Celtics Mailbag: Optimism sneaking in

Celtics coach Doc Rivers emerged for his chat with the media before Wednesday's game against the Denver Nuggets, took his place in the middle of the reporters scrum outside the Boston locker room, then scanned the faces in front of him with a growing smile as he waited for the first question.

"Am I supposed to open up again?" he joked when no question immediately came.

His team as healthy as it has been this season and starting to play its most inspired ball since December, us reporters simply didn't have much to quiz Rivers on.

"You guys are awful quiet," Rivers later added. "Is it spring break for you guys? This is great, let's stay on this break for a while."

When things are going well, there're simply not as many questions. Which sort of embodies this week's Celtics Mailbag. While an influx of questions came after the Utah loss on Monday, it's been a mighty quiet week with Boston winning five of its last six overall. And there's even a bit of optimism, which has been missing since December.

But not everyone was happy...

Q: I'm sorry, but I'm just not buying any of this stuff about the Celtics getting things turned around. They're still old, inconsistent, and just not good enough to beat the best in the East. -- Larry (Hadley, Mass.)

A: To be fair to Larry, his e-mail came in after the Utah loss, so you can understand someone being somewhat skeptical after Boston fumbled away a 12-point first-half lead. But we're guessing Larry hopped back on the bandwagon after Wednesday's solid triumph over the Nuggets (even if that had its scary moments as a 21-point lead whittled down to seven in the third frame). While losses to Utah and Cleveland were frustrating, Boston is 10-4 in the month of March, and seems to be building momentum. Ironically, this question arrived less than two minutes after Larry's...

Q: Obviously they lost [to Utah], but I'm definitely feeling better about this team than I was two weeks ago. Is that just blind faith or do you think there's reason to be optimistic? -- James (Cape Cod, Mass.)

A: James, here, in no particular order, are three reasons why I'm as optimistic as ever about this team:

1) Paul Pierce is playing like Paul Pierce. The captain himself pointed to the last Denver matchup, when his sprained right thumb clearly hindered him during a dreadful performance, in assessing his progress over the past month. Finally healthy after sitting out a trio of games after the Denver visit, Pierce has been phenomenal in March, averaging 24.4 points per game over his last five outings and recently earning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. This is exactly the player the Celtics need leading their offense in the postseason.

2) Home-court dominance. Not only do the Celtics have a bit of their swagger back, but they're in the process of making the TD Garden an unfriendly venue for opponents to visit. Sure, the damage has been done, and even Rajon Rondo suggested after Wednesday's game that it might be too late to exorcise
those demons before the postseason, but after a two-month vacation, Gino's been a JumboTron staple over four straight convincing victories.

3) Know your role. For the past two weeks, Rivers has been stressing to anyone who will listen that everyone seems to conveniently forget that this team was 23-5 before the injuries really started. His contention is that the Celtics are finally back to being the team that dominated the first two months of the season and sat atop the ESPN.com NBA power rankings in December. It's easy to see guys are more comfortable with their roles now, particularly as Nate Robinson and Michael Finely get more action. And if guys aren't getting comfortable, there are others like Tony Allen and Shelden Williams ready to burst off the bench and steal their minutes.

Q: I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Wait, there's someone there! It's Paul Pierce, the savior of the Celtics, the one who carries the hopes of another ring on his shoulders! I think it's time to rejoice again for the Celtics, but do you think they can still dispatch world-champion competition? Can you see a win against the Cavs now on Easter? -- Roberto (NYC)

A: Roberto's a regular in the mailbag and we're starting to think we should have charted his optimism level this season. He's been all over the map (another question he submitted this week read: "I can safely say that I've gotten off the ledge, bookmarked the ESPN Celtics page again, can watch analysts talk about Boston without muting the TV, and can tune in to Boston playing in the fourth quarter."). We love the enthusiasm (though, don't you dare unbookmark us again, Roberto), and I think it's safe for you to stay away from the Tobin for a bit. One of the best aspects about the Celtics' recent play has been consistency, particularly from the starters. That absolutely has to continue or fans like Roberto will lose faith again quickly.

Q: I know these things tend to be all doom and gloom lately, but I'm actually encouraged by what I'm seeing. Do you think the Celtics can sustain this and actually make a run in the playoffs (which I wouldn't have thought they could two weeks ago)? -- JT (Dedham, Mass.)

A: Sometimes it has felt like the Celtics were the banana boat of NBA teams. Up and down, up and down -- fans desperately trying to hold on as the bandwagon hit every wave in sight. Having endured the choppiest of seas, I think that will aid them in the postseason waters. But I remain steadfast that this team's success in the second season will rest largely on the path it encounters. Earning the No. 3 seed and maybe catching a bit of a break in the first round (avoiding Milwaukee and landing a team like Charlotte), then not getting the juggernaut Cavaliers in the second round could do wonders for this team (especially since I think the Celtics, when healthy, match up especially well with the Magic). Speaking of playoff seedings...

Q: If the Celtics and Atlanta finish with identical records, do the C's get the higher seed because they're a division winner? -- Dan (Jacksonville, Fla.)

