Wednesday's 82-75 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 of their second-round 2012 NBA Playoffs series dropped the Boston Celtics to 3-10 in their first attempt to close out a playoff series in the Paul Pierce/Ray Allen/Kevin Garnett era. That number will undoubtedly be referenced a lot over the next few days as evidence suggesting the Celtics' biggest problem is their lack of focus in putting teams away; that the only reason the Celtics aren't already waiting for the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals is they are bored with the upstart 76ers.
Don't listen to that. There's a far more fundamental problem for the Celtics: they just aren't that good right now.
Boston is now 7-5 in the playoffs following the Game 6 loss, and that's against two relatively mediocre teams (by playoff standards at least) in the Atlanta Hawks and 76ers. They've dominated from start to finish in just two of those games (Game 4 against the Hawks, Game 3 against the 76ers). Take away those two games, and the Celtics have outscored their opponents by a total of six points in this postseason. If Al Horford returns three games sooner from injury, the Celtics may not even be here right now.
At this point, it's also probably going to get worse before it gets better. Avery Bradley, the young shooting guard that has turned into such a tenacious defender and efficient offensive player, probably won't return for the rest of the playoffs. Allen, though technically in uniform, has basically been rendered useless because of injury. Pierce continues to play as well as he can through knee pain, but he's still playing hurt. However far the Celtics advance, these are realities they must face.
Those are just the starters, too. Once the Celtics get deeper into their bench, it gets uglier. With Bradley now sidelined, Allen is forced to start again, which means the Celtics' top bench guy is ... who, exactly? Greg Stiemsma? Keyon Dooling? Mickael Pietrus? Ryan Hollins? At one point, late in the fourth quarter, coach Doc Rivers even called on Marquis Daniels, who had played a total of seven minutes in the series, to come in for a foul-prone Allen. As you probably guessed, the fourth-quarter lineup of Rajon Rondo, Daniels, Pietrus, Pierce and Garnett has played exactly zero minutes together this season.
As long as the Celtics have Rondo, Garnett, Pierce, their experience and that defense, they should beat the 76ers in Game 7. Alone, they're good enough. But going forward, the Celtics' core pieces will be weighed down by their poor teammates even more than they already have.
Game 6 against the 76ers was a scary indicator of what could happen to the Celtics in the next round, assuming they make it there. The 76ers sent hard traps at Pierce every time he caught the ball and threw in soft traps on Rondo instead of just sagging off him to let him shoot. This has been their strategy all series, and it paid off beautifully in Game 6. Rondo converted just one field goal in a normal half-court situation and had just six assists because his teammates couldn't hit open shots. Pierce, meanwhile, has averaged just 11 shots a game in the series. When he's scored, it's been at the free-throw line, not from the field.
Even in good times, the Celtics' offense isn't very good, but the 76ers' strategy is working in part because of the limitations of the roster. Without Bradley running the baseline, the 76ers' help defenders can zone up more easily. With Allen so limited, the 76ers are playing him soft coming off screens instead of sending extra attention his way like teams normally do. The 76ers have allowed Garnett and Brandon Bass to pop open for jumpers, but while both players are proficient from that range, they can't carry an offense by themselves.
All this is only going to get worse if the Celtics face the Heat. Even moreso than Philadelphia, Miami's default defensive strategy is to aggressively trap the ball and zone up on the guys who don't have it. In a late-season matchup in the regular season, the Celtics counteracted that by having Bradley cut along the baseline, but Bradley isn't playing anymore. Without Bradley, the Celtics are going to have a hard time making Miami pay for its defensive aggression. The Celtics may survive the 76ers by playing so many non-threats alongside their stars, but the task just gets even tougher against the Heat, even if Chris Bosh is sidelined.
The Celtics still have their stars and they still have their history, but in their current state, little of that matters. They aren't tied with the eighth-seeded 76ers because they're bored. They're tied with the eighth-seeded 76ers because they aren't that much better than them.
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