck. Rookie Avery Bradley has noted how he's wearing ankle braces now to prevent any recurrence of the pre-draft ankle injury he endured (chipping a bone) when he landed wrong during a workout for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Q: Chris, how much of a chip does KG have on his shoulder this season? He is turning back the clock every night he plays. The guy could probably win the rebounding title if he wasn't fighting off Glen Davis or some of his other brothers in green, right? He must have a dartboard with Pau Gasol's face on it! -- Jason (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
A: Maybe his so-called Redemption List is pinned up next to that dartboard. It has been fun watching Garnett return to the sort of player we saw the first 18 months he was in Boston. I think a lot of us wondered if he'd ever get back to that level, but he's moving fluidly near the basket on both ends of the court, and it can't be understated what that's meant to Boston this year. Is it oversimplifying to say that the Celtics are winning the games they would have fumbled away last year because of Garnett? Probably. But a healthy Garnett -- and a healthy Pierce -- is key to Boston's success so far this season.
Q: What do you think about Luke Harangody? Should he be given more time since we're missing big men at the moment? -- Charlye (Hong Kong)
A: Good to see Harangody already has an international following. I like how scrappy he is on the court, keeping balls alive and being very active in general. That's what he's going to need to do to thrive as an undersized forward (essentially, he has to follow Glen Davis' lead and become an energy guy). If Harangody was 6 inches taller, the Celtics would be using him 25 minutes per game (a la rookie Semih Erden). Alas, they can get by with Davis and Garnett rotating at the power-forward spot, and would almost rather go with a three-guard lineup (if they can get away with it) only because guys like Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels have more experience than Harangody.
Q: Chris, love your videos on YouTube, keep posting them! Who is playing center in the fourth quarter of a playoff game when everyone is healthy? -- Dennis (Germany)
A: Two international questions in a row. Do Germans love the Celtics Mailbag as much as The Hoff? I think, in general, the answer to your question is Davis (as we've seen early in the season). But I think it might also depend on what the Celtics need, maybe leaning on Kendrick Perkins or Jermaine O'Neal for defense, then bringing in Davis for offensive situations. That said, Davis has actually been very good defensively, even beyond his league-high 28 charges. His ability to make free throws at a solid rate make it even more likely he'll be the guy on the floor.
Q: I'm concerned that Avery Bradley is going to be a first-round bust. Can you please convince me otherwise? -- Adam (Wayne, N.J.)
A: Woa, woa, woa. Why so pessimistic, Adam? Most of your fellow letter senders find themselves on the opposite end of the spectrum, preaching for increased playing time for Bradley so that he can settle in as a potential rotation player at the guard spot. I'll ride the happy median and say the Celtics are handling him pretty well. Just because a guy isn't on the floor at the start of his rookie campaign doesn't mean he doesn't have the potential to blossom. Let me tell you the story of a guy named Rajon Rondo, who at age 20 (the same age as Bradley) and the 21st overall pick in the draft (two spots lower than Bradley) eased his way into the Boston rotation ( and this on a team that endured a 19-game losing streak). Rondo came off the bench for most of the first 56 games of the 2006-07 season before ascending to the starting role he has a stranglehold on now. Check out his first two months in the league: two double-digit scoring games and he topped out at seven assists despite fairly consistent minutes. I'm not saying to expect Bradley to be a starter by the end of March, but, especially as he overcomes the injuries that delayed his NBA orientation and learns the Boston playbook, let's give him some time to get his feet wet. He'll get some minutes here if Rondo is sidelined for an extended period, and Rivers plans to protect him as best he can by playing him with veterans, which will be a good situation for him.
Q: Can we get a health update? We really need to get these guys back and we need the bench guys to mesh. Our starters are logging too many minutes and this is a big concern for me. -- Mary (Nashville, Tenn.)
A: Again, I like that Rivers leaned on his entire bench, including rookies like Bradley and Harangody, on Thursday, sort of asserting a determination to get his veterans rest -- particularly on the tail end of a back-to-back -- even if it meant letting the game get away from them for a bit. In the end, it was a win-win-win. The younger players got valuable experience; the veterans got quality rest; and the Celtics emerged with another win.
Let's check the MASH unit, player by player:
* Shaquille O'Neal is battling lingering soreness in his right calf, an issue ever since colliding with Amare Stoudemire in a Celtics-Knicks clash in late October. O'Neal has sat out the last three games, but Rivers said the 38-year-old center is "slated" to return to the starting lineup Sunday vs. the Pacers.
* Jermaine O'Neal is working his way back from lingering left knee soreness that has forced him to miss the last 15 games. Rivers said O'Neal is getting closer to a return, but didn't offer a firm timetable, noting he hasn't participated in full-team drills yet (though he's working out, doing individual on-court exercises). Rivers did note that he won't hesitate to throw either O'Neal right back on the floor regardless of practice time. When there's a healthy body available, Rivers plans to use it.
* The Celtics never set a firm timetable on Delonte West after surgery to repair a fractured right wrist, but the general estimate (including one offered by in-the-know Shaquille O'Neal) was three months, which would suggest a mid-February return. West has already shed his sling and only a cast remains. He told Comcast SportsNet after Thursday's game that he's eying an earlier return, but we've heard a lot of players offer optimistic outlooks and the Celtics usually exercise great caution before allowing injured players to get back on the floor.
* The target date for Kendrick Perkins has always been around mid-February after offseason ACL surgery and, while he looks and says he feels great, he knows he still has a lot of hurdles left before he's ready for full-contact activity again.
* Von Wafer is battling a sore lower back. He said after Thursday's game that it's not a major concern and suggested that increased stretching might be enough to loosen him up.
Q: What do you think the deal was with Von Wafer Thursday night? I know he supposedly had a "sore back" but you'd think he'd have had some bit of a shot in the past few games. Every time he's gotten a few minutes, he's looked to be working hard on defense, while we all know he's an offensive threat. But instead of getting minutes for this depleted team, he watched Bradley and Harangody play over him. Think he'll be around for the whole season, or could he be the casualty of a midseason pickup? -- Doug (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
A: Wafer clearly got pushed hard for his job in the preseason and had to earn Rivers' trust early on in the regular season. I still think he's bought in -- more or less -- and I love the defensive intensity he's playing with (in fact, I'm all for the occasional foul that comes from trying to pressure the ball-handler; I like that tenacity). I have to assume Wafer's back really stiffened up Thursday night or else he would have been out there trying to make the most of available minutes. In that case, do you risk playing poorly, or gut it out? I guess it depends on the severity of the injury. He downplayed it after Thursday's game, but most athletes would. His play notwithstanding, I do think he's going to have to endure whispers about his status if only because he's probably the easiest to jettison (contract wise) if Boston needs to add a body. That said, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has often stressed that he doesn't want to make a move because he likes the makeup of this club, which is a strong vote of confidence for Wafer.
Q: I really like the videos you put up for postgame interviews with players, it gives insight to things fans normally wouldn't see. However, they seem to get cut short. Is there a time limit on how much you record? Sometimes it feels as if it gets cut off right before the best part! -- Zain (Davis, Calif.)
A: Impossible, I only record the good parts. No, I usually tape the first two minutes (or therabout) of an interview. It's slightly cumbersome trying to tape for long periods, but I try to hang in there for everything relevant. Good to know that people would hang around for longer stints with the video, though. Keep the suggestions coming, as we aim to please and will certainly strive to accommodate.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.