A: After a quick glance at the NBA playoff tie-breaker procedures, we were under the impression that the first tie-breaker between two of the top four teams in either conference would be broken by head-to-head record, which would have given the Hawks the nod after sweeping the four-game regular season series. As we blogged Wednesday, it turns out it doesn't even get to the tie-breaker, as a division winner automatically trumps a second-place finisher in another division. So if the Celtics and Hawks finished the season with matching records, the Celtics will get both the higher seed (likely No. 3) and home-court advantage should the teams meet (in the Eastern Conference Finals). If I'm the Hawks, I'm absolutely livid. Even Rivers admitted after Wednesday's win that 1) he didn't know the rule until recently and 2) it's one that probably won't survive much past this year.

"That was the rule before the season," said Rivers. "Honestly, I didn't even know the rule until two days ago. I didn't even pay attention to it. I don't get into that stuff, but I really didn't know that part. I actually did think that if we tied, that Atlanta would get it.

"[Celtics president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] called me and he said, 'Did you know?' I said, 'No.' And he said, 'I didn't either.' No one knew. They just changed the division thing and I think that maybe this was a little bit forgotten. I guarantee it will be changed after this year."

Q: Chris, it is unfortunate that student-athletes aren't required to take a course or seminar on the business side of pro sports. This would consist of budgeting, investing, taxes, etc. As an accountant and financial advisor, I understand these issues and wish some of us could help by volunteering our services to these young men. -- Mark (Cortlandt Manor, N.Y.)

A: I'm assuming the NBA does have a rookie seminar (similar to the NFL) that introduces first-year players to the dangers of immediate fame and money, but it's never easy to brace a 19- or 20-year-old for all the glitz and glamour that comes with his first NBA contract. We assume you're referring to the fabulous Outside The Lines special on Antoine Walker from this past week. It was truly a cautionary tale for any player in professional sports. During his weekly appearance on sports radio WEEI (850 AM) on Wednesday, Ainge admitted that the episode might be the ideal tape to show rookie players, noting that, "We'll make sure all the players see that tape."

Q: Are the Celtics likely to sign Nate Robinson after this season? Who else are they likely going to sign back next year? -- Lyrell (Atlanta, Ga.)

A: Assuming Pierce does not trigger the early termination option on his contract following this season, the Celtics are already on the hook for $63.3 million for six players (Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, and Rasheed Wallace). That's a lot of roster to fill out at a ballpark of around $20 million -- and that's without re-signing Ray Allen. Needless to say, Boston is going to need some bargains, and Robinson, who is likely to attract at least his $4 million base salary on the open market, would be unlikely to return in our eyes. The Celtics are more likely to eye low-cost re-signings in the event they desire (or have no other choice) to bring back players like Shelden Williams ($825,500 this year) and Tony Allen ($2.5 million). Pierce could help their flexibility if he signs a long-term extension that drops his 2010-11 base salary, but the team must also examine an extension with Perkins, whose contract expires after next season.

And while we're here, we'd like to give Lyrell the "I Told You So" platform of the week for this question (or statement) that landed in the mailbag on March 18...

Q: The additions of Michael Finley and Nate Robinson are super good, but I don't think Tony Allen's playing time should go down. When Tony has played, he's done well. Not to mention he had to lock down Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and Caron Butler. When all the injuries hit, Tony Allen remained a good defender. He should still play a little more, because he's quick enough to guard the players that Ray Allen might have problems with. Tony is a great defender to me and should get more playing time. -- Lyrell (Atlanta)

A: One week later, you look like a genius, Lyrell. It's impossible to understate how valuable Allen was in Wednesday's win over the Nuggets. He gave the team a spark at both ends with Boston ravaged by foul trouble. I don't know what it is about the Celtics' locker room -- likely the veteran presences -- but guys simply don't go sour on this team, and remain ready, even if just for emergency situations. That's a credit to the organization and, maybe more so, players like Allen who remain focused in the face of dwindling court time.

And while we're handing out "I Told You So" awards, how about this gem...

Q: Chris, I am a big-time C's fan and I just wanted to know if there is any consideration of cutting back on Rasheed Wallace's minutes now that Michael Finley is here. I would rather see Shelden Williams play more for his rebounding, but that is just wishful thinking. Would the C's play Shelden, Rondo or Nate, and three shooters, and maybe go smaller? -- Jason (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)

A: How in the heck do two Southerners know this ball club better than anyone up here? First, Lyrell in Atlanta nails Tony Allen's re-emergence, now Jason in Tuscalloosa identified that the C's could thrive in a small lineup.

Let's start with the obvious caveat that the small lineup will work only against certain matchups, and, as Rivers noted Wednesday, he went small against Denver only because both foul trouble and the Nuggets personnel forced him to do so (plus Denver was starting to heat up from the perimeter). I do think there's a danger in going small since Boston has struggled with rebounding this season, but I don't mind mixing in the unique look -- force the other team to match the intensity and energy that a Rondo-Robinson-Pierce-Allen-KG lineup can bring. The combination of Rondo and Robinson on the floor can't help but create a spark (but, again, you can't run that package against a big lineup).

As for Wallace, I think at this point you have to be resigned to the fact that he's going to get his minutes and, if per chance he has it going on a certain night, Rivers will ride it. If it's a game like Wednesday's where he's atrocious at both ends, Rivers will give him his 15 minutes, then let him fill his time mimicking the "Groggy Gorilla" dance shown each game on the JumboTron.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.