Even though the Celtics have lost seven of their last 11 games, there wasn't quite as much panic in the mailbag this week as I expected. Fans seem genuinely hopeful that the return of Kevin Garnett will help fix what's ailed the Green.
But that doesn't mean readers don't think this team has problems, and ones that run deeper than just the absence of the Big Ticket.
That's where we start this week's mailbag, with the return of Garnett. Click on a link below to hop to a specific section.
That's the Ticket
Q: What's the deal with the defense? Obviously losing Garnett hurts, but the Celtics shouldn't be struggling this much on D. -- James (Boston)
A: James, you echoed the sentiments of a lot of people who wondered -- even with Garnett's impending return -- whether this team is truly a championship contender given its struggles recently. For a team that's prided itself on defense, it's been a sore spot, particularly in losing three straight games at home. Garnett talked a lot about accountability on defense and will certainly demand more of his teammates.
Let's go to this week's video answer as coach Doc Rivers and captain Paul Piece talk about the boost KG's return will provide, and what the team needs to do to tighten up the defense:
Q: Not really a question, but this stretch is just another example of how much this team needs KG to win. He has to be healthy or there's no way they're a title team. -- Gerry (Pomfret, Conn.)
A: True, but didn't we learn that last year? Maybe his recent absence just cemented that. That said, I think the Celtics need all their parts to make a true championship run. I think we've also seen just how much they miss a guy like Marquis Daniels, who fuels the second unit just as much as KG might fuel the first.
Q: If KG is picked as a starter in the All-Star Game, do you think he'll play, or sit out and rest? -- Henry (Holliston, Mass.)
A: Great question. As we watch Patriots players like Randy Moss and Tom Brady back out of the Pro Bowl because of injuries incurred during the season, I think that's a question a lot of fans would ask. The difference here is that Garnett really stands no tremendous chance of aggravating his injury by participating in the All-Star Game. My guess is that he will attend and I think he'll spend limited minutes on the court and -- while it seems impossible for him at times -- maybe he'll tone down the intensity just enough to ensure he doesn't tweak anything. All-Star Games are glorified pickup games where offense shines, so maybe KG knocks down a couple of 19-footers and calls it a night.
Picking on the bench
Q: Why doesn't Shelden Williams get more playing time? -- Nick (Auburn, Mass.)
A: First off, a question from my hometown will always get answered. So if you're eager to make the mailbag, just lie and put Auburn as your location. Go Dandies! As for Williams, I believe it's simply a lack of confidence from both player and coach right now. Williams got off to a great start here, but let's call it a bit of a honeymoon period, since players typically excel from that initial adrenaline boost of playing for a new team. Williams has struggled as of late and just doesn't look real confident in his game at times, which I think, in turn, is causing Rivers some hesitation in keeping him on the court. I think it's particularly condemning that, as the Celtics battle all these injuries, particularly to bigs like Glen Davis, Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett, that Williams endured three "did not plays" in late December and has averaged just 9.1 minutes per game in January.
Q: What value does playing Brian Scalabrine bring to the Celtics? His 3-point percentage is 29.7 percent and his free throws are at 66.7 percent. He is consistently the slowest person on the court and it seems like opposing players are licking their chops every time Scal gets matched up on them. Is there something I am missing? -- Greg (Paducah, Ky.)
A: Sure, Scalabrine's probably not going to end up on your fantasy team given his career averages of 3.4 points and 2.2 rebounds per game, but he certainly has value. More than anything, I think Scalabrine understands his role on this team -- that one day he might log a DNP (versus Toronto on Jan. 10) and the next game he's in the starting lineup (versus Atlanta on Jan. 11) playing 21 minutes and scoring nine points on a trio of first-half 3-pointers. Few guys can do that and, more importantly, accept that. Scalabrine can help you spread the floor offensively and his attitude is exactly what you need from the 10th or 11th guy on your roster. What's more, he's got a reasonable salary ($3.4 million) and an expiring contract, which makes him a potential trade chip should the Celtics need to make a move before the deadline.
Q: I know his season was derailed early by injury, but I was expecting much more from Glen Davis. Any chance he could be trade bait?
A: As I stressed in last week's mailbag, patience is the key. Davis probably jumped back into the fray sooner than he'd like given the injuries to the rest of the roster and, while I'm not sure what expectations were, he's averaging 7.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in January, which trumps his season averages from last season (when he started 16 games in place of Garnett). As that fractured right thumb heals, expect Davis to be even more of a contributor to that frontcourt, with him and Wallace a fine one-two punch when Garnett and Kendrick Perkins are on the bench.
Charity stripe? Hardly
Q: Is it just me, or do you think that free throws are becoming a problem for the C's? I mean two of our starting five are shooting 60 percent or less from the stripe (Rondo and Perkins). Here's our free-throw percentage from the last three games: New Jersey, 63.3; Chicago, 53.6; Dallas, 50. Time to add more free throw practice to the agenda, maybe? -- Jesse (Boone, N.C.)
