After another abysmal fourth quarter collapse and ensuing loss to an inferior team last night against the Charlotte Bobcats, the ailing Celtics continue to show a lack of enthusiasm, hustle, and team chemistry as they draw closer to the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference standings. Like the second half of last season, they have dropped numerous close games to teams they should have stomped out. However, unlike last season, they have been dropping fourth quarter leads, and appear to be completely out of sync on offense, consistently failing to make the extra pass, and making careless passes when they do.
With all of this sloppy play and a troop of newcomer Celtics off the bench, the question of whether or not they will be able to “turn it on” in the playoffs like they did last year sticks out like Rondo’s sore pinky. With Perkins gone, and Boston’s paint presence currently looking weaker than ever since the acquisition of Kevin Garnett, Boston’s success in the playoffs is riding heavily upon a 39 year old Shaquille O’Neal.
Once Shaq returns to the lineup, this team will immediately improve. Earlier this season, before Perk had fully recovered from his injury, Shaq was playing phenomenal within the Celtics’ system, and his rejuvenated play was a big part of why Boston was able to jump out to first place in the Eastern Conference for majority of the season.
In the playoffs, you can expect similar things from Shaq, as he will likely bring the same energy and desire to win that he showed in the first couple months of this season. However, by playing like the Shaq of ten years ago, hustling on help defense and diving for loose balls, O’Neal’s health is a major concern.
While he has showed his commitment to winning, and impressed everyone in Boston with his inspired play, a lot of things will need to go right for Shaq to remain healthy throughout the postseason. Doc will need to rest him at any appropriate opportunity or large lead to avoid re-aggravating Shaq’s hip injury, yet the C’s will need him on the court in crunch time to stop tough big men such as Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, and Andrew Bynum.
If Shaq can play, and do so without getting hurt, the team chemistry will start to come together again. Not only will all five of Boston’s all-star starters be back together like the beginning of this season, but the second unit will also become a scoring threat, especially if Von Wafer returns in time for the postseason. With West or Arroyo running the point, Wafer and Green on the wings, and Big Baby Davis down low with Krstic, Boston’s bench may not be quite as explosive as it was before the Perkins trade, but it will be able to effectively battle other second units around the league.
Shaq is supposed to return within the next week or so, and hopefully the Celtics can avoid falling further down the rankings as they finish off the last eleven games of the regular season. Come playoff time, the Celtics will need to hit the switch like they did one year ago, and the Big Five will need to come together like they did earlier this season. With the uninspired play the Celtics have shown over their last couple games, they will desperately need Shaq to be the difference maker this year.