Win-Now Celtics Creak Toward the Postseason

The goal from the beginning of this season was to avoid what happened last year, when an underwhelming second half (caused in part by injuries) dropped the Celtics from the No. 1 seed in the East to No. 4. So what happened this season? An underwhelming second half (caused in part by injuries) could drop them from No. 1 in the East to No. 3.

After Sunday’s 100-77 loss to Miami, the Celtics are third in the Eastern Conference. They hold the tie breaker over , and would get the higher seed if the teams finish with the same record.

The similarities, however, end with the disappointing second halves. Last year’s 27-27 finish was a result of a franchise decision to rest the regulars in the hope that they would be fresher and healthier in the playoffs. The strategy paid off, as the Celtics steamrolled through the East and of winning their 18th title.

This year, the second-half slide has been the result of unanticipated injuries and the effects of a February trade. Over the summer, the Celtics loaded up on big men, signing and . But neither has been healthy.

Shaquille O’Neal has missed 43 games with four different injuries, all related to his right leg. Jermaine O’Neal has missed 57 games. Delonte West (57 games, including a 10-game suspension), (9 games) and Rajon Rondo (12 games) have also been out for significant stretches. Only the 35-year-old Ray Allen and the 33-year-old Paul Pierce have played in all 80 games.

Beyond the injuries, however, was the reconfiguring of the team at the February trade deadline. General Manager Danny Ainge traded the popular center Kendrick Perkins, an anchor of the Celtics’ tough defense, and the backup guard Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for center Nenad Krstic and forward Jeff Green. It caused a seismic reaction in Boston .

Ainge’s reasons for the deal were threefold: he felt he would be unable to re-sign Perkins, who was set to become a free agent; he needed to get a serviceable wing player like Green to play behind Pierce and Allen and be around for the future; and he thought that Shaquille O’Neal, who at the time of deal had been idle for three weeks with a right Achilles’ injury, would be back to fill Perkins’s role. After all, Ainge noted, the Celtics were 33-10 in the games Perkins missed while recovering from knee surgery and 27-9 (now 28-9) with O’Neal.

It sounded reasonable. But O’Neal, 39, has played 5 minutes 29 seconds since Feb. 1 and may not be available again until the playoffs. He returned April 3 after missing 27 games with a sore right Achilles’ tendon, but pulled up limping with what the team said was a strained right calf. He has not played since, and the Celtics are hoping he will be able to give them decent minutes in the playoffs.

“Hopefully we can gather some momentum and be healthy going into the playoffs,” Pierce said. “The signs are there: we are getting healthy each and every day. It’s just about building the chemistry now.”

Losing the hard-working Perkins was a blow to the team’s chemistry. Krstic, while a superior offensive player, does not provide the defensive presence that Perkins did, and Green has off the bench. The Celtics were 41-14 before the trade. They are 55-25 after Sunday’s loss to Miami.

“It’s been very tough because we’ve never been able to establish any kind of rhythm or flow this season,” Celtics Coach said. “Look, I’m thrilled to death with our record. We’ve had Kevin missing games, Shaq and J. O. missing games — and then all the new guys? It’s just been a lot of stuff. It’s been exhausting. It’s been challenging. The good news for me and for our guys is that we have never taken our eyes off of what our goals are. We’ve used this as, we’ve got to get through it. And we have.”

Not yet, they haven’t. “Getting through it” means nothing less than winning the championship in June. The current Celtics team was constructed to make one more championship push, which involved re-signing Allen (a free agent) and Pierce (who had opted out of his contract) as well as bringing in the two big men Rivers calls “the O’Neal brothers.” There was no ambiguity as to the Celtics’ goal, especially with a lockout looming and Rivers in the final year of his contract.

The wild card remains Shaquille O’Neal. Rivers has said he thinks the team can survive with “one of the O’Neal brothers,” but the clear organizational preference is for it to be Shaq. Even in that titillating, five-and-a-half-minute stretch against Detroit, he had everyone energized.

But it is not known when he will be back or how effective he can be when he returns. That will make the weeks ahead intriguing — and demanding.

“I think the season should be hard,” Rivers said. “I really believe that. And maybe this helps me as a coach. Going into it believing you are trying to win it, that there are going to be obstacles, that’s hard. You just have to deal with it.”

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