A: Like most teams, the Celtics close out every practice session with free throw work and certainly put a hefty focus on that area. But, as you stated, there's certainly reason to be concerned. Maybe it was tired legs, but free throw woes prevented the Celtics from keeping close with the Bulls and certainly didn't help them stretch out an early lead against Dallas. When you're nursing injuries, every point matters.
But consider this: The Celtics are 19th in the NBA at 74.3 percent from the charity stripe. Three-win New Jersey is fifth at 78.3 percent. What's more, the "elite" contenders like Cleveland (21st, 74.2), San Antonio (26th, 73.4), and Orlando (30th, 71.2) are worse off than Boston. Even still, you do have to be concerned when the Celtics are 11th in the league in free throws attempted (25.5 per game), but only 15th in free throws made (18.9 per game).
Q: Do you think there's anything the C's can do to help Rondo with his free-throw issues? -- Bill (Ware, Mass.)
A: It's a concern because Rondo excels at driving to the basket. When he's fearless like that, he's going to end up at the charity stripe pretty often. Rondo was really coming on strong spanning into the new year as he made 17 of 20 over a three-game stretch from Dec. 28 to Jan. 2 after missing two last-second free throws Dec. 27 against the Clippers. But maybe it's the fact that he has been at the line just 19 times since Jan. 2 (over six games) that's chipping at his confidence. The best medicine for Rondo is to simply get to the line and gain some more confidence there. It's worth noting, too, that his field goal percentage is up this month (55.2 percent) and that's an encouraging sign that he's gaining confidence in his jump shot.
A long-winded writer tries to give short answers (and struggles)...
Q: When the Celtics return all of their starters from injury, will they be the extremely elite team they appeared to be over the past few years? -- Dustin (Tallahassee, Fla.)
A: Judging by the success they enjoyed at the start of the season, I'll say yes. But it's going to take time to redevelop that consistency and continuity after all the games missed due to injuries. Don't expect this team to peak until late in the season ... if it can stay healthy.
Q: Do you think the Celtics' injuries will help in the long run? Players like Pierce, Allen, 'Sheed and KG are getting old now and any rest they get midseason would surely improve their ability in any playoff stretch. -- James (Cardiff, Wales, U.K.)
A: A question from across the pond! This sort of question was posed to Rivers a short time ago with the idea that the extra playing time would also benefit the younger players. Asked, therefore, if there was any value in injuries, here's what Rivers had to say:
"No, none -- no benefit to it at all. As far as I know, when the playoffs start, those nine guys will be on the floor 99.9 percent of the time. I don't think it's ever a bad thing when other guys play, maybe I'll answer it that way, it's good for them. So in that way, it's never bad that they get work. Just like Rondo and Kevin and Paul, they've been working hard in practice."
Is Rondo finally going to make an All-Star team this year? He still has some ups and downs, but he deserves to go. -- LJ (Yarmouth, Mass.)
A: Opposing coaches rave about Rondo and I really think he makes the team as a reserve. He's elevated his scoring numbers dramatically over the past month-plus (averaging 16.7 points per game in January) and remains the catalyst for this offense (and even the defense with his NBA-best 2.47 steals per game).
Q: I'd like to know why it is that the Celtics, at least seemingly more than any other organization, allow their players to sit out games when hurt? Why are they never at the games, even in a suit? I was happy to see 'Sheed suited up the other night. It was a refreshing sight. And though it may seem trivial, I wonder if Garnett even just being there might help the guys get motivated at all. -- Joshua (Deerfield, Mass.)
A: Joshua, injured players almost always attend the games, even if it's just to receive treatment and be in the locker room. In fact, some guys will hit the treadmill or exercise bike in the back for conditioning while they watch the game from behind the scenes. The other thing to keep in mind is that, in the case of Kevin Garnett, he's so intense that just sitting on the sideline can be difficult for him to endure. Remember last season, he didn't come to the bench until the postseason. There's certainly something to be said for the lift a guy can provide his teammates, but, especially during the regular season, it's probably better -- and certainly safer -- to keep the injured guys out back. They can provide that same boost with words of encouragement from the locker room.
Q: I was hoping you might be able to give me some assistance. I was at Game 6 of the 2008 Finals and was the one holding the large replica banner over the balcony as the night came to a close. Well, I made that banner on my kitchen floor the night before and am still holding onto it for sentimental value. I wanted to get as many autographs from that team on it as possible but never know when or where an autograph session would occur. I've been to a few signings but they would not let me bring it in for them to sign. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. -- Steve (Salem, Mass.)
A: Based solely on seeing others getting autographs at times before games, I would suggest trying to post up near the tunnels by each team's bench before a game. Celtics players often sign autographs as they come on and off the court for warm-ups. Be forewarned, it can get crowded as the building fills up and players don't always have time to stop and sign.