While the NBA All-Star break remains a little less than a month away, the Boston Celtics will reach the true midpoint of their 2009-10 regular-season campaign Friday night when they host the Portland Trail Blazers at the TD Garden in Game No. 41 on their schedule.
As Boston makes the turn to the back nine, we take a player-by-player look at this year's team and assign letter grades based on their performances thus far.
If we were grading the Celtics as a whole, they'd probably deserve an "I," for inconsistent and incomplete. Boston has yet to play a single game with an entirely healthy roster. The closest it came was at the very start of the season when only Glen "Big Baby" Davis (right thumb surgery) was sidelined.
Since then, Paul Pierce (right knee infection), Kevin Garnett (hyperextended right knee), Rajon Rondo (sore left hamstring), Rasheed Wallace (sore left forefoot), Eddie House (illness) and Tony Allen
(illness) all have missed at least one game.
Kendrick Perkins battled food poisoning and missed a practice (and nearly a team flight). Davis returned after missing the first 27 games, only to suffer a sprained ankle that forced him out against Phoenix last month. And Marquis Daniels (left thumb) will remain sidelined through the All-Star break.
Despite all the ailments, the Celtics still boast the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at 27-13, a record that coach Doc Rivers gladly accepts.
"If someone told me before the season that, with all the injuries and all the distractions we've had, that this would be our record, I would have said, 'I'll take it,'" Rivers said. "Having said that, I don't like the way we're playing."
Losers of eight of their past 12 games, including the past three, Rivers called his team's play inconsistent, but expressed optimism that, when healthy, the Celtics belong among the NBA elite.
"I love our team," Rivers said. "I like who I think we can become once we get [healthy]."
Boston has a 21-5 mark with the starting five of Rondo, Perkins, Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen, the group that led the team to a world title in 2007-08. It's a combination that will be reunited if Garnett returns to the lineup, as anticipated, Friday night against the Trail Blazers.
Numbers suggest Garnett
is the key to Boston's success, something the team found out during last year's playoffs, and again during their recent skid. The players know that Garnett will not solve all their troubles, but the Big Ticket might be the biggest X factor in Boston's success in the second half of the season -- and beyond.
For now, here comes the red pen; it's time for midterm grades. Grades were assigned A-F, with no pluses or minuses. An "A" represented consistently exceptional work, while a "B" suggested slightly above-average performance. A "C" is a passing grade, but it typically identified that the player typically underperformed. A "D" might as well have stood for disappointment. Fortunately for the Celtics, no player was assigned a failing mark and, despite injuries, we did not grade anyone as incomplete, instead judging based on their limited body of work (or the team's performance without them).
Given some strong individual marks, it's hard to determine why this team is struggling so much in recent games. How can a team with the vaunted Big Three and a pair of grade-A players (Perkins and Rondo) struggle so mightily to put teams away? Part of the problem is injuries, the other part might simply be a lack of focus. Doc Rivers has admitted since Day 1 of the season that Boston's toughest opponent would be itself and finding a way to motivate through an 82-game season.
The Celtics must avoid injuries the second half of the year and regain their mental focus in order to emerge as a true championship contender.