The Boston Celtics were flat-out embarrassed Tuesday night against the New York Knicks. It happens, but that doesn't excuse the rather putrid effort put forth at both ends of the floor in a 114-88 loss that wasn't nearly as close as the score suggests.
There are 35 games left on Boston's schedule for the 2013-14 season. As coach Brad Stevens admitted last week, it's "pretty ridiculous" that the Celtics (15-32) remain only 4 ½ games out of a playoff spot at this point of the season, but it speaks to how impossibly bad the Eastern Conference has been, even if teams like Brooklyn and New York are finally making some strides toward being the teams we expected.
The Celtics return home Wednesday to host the Philadelphia 76ers in a matchup of two of the four worst teams in the NBA. A loss for Boston, which has dropped three straight and 15 of 17, would give it the third-worst record in the league (with the second-worst team, Orlando, next up on Sunday). Those with an interest in Boston generating the best draft pick possible are perfectly content with the team struggling as much as it has lately.
But don't call this tanking. The Celtics are not willfully trying to lose games, they're simply playing poor basketball. Which is why, sooner than later, Stevens and his staff will sit down (and they probably have already) to outline a plan for the final three months of the season.
The impending trade deadline makes crafting a blueprint for the rest of the season a bit more difficult because of the potential for additional moves before Feb. 20. But, speaking generally, the Celtics need to step back and figure out what benefits the team most while building toward future seasons. For the sake of this exercise, let's assume the roster stays largely intact, whether by design or simply an inability to find other deals that help Boston down the road.
Some things this armchair coach would consider:
NURTURE RONDO'S REHAB: The Celtics seemed to be toying with the idea of allowing Rajon Rondo to participate in the second night of a back-to-back on Wednesday against Philadelphia, though Stevens backed off that a bit after Tuesday's game. That's probably for the best. Rondo logged a fairly active evening (27 minutes) and that's coming off a season-high 30 minutes on Sunday. The Celtics have exercised extreme caution throughout Rondo's rehab, and there seems to be little benefit to hitting the accelerator now, though a three-day break after Wednesday's game could tempt the team to consider a restricted-minutes stint against the 76ers. Rondo is moving better the past two games, but he's still acclimating to a new-look roster (hands up when Rondo has the ball, guys) and finding the touch on his shots (Rondo is shooting only 27.9 percent through six appearances). The Celtics don't need Rondo to be Game 7 Rondo at any point this season, but the hope is he can use these game situations to shake rust and slowly return to form.
YOUTH MOVEMENT: One of the Celtics' justifications for trading away Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks was to open up additional playing time for undrafted rookie Phil Pressey, who has emerged as a sure-handed backup point guard who is taking full advantage of an uptick in minutes. With Boston naturally enduring struggles this season, there will come a time (post trade deadline?) when it should ponder if the team is better giving increased minutes/roles to rookie big men Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani. Eventually, does it make more sense for Olynyk to be a starting big alongside second-year big man Jared Sullinger, if Olynyk is more likely to be a fixture of the future than, say, Brandon Bass? Of course, Olynyk needs to be more aggressive himself and not pass up open looks. Stevens noted after Tuesday's loss how well Chris Johnson, now on his second 10-day contract, is playing. The Celtics certainly would benefit from trying to develop Johnson if he's a guy they desire to keep on the roster the rest of the season (and beyond) even if it comes at the expense of minutes from a veteran player.
GET HEALTHY: Stevens noted last week that injuries haven't helped the Celtics' cause lately. Avery Bradley's void is obvious because he's one of the few willing to fire away; fill-in Gerald Wallace has been one of the more reluctant shooters on the team this season. When Rondo is healthy and Bradley is back, there's a much different look and feel to Boston's backcourt. Jerryd Bayless's return on Tuesday should help bring some consistency to bench rotations.
BUYING INTO THE SYSTEM: Losing games isn't the end of the world when you're lottery bound, but Stevens needs to lean on the guys who are willing to buy into his defense-first system, players who understand the defensive DNA he's trying to inject and establish as the foundation of how this team will play. The Celtics' defense looked lost and completely disjointed on Tuesday. Even when it has struggled this season, Boston has managed to hang around games in large part because of its defense and Stevens needs to steer his team back on track on that end. The Celtics showed the potential to be a top-10 defense earlier this season and players who will be around into the future need to invest themselves in making defense the trademark of this young team.
Here's the good news for Stevens: There are only eight games remaining until the trade deadline, when the roster for the remainder of the season will become a bit more certain. There's also potential for this team to be in a better place health-wise by that point (Rondo with more time to shake rust; Bradley working his way back). The important part for fans to keep in mind throughout this season is, when watching these games, ask yourself, "Did the team make progress? Did it build toward the future?"
Tuesday night was a resounding, "No," but there have been very few nights when the team has made virtually no tangible progress. You can make the case that there are positives you can pluck from the Knicks' loss, including more floor time for Rondo and Johnson's quality effort; even the loss isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Ultimately, it comes down to effort. All fans want to see is a team competing hard and trying to do all the right things while trying to achieve progress. That didn't happen Tuesday; Wednesday's a new game.