Last season: They went 39-27 and won the Atlantic Division, which was nice but in Boston division titles are not how a team is measured. They handled the Hawks as expected in the first round of the playoffs, then in the second round ran into a plucky but inexperienced Sixers team and Boston won in 7 games.
But what really happened through the course of the season and the first two rounds is Boston found its identity — Avery Bradley starting at the two, going small with Kevin Garnett at the five, Brandon Bass at the four and playing great defense. That identity was enough to give the Celtics a 3-2 series lead over the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. They had a real chance. Then Chris Bosh returned from injury, Miami won the final two and Boston’s season ended with a feeling this core wasn’t done.
Key Departures: Ray Allen, frustrated with being the sixth man behind Bradley and not thinking Rajon Rondo was looking out for him, signed for less money in Miami. Boston is also going to miss the size and solid play off the bench that Greg Stiemsma provided. The other guys that left — Marquis Daniels, Ryan Hollins, E’Twaun Moore, Mickael Pietrus and others — can be replaced.
Key Additions: They brought in one of the better sixth men in the league in Jason Terry, who will provide both points and shot creation off the bench. They signed Courtney Lee, who will start at the two for Boston until Bradley returns from shoulder surgery, and Lee will bring good defense and three-point shooting that goes well with their style.
While technically he was around Boston last year, it’s like they add Jeff Green after he missed a season due to heart surgery. Good to see him back. I think Boston overpaid for Green, but he is a solid player off the bench. They also drafted a guy who should be solid as a rookie in Jared Sullinger (but some Boston fans seem to overvalue what he did at Summer League — he is not near the quality of Brandon Bass right now). Chris Wilcox is there and that’s a nice pickup. Jason Collin is there and… well, he’s there.
Three keys to the Celtics season:
1) The old guys all stay healthy and don’t regress too much. Yes, it’s cliché to say Boston is old and, really, they are not as old as they seem. With Allen gone and the return of guys like Green and Lee, Boston is younger overall than they were last year. They certainly are a deeper squad.
But in the end, they need Kevin Garnett (age 36) and Paul Pierce (35 when the season starts) to still be elite players. And to stay healthy. While neither are really injury prone, as players get older injuries (and the length of time they need to recover from them) become more prevalent. Pierce played through a knee injury last playoffs and it slowed him (even if he refused to admit it). Doc Rivers gets it as a coach and he is willing to lose games and sit guys to have his team ready, rested and healthy when the playoffs start. But it is still a concern.
2) They have got to improve on offense. We know Boston is going to defend like beasts — Rajon Rondo is one of the best defensive point guards in the game, Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley give them good wing defenders, and even a step slower Kevin Garnett’s defense in the paint is still quality. Boston will be a top three defensive team. But they were 24th in points per possession on offense last season (98.9 points per 100 possessions, when the league average was 101.8). One way to do that is to improve on their league-worst offensive rebound rate (they grabbed just 19.7 percent of their missed shots, the league average is 26.9 percent). Offensive rebounds are often easy buckets on put backs. Even if Boston is going small next season, they need to get more of these easy buckets.
3) Get to the free throw line more. This ties into No. 2 above. Doc Rivers has talked about this during the summer — last season Boston was 22nd in percentage of trips to the free throw line per possession. That number needs to come up for a couple reasons. It’s not Rajon Rondo’s game, but he needs to be part of the change. First, it’s easy points, just hit your free throws (and Boston is a solid free throw shooting team). Second, it lets them set their defense. Miami had success in the playoffs running off missed shots or turnovers, converting those into some easy buckets. Boston doesn’t score enough to make up for a lot of easy buckets. They need to eliminate them, and getting to the line more — meaning more guys attacking the rim and not settling just for jump shots.
What one thing should scare Celtics fans? Boston fans have let me have it on twitter when I suggested this before, but that may be because it strikes a little too close to home — even if everything goes right Boston still doesn’t beat Miami if the Heat are healthy. Boston fans point to getting to Game 7 with a host of injuries last year and a deeper team this year. Both true. But Miami had their second and third best players injured, they still won the series. Then they got better this summer. There’s a reason Rivers wants his team to hate the Heat. In the end, all the smart moves by Danny Ainge may not be enough.
How it likely works out: Boston is going to be one of the league’s better teams. They are going to defend. Jason Terry is going to have a big year (I think). The newfound depth will allow Doc Rivers to wear opponents down without wearing his own roster down. They are going to finish the season as one of the top three teams in the East… but the regular season is not how teams in Boston are judged. And in the playoffs the Celtics will be the kind of veteran threat that should scare opponents. They are going to make a run.
But in the end, their season probably ends pretty much like it did last year.
Prediction: 51-31, which I’m betting is the two or three seed in the East (the Heat will be on top and I think the Pacers will finish close to Boston in record). Come the playoffs, if they are healthy, another run to the conference finals is within their grasp. And if the Heat stumble at all, the Celtics could be right there. But don’t bet on a new banner in Boston, this team still remains a step below the league’s elite.