Reeling Celtics looking for answers as postseason awaits

USA TODAY Sports

A rarely used lineup is now the last remaining hope for a Boston team that inspires everything but confidence.

BOSTON -- It says something about the Celtics that they can win barely half their games, finish in seventh place with two key players out for the season, including their All-Star point guard who damn near took them to the Finals last season, and still nobody is really counting them out despite all the evidence to the contrary. We've been through this all before, of course. We'll pronounce the Celtics dead when the coroner has performed the autopsy and not a moment before.

Even by Celtics standards this team is pushing the boundaries of unfounded optimism. They've been on autopilot since mid-March and coming into Wednesday's game with the Nets, their expected starting lineup in the playoffs had spent a grand total of 23 minutes together on the floor, per NBA.com. Nobody is really sure what to expect from the look of Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett.

That could be a hellaciously weird lineup with an obvious matchup advantage, or it could get bulldozed on the boards and overrun with backcourt pressure. No one really knows and what's more, no one's really all that worried about it. Que sera, sera and all that.

"I think I know what we're going to see," Doc Rivers said. "I like the ability to have that lineup and other lineups instead of just having the quote unquote small lineup with Jeff at the four. We want to have three lineups. Jeff at the two, Jeff at the three, Jeff at the four. Or if you want to call Paul the two, I don't care who you call the two. It gives us more versatility."

That's good because what they don't have -- and won't have -- is very much depth. Courtney Lee and Jason Terry are fine as the backup guards, although both could use a strong postseason to wipe out the sour taste of frustrating regular seasons. The backup bigs are the underwhelming tandem of Chris Wilcox and Shavlik Randolph. That won't strike fear in the hearts of their opponents, but then again they got away with playing Ryan Hollins and a hobbled Greg Stiemsma rotation minutes last year.

As we wind down the regular season, there are few signs that they will be the fire-breathing monsters of old in the postseason. Since beating the Pacers in early March on a last-second play that goes immediately into Doc's end-of-game curriculum vitae and following that up with an overtime win over the Hawks, the Celtics have gone 6-11.

They lost to the Bobcats and Hornets on the road and the Cavs at home. They were blown out twice by the Knicks -- their likely first round opponent -- and generally gave off the vibe of a team with better things to do than worry about things like playoff seeding.

Some of this was by design thanks to injuries and proscribed rest to their two remaining stars. Garnett is back after missing two weeks with what the team was calling an ankle inflammation and Pierce has also been in and out of the lineup. Without Garnett, the Celtics looked ominously like that post blow-up disaster scenario everyone around town knows is coming eventually.

On Wednesday, they had all their players and were outclassed by the Nets 101-93 in a game Pierce called "a step back." Deron Williams got Bradley into early foul trouble and then sliced and diced the reserves for 29 points and 12 assists. Brook Lopez had 21 points and Joe Johnson added 20 more. Pierce -- 23 points on 11 shots -- was the only Celtic with an offensive game, but he couldn't keep them in it by himself.

"You got to understand," Pierce said. "We've got to raise our intensity at this point of the season. We got to start prepping our mindset, our game plan and everything we do for the playoffs."

Garnett, meanwhile, preached patience.

"I think we're focusing on too much of the playoffs that's not here yet," he said. "I think we need to focus and lock in on these games that we have left and put the energy and effort behind that. I think we're stressing too much on the future, and the future's not here yet."

It's hard not to walk into the Celtics locker room these days and wonder if you made a wrong turn. Change is inevitable in the NBA, but there are exactly five players from last year's team still on the roster and one of them -- Rajon Rondo -- is out for the season. If you assume the Celtics will do the things they always do in the playoffs, it's also fair to ask if these are the same old Celtics.

The defense has mostly been on point, provided KG is on the floor, and their offense has been jumpshot heavy and anemic at times. On the surface not much has changed. But where there was a significant stretch of quality play down the stretch last season, the Celtics have been numbingly bad for most of the final month.

There have been a handful of bright spots among the malaise. Green, at times, has been the kind of dynamic player the Celtics were hoping he'd become when they signed him to that oft-mocked 4-year deal in the offseason. The much-maligned Brandon Bass has had his best stretch of the season, averaging 13 and 6 in his last 10 games and shooting 57 percent.

Will they show up for the playoffs? Again, no one really knows and that's what makes this Celtics team so tough to figure out. "This is a strange year for us," Rivers acknowledged. "We're still trying to work on things."

As long as Pierce and KG can still get up and down the floor they will always get the benefit of the doubt, but as they enter the postseason that's about the only thing the Celtics have going for them.

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