Celtics score well on midterm grades
The Boston Celtics zipped through the midseason checkpoint last week, edging the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday in Game 41 of the 82-game regular season. Boston then extended its winning streak to five Friday against the Utah Jazz before stumbling Saturday night in falling to the Washington Wizards.
As the Celtics start the downhill portion of their regular-season schedule, an Eastern Conference-best 33-10 record in tow, we hand out midseason marks. For a glimpse at how each player progressed, be sure to check out our first-quarter marks from mid-December.
Celtics' player-by-player report card
How important is Garnett? When he keeled over at midcourt in Detroit on Dec. 29, grabbing at the region near his surgically repaired right knee, Celtics Nation got a collective knot in its stomach in fear that Garnett had a far worse injury than what turned out to be a strained right calf. The calf cost Garnett nine games, and Boston went 6-3 during that span. His defensive rebounding percentage (29.5) has come back to Earth a bit, but it's still fifth in the league (in the mix with the Loves and Howards of the world), while his defensive rating (94.2) is tops in the NBA, confirming that Garnett is the best defensive player in the league this season. Offensively, he's shooting 53.7 percent and has a chance to challenge his career-best of 53.9 percent set during the 2008 championship season.
After battling a variety of injuries last season, Pierce (along with Ray Allen) has been the ironman of a starting unit that's missed 63 total games between the other three regular starters (nine games for Garnett; 11 for Rajon Rondo; 43 for Kendrick Perkins). One season after shooting a career-best 47.2 percent, Pierce boasts a 51.4 field goal percentage, including a 42.7 percent mark beyond the arc. (Oh, and he's having his best season at the charity stripe as well.) As Jermaine O'Neal suggested, Pierce is having the quietest MVP-caliber season imaginable. Boston's balance will prevent him from being in that conversation, but as far as team MVP goes, Pierce's ability to raise various aspects of his game to cover for the missing pieces probably deserves more recognition (even if most would still peg Garnett or Rondo with that award).
Maybe he spoiled us at the beginning of the season. Rondo is averaging 10.4 points, 11.7 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.8 steals over his last 10 contests -- a stretch that included matchups with the likes of Derrick Rose, John Wall, Rodney Stuckey and Deron Williams -- and yet his exploits have blended into the scenery. On the encouraging side, we're seeing glimpses of that elbow jumper getting stronger, adding another weapon to his all-around game. About the only complaint is that he's still not getting to the free throw line with any regularity (a teamwide weakness highlighted in Saturday's loss in Washington) and he's down nearly two attempts per game from last season.
Six months shy of his 36th birthday, Allen's shooting is at the sort of near-prime level that most players enjoy at 26. A career 45.2 percent shooter, Allen is blistering the field at 50.7 percent this season, including what would be a career-best 45.1 percent beyond the arc. He'll soon pass Reggie Miller as the NBA's all-time leader in 3-pointers made, and it seems a Celtics win rarely passes without Allen sticking at least one key fourth-quarter triple. When Allen thrives, so do the Celtics. Boston is 12-0 when he scores his jersey number (20) or more in points. The only nitpick: He's shooting a mere 86.9 percent at the charity stripe, sterling for anyone except a player who shot 95.2 percent there two seasons ago.
Thrust into a starting role as Garnett missed nine games, Davis struggled to maintain the sort of production that had thrust him into the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year. Regardless of his much-scrutinized shot selection in that starting role, Davis is averaging 12.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists over a starter-like 30.7 minutes per game. Back in his reserve role with Garnett's return last week, Davis is again thriving, injecting much-needed consistency into a Boston bench thinned by the many injuries the Celtics have endured.
In the three games before he tweaked his right hip Friday night against the Jazz, Shaq had turned back the clock and was downright phenomenal. From scoring 23 points over a season-high 35 minutes in a win over Charlotte to putting Boston on his back in the fourth quarter of a triumph over Detroit, O'Neal has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Sure, he's been prone to injury and has missed 10 games, but Boston expected that coming into the season (though the situation has been exacerbated by the extended absences of both Perkins and Jermaine O'Neal). Shaq is shooting a ridiculous 67.7 percent from the floor and leads the NBA in second-half field goal percentage (70.2 percent).
If someone told you a year ago that Erden, Boston's 2008 second-round selection (the 60th and final pick) would be a spot starter on a 2010-11 squad that featured a frontcourt of the O'Neals, Perkins and Davis, you might have laughed that person out of the room. Heck, few expected Erden to even be stateside at this point. But here he is and, after a brief stint in the doghouse, the Turkish center is back in a starter's role at the start of the calendar year (with the O'Neals and Perkins sidelined). Erden is playing with newfound intensity, so the message coach Doc Rivers sent over an extended DNP streak apparently stuck. When Shaq departed in the first quarter Friday against Utah, Erden responded by making all five shots he took for a career-high 14 points over 30 minutes. A night later in Washington, he started and hauled in a career-best 11 rebounds. He's still raw and might get squeezed out of the rotation if/when the roster gets healthy, but his contributions and development have not gone unnoticed.
