Commentary

Celtics: What to watch in 2nd half

Health of big men, West figure to be important storylines in Boston

Updated: January 24, 2011, 9:16 AM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPNBoston.com

Five things to watch for in the second half of the 2010-11 season for the Boston Celtics. One thing not to watch: a rerun of the Saturday night debacle in Washington, D.C.

1. The return of Kendrick Perkins

Seldom has there been so much anticipation and out-and-out fuss over the return of a career 6.4 points-per-game scorer who doesn't make his free throws and has an uncanny ability to draw offensive fouls 20 feet from the basket.

But we all know how truly valuable Perk can be on this team with his defensive presence, shot-blocking ability and the occasional double-figure rebound game. He and Kevin Garnett form an excellent one-two punch anchoring the Celtics' defense, and the team legitimately feels that the only way it will raise another flag is if the defense returns to somewhere near the heady level of 2007-08. Perk helps in that area.

The one caveat in all this is that while Perkins may be medically cleared to play, that doesn't necessarily mean we will see the old, snarling, physical presence. Celtics team physician Brian McKeon cautioned that it takes a player 18 months to really get over an injury like Perkins had. He will be six-plus months out from the surgery when he does return, so realism will have to trump expectations for a while.

As long as the other bigs (see No. 2 below) can remain ambulatory, there won't be a need to throw Perkins out there for extended periods of time. He averaged only 25 minutes a game in the playoffs last season, for instance.

1A. The return of Delonte West

It looked like one of the summer's best pickups when the Celtics got West for the NBA equivalent of very short money. And it still could be. West is coming along nicely following surgery for his broken right wrist and should be back in the rotation at some point after the All-Star break. That gives him plenty of time to reacquaint himself with the Celtics Way, which he knows anyway, having been here before.

He can be a huge help in the backcourt, playing either position, guarding opposing shooting guards while also running the offense for Rajon Rondo. He also can be his own worst enemy with his frenetic style of play. He has to understand he is not Rodney Harrison, even if he plays like Rodney Harrison. The Celtics need him to be healthy when the real season starts.

2. Whither the O'Neal brothers?

Shaquille O'Neal likes to use the number 1825 when referring to this season. That is not the number of games that Jermaine O'Neal has missed. It just seems that way. The "18" is for the Celtics' 18th title, the "2" is for a second title for the new Big Three (along with Glen Davis, Rondo and Perkins) and the "5" is a fifth title for the Big Guy himself. But how likely is that to happen if neither O'Neal can be counted on down the stretch and into the playoffs? Not very.

[+] EnlargeO'Neal
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaShaquille O'Neal has been a big contributor for the Celtics, but how much will he be on the floor?

There's no indication that either Shaq or JO won't be available for the postseason. But what kind of shape will they be in? Shaq has already missed 10 games, but he has gone above and beyond when he has been healthy. And this latest ailment doesn't appear to be too severe.

As for JO, well, this cannot be a surprise to anyone. Maybe shutting him down for a while will be the answer; for the Celtics, it's the only viable strategy. Jermaine can be very helpful when he's able to go, as we've seen. As we've also seen, those days are not that many and there is always a question as to whether he can go at all.

Maybe that's why we've heard all the talk of a possible Rasheed Wallace return. Danny Ainge seemed to nix that possibility a while back, but that was before Shaq got hurt again and JO's knee acted up again. Ainge may want to revisit that option.

3. The Lakers! The Lakers!

Back in the palmy days of the 1980s, the Celtics and Lakers watched each other during the regular season with professorial scrutiny. That's because they automatically figured they'd meet in the Finals and wanted to be up to speed on their opponent. If the Lakers added a player, the Celtics tried to match. And vice versa.

The Lakers are one of four Western Conference teams the Celtics have yet to play, but the only one that really matters (unless you're like me and you can't wait to see Blake Griffin in the flesh). That situation will end next Sunday, when the teams meet at the Staples Center for an afternoon affair. The Lakers then visit the TD Garden on Feb. 10.

Here's something to bear in mind as the season progresses: The Lakers have not played a playoff series in the Western Conference in the past three seasons without having the home-court advantage, which may help explain why they've reached the NBA Finals the past three years. In fact, of the 12 series they have played in the past three postseasons, the only one they didn't have home-court advantage for was the 2007-08 Finals against the Celtics. And we all know what happened there.

The Lakers lucked out in 2009 when Cleveland lost in the playoffs; the Cavs had a better regular-season record. They lucked out last year when Cleveland and Orlando lost in the playoffs; both had better regular-season records. The Lakers may not get out of the West this time, with the Spurs playing the way they're playing. But would you bet against them?

The Celtics learned firsthand the value of home court in the playoffs last season, especially in a 2-3-2 format. If they're lucky enough to get that far, they want to make sure the first two games are in Boston.

4. Eastern Conference threats

The Celtics are going to the playoffs. The Celtics are going to win the Atlantic Division. So we have to look for marquee matchups where they are, when the final 39 games will be all about playoff positioning and staying healthy. There are three legit Eastern Conference threats to the Celtics: Chicago, Orlando and Miami. (Sorry, but I just can't put Atlanta in that same category. No rational reason other than they have Josh Smith.)

The Celtics start this week with a three-game lead in the loss column over the Heat, four over the Bulls and five over the Magic. The Celtics have a total of four games left with the aforementioned trio -- and here are the important dates for tiebreaker/home-court purposes. All they need to do is beat each of these three contenders one more time -- and in two cases, they play that opponent at home -- to win the season series against all three.

[+] EnlargeBoozer
AP Photo/Paul BeatyCould Carlos Boozer and the Bulls end up being the Celtics' biggest threat in the East?

Feb. 6 vs. Orlando -- The Celtics would win the season series 2-1 with a victory on Super Bowl Sunday. The Magic are one of four Eastern Conference teams that the Celtics play only three times and, fortunately for Boston, two of the games are at TD Garden. (They've already won the season series with Atlanta, who they also play only three times, with victories on Nov. 22 and Dec. 16.)

Feb. 13 vs. Miami -- If the Celtics win this game, they will be 3-0 against the Heat and will have won the regular-season series. If they lose, they still have a shot in the last meeting of the season, April 10 in Miami.

March 7 at Chicago -- Could the Bulls be the real threat in the East? Jeff Van Gundy doesn't think so, not when everyone is dealing with a full deck. But the Bulls are right there and they've kept it going despite losing Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer for significant stretches. If they ever were to get a shooting guard who is an actual threat, they might be the one to watch. Still, this looms as a big game in that Boston holds a 2-1 advantage over the Bulls. But to make it 3-1, the Celtics would need to play a lot better this time than they did when the Bulls slapped them around in Chicago on Jan. 8.

March 31 at San Antonio -- OK, this is not a conference game. But it could loom large if the Spurs and Celtics finish with the same record and both win their respective conferences. The Celtics have won their past four games in San Antonio after going 14 straight seasons without a win in the Alamo city.

5. Ray Allen

The sweet-shooting veteran guard needs to make only 24 more 3-pointers to pass Reggie Miller for the NBA record for career 3-pointers. The way Allen is shooting, that is a foregone conclusion.

But here's what's hard to understand: Why can't Allen get off even more shots? He's shooting a career best in both 2-point and 3-point percentage. Yet there seem to be too many games in which his teammates forget he's out there. How could he play 39 minutes against Charlotte and get only seven shots? He had only eight in 37 minutes against Detroit; both of those were close games.

Another Allen factoid: When he scores big, the Celtics win. Boston is 12-0 when Allen scores 20 or more. (Curiously, when he scores 19, the Celtics are 2-3.) But here's another number that is even more critical: 43. That's the number of games the Celtics have played and that's the number of games Allen has played. Neither he nor Paul Pierce has missed a game this season. Think Doc Rivers would like to see that trend continue over the second half?

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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