With so much preseason chatter about whether Daniels could stay healthy, the fact that he's one of only five Celtics to appear in all 43 games drives his grade up a bit on its own. Production-wise, his numbers are not far off from last season (5.8 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists over 19.9 minutes per game this season; 5.6 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists over 18.4 minutes in '09-10). His defense has been solid and no one has really been clamoring for the days of Tony Allen. Offensively, Daniels looked poised to break through, registering 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting in a loss to Houston on Jan. 10, and following with 12 points on 6-of-13 shooting (season high for attempts) in a win over Sacramento on Jan. 12. At the end of the day, the Celtics need Daniels to be the sort of player he was against Utah on Friday night, when despite playing on a sprained ankle, he chipped in eight points (on an efficient 3-of-4 shooting) while adding six assists and four rebounds over 26 minutes.
Wafer's minimum contract became fully guaranteed earlier this month, allowing him to breathe his first real sigh of relief in a season in which his job security was minimal. Through it all, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge stuck by Wafer, and he's responded lately by mixing tenacious (but still just serviceable) defense with occasional bursts of offense. His minutes have climbed to 7.8 per game and he's been a nice piece with Delonte West sidelined for all but five games this season. What we'd like to see: fewer 3s, more driving to the rim.
The three letters most commonly associated with rookies in Boston are DNP, and Harangody earned his fair share of those, sitting out a total of 19 games. Then Kevin Garnett went down on Dec. 29 and Harangody got a nine-game audition in which he proved he's got potential to be a role player on this team. The highlight of his season came against Toronto on Jan. 7, when Harangody connected on 8 of 11 shots while putting up career highs with 17 points and 11 rebounds over 27 minutes. His energy and intensity will keep him in the mix, especially if injuries linger.
Fair or not, we're grading Robinson based on expectations. And maybe it's because he thrived as a starter during Rondo's absences, but this professor simply can't understand why at least some of that success hasn't trickled down to his second-unit role. Yes, we understand he's playing out of position and it's clear he needs another ball handler on the court to be comfortable with the reserves. But a player who attacked the rim so frequently while with the Knicks (4.1 attempts per game in 2008-09) is now averaging a mere one shot per game there. His 3-point shot has been streaky (35.3 percent overall) and his defense has only prospered when he's shared the court with first-unit bodies. All that said, Robinson still has the potential to be a true X factor when West returns, allowing him to resume more of a 2-guard role.
Let's start with the good: When O'Neal returned from a two-month absence with lingering left knee soreness, he added a solid defensive-minded presence to a second unit that needed big bodies (particularly after Garnett went down). O'Neal is averaging 5.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks over 18.1 minutes per game in 17 appearances this season. The bad: His health has been a disaster. Limited by a hamstring in the preseason, O'Neal's knee has been of constant concern. After seeking a second opinion last week, the team announced O'Neal would be shut down for a month to rehab and strengthen the knee in hopes of getting him healthy enough to return for a late-season push. No one is holding his breath, especially with Perkins moving closer to a return.
Delonte West: If the Celtics make no move at the trade deadline in late February, the addition of West (who is pegged to return from a broken wrist next month) could provide the same sort of lift. After serving a 10-game suspension at the start of the season for off-the-court issues, West played a mere five games before fracturing his right wrist in November. He's missed 28 games since then, and a second unit that lacks a true ball handler has missed his combo-guard abilities. Based on his preseason exploits, West should bolster the second unit upon his return.
Avery Bradley: Despite Boston's need for a backup ball handler, Bradley's game remains so raw that the club, even with a lack of bodies to fill the 12-man active roster, optioned the 20-year-old guard to the Maine Red Claws of the Development League in hopes of getting him much-needed game reps. Bradley clearly has potential and the Celtics liked what they saw from his defensive game in limited time this season (14 appearances, 66 minutes), but he needs work to become the sort of combo guard they envisioned when they tabbed him with the 19th overall pick in June's draft. Right now he's more of a 2 than a 1, and yet he shot only 27.3 percent from the floor (6-of-22). Time with Maine should aid his confidence.
Kendrick Perkins: Perkins has not logged any game action yet this season, but he's worked his way back to full-contact practice work as he ramps up to rejoin the team as early as Feb. 4 against the Dallas Mavericks. The mere sight of Perkins running with the fellow starters was enough to buoy Boston's spirits last week. While Rivers suggests that expectations should be kept low as Perkins works his way back into game shape, the positive reviews out of practice are encouraging.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter