In an already frenzied campaign, the Celtics' schedule is about to kick into overdrive for the final two-plus weeks of the regular season. Boston plays five games in six nights starting with Tuesday's visit to Miami (and culminating with the much-dreaded back-to-back-to-back later this week with stops in Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte).
Overall, the Celtics play their final 10 games over a 17-day span -- and three of those rest days come in a row (April 21-23). Which is to say there won't be a lot of opportunities to dive into the mailbag before the postseason, so let's sift through your letters before things become a blur and the playoffs are upon us:
Q: After your article pointing out the great play of the second unit, how do you see that group faring in the playoffs, particularly when Mickael Pietrus comes back? Does Pietrus step in for Sasha Pavlovic or Avery Bradley? -- Tron (Waltham, Mass.)
A: You have to think that, when rotations tighten up a bit, it's likely this unit won't see quite as much time together, or it'll be morphed a bit. I think Pietrus, if healthy, does take away from Pavlovic's minutes, while both Bradley and Ray Allen might cede a bit to Rajon Rondo. The idea of a Rondo-Bradley-Pietrus-Bass-Garnett lineup might be what Doc Rivers likes to call "coach's porn" (at least for a defensive-minded helmsman). Ultimately, it's encouraging that the Celtics will have options, particularly with ways to mix and match their talent based on what they need on the floor (size, scoring, defense, etc.)
Q: After seeing Pavlovic's chemistry with this "new" defensive-minded second unit, would it really be a good idea to replace him with the offensive-minded, 3-point chucking Pietrus? -- Emad (Kingston, Ontario)
A: E mad, bro? (Sorry, couldn't resist, Emad). What's often overlooked about Pietrus is just how good his defense is. (Heck, I'll admit I completely underrated it when he signed with Boston in December.) Pietrus can smother 2s with his length and holds his own with 3s. He's no step down from Pavlovic, while adding a bit more on the offensive end.
As I keep saying with Pavlovic, even as a depth guy, he's a great resource to have when foul trouble or injuries crop up. He's carved out a nice role on this team recently and has been a big part of that second-unit success the past two games.
Q: You have mentioned several times that if the Celtics were to retain the No. 4 seed in the East that would assure them home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. That is not the case. While division champs are assured a top four seed, they are not assured home court. Currently both Atlanta and Orlando have a better record and would own home court in a 4-5 matchup with the C's. Who would you rather see out of those two? I also think based on matchups and star power, the Celtics have a better shot of upsetting the Bulls rather than Heat in a second-round matchup. Thoughts? -- Mark (Chicago)
A: Glad you brought this up, Mark. You're absolutely right, the Celtics are not guaranteed home court in the conference quarterfinals just because of the better seeding. As you pointed out, if the playoffs started today, the fourth-seeded Celtics would open the first round in Atlanta by virtue of the fifth-seeded Hawks' better overall record. That alone makes the two remaining games with Atlanta very important for Boston as the head-to-head tiebreaker could be valuable if the teams end with matching records. Scoreboard watching is going to be a lot of fun these last two-plus weeks given that only two games separate four teams (Indiana, Boston, Atlanta and Orlando) in the race for the No. 3 seed.
As for preferred opponent, I don't think the Celtics would fear either the Hawks or Magic. Orlando probably has more talent and a bigger mismatch with Dwight Howard, but their internal turmoil might hinder them. In the second round, I remain convinced the Celtics should steer clear of the Bulls, particularly if Derrick Rose gets healthy.
Q: The Knicks seem to be clicking right now. Should the C's fear New York overtaking them in the Atlantic Division? I know the Celtics are playing great basketball too, but the Knicks are deep and finally playing defense. -- Kobi (Atlanta, Ga.)
A: Never say never, especially with a head-to-head battle at Madison Square Garden looming next week, but Boston's three-game cushion in the Atlantic seems pretty comfy over the final 10 games. Now, if you're Philadelphia and you see how both the Knicks and Bucks are playing at the moment, you might have something to worry about.
Q: 1) Do you see Ray coming off the bench the rest of the season? 2) Will this role impact his decision to come back to Boston next year?
-- Jordan (Boston)
A: Unless Bradley gets hurt and Pietrus can't get back on the floor, I don't see the team reversing course. Rivers said he's thought about bringing Allen off the bench for the better part of two seasons, and now that he has the personnel to make it work, there's no reason to turn back. I think it offers a lot of positives for Boston, as we've already seen in a small sampling.
As for future seasons, I'm sure Allen will have to balance the option of being a reserve in Boston (or elsewhere) versus starting for a team like, say, Chicago (if the Bulls continue to have a shooting guard void). But given that his career is probably trending toward a reserve role, I'm not sure it will be as big a factor in his decision as being on a team that can win a title and whether he'd be comfortable in that environment.
Q: I am a 10-time All-Star trying to win as many rings as I can in the last years of my career. I've told people I am OK with coming off the Celtics bench if it is best for the team. Deep down, do I really mean that? And should I look elsewhere next year if I want to start for a contender? -- Ray Allen (Boston)
A: Ray, we all know what a creature of habit you are. You are well known for your routines on game day, and that's helped make you the best 3-point shooter in the history of the league. All of which makes this move, being thrust well outside your comfort zone after 1,141 career starts, all the more selfless. You've made it clear that it's far from ideal, but you deserve copious amounts of praise for being a team player. I think, over time, you'll find the reserve role to be to your liking, particularly being a focal point of the second-team offense. Maybe by summer it will no longer be an issue as you choose your future basketball home.
Q: Chances of a Bradley extension this summer? -- Zain (Merced, Calif.)
A: The Celtics actually exercised their 2012-13 team option on Bradley at the end of last season, meaning he'll be back at a team-friendly $1.6 million next season. His number begins to escalate the season after with a team option for $2.5 million, then a qualifying offer for 2014-15 campaign of $3.6 million (according to salary site, ShamSports.com).
Regardless of whether Bradley is Boston's sixth man or starting 2-guard down the road, at some point you wonder if the Celtics will move to lock him up before his value explodes. They've got him under control for at least two more years, but it will be interesting to see if Boston considers a long-term deal at the right price -- maybe even at the start of next season (sort of like how they extended Rondo at what's now a bargain price).
Q: Is something wrong with Keyon Dooling? -- Chris (Boston)
A: If he's dinged up again, neither he nor Doc Rivers has mentioned it recently. The fact that Dooling's minutes started disappearing the night Allen returned to the lineup simply tells me he's a victim of depth at the moment. With Allen and Bradley each looking for 30-plus minutes, it doesn't leave much space at the 2-guard spot, even when Rondo is off the floor. Right now, Pavlovic's size and defensive talents make him a better fit to fill that other wing spot with the second unit.
The bad news for Dooling: When Pietrus returns, it will be even harder for him to find minutes. The good news: He definitely earned Rivers' confidence during a six-game stretch when both Allen and Pietrus were sidelined, which means Rivers won't hesitate to go to him in a pinch.
Q: The number of phantom calls on rookie center Greg Steimsma is getting a little ridiculous. This kid is playing very well considering that the slightest bit of contact he makes results in a whistle almost every time. I know in the NFL teams can sometimes bring things like this to the league's attention. Is this something the Celtics could do or even consider doing? Let the kid play! -- Mike (Boston)
A: Poor Stiemsma. Rivers has brought this up often recently, but not only is he getting whistled for borderline calls, he's the easiest target in a pack of green jerseys. As Rivers said after Sunday's win over Philly: "If [the foul] can go to three or four guys and you're a ref, you're going to say, 'Should I give it to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen? No, I'm going to give it to Steamer.' That's how you feel a lot with him. It's no fun to be in that position, but that's where he's at."
This simply is something a young player has to battle through. The fact that Stiemsma continues to be productive despite all the maladies he's faced and all the whistles making his job more difficult is a reflection of how far his game has come.
Q: I wonder if it's time to give JaJuan Johnson some more reps, giving the Celtics another young athlete out there running with Rondo and Bradley. Avery showed he can provide a spark and it'd be nice to see three guys running at the same speed on the fast break. I'm not suggesting the C's are a better team with Johnson in there, but much the way Bradley is providing a spark while saving Ray's legs, I wonder if Johnson could do the same for Garnett and Pierce? -- Grandjordanian (San Diego, Calif.)
A: The difference is that you could throw Bradley on the floor and his defense alone made him an asset. Johnson is still developing at both ends of the court and, like fellow rookie E'Twaun Moore, his offensive game is probably ahead of his defensive game at the moment, which just makes it tougher on Rivers to feel confident with them on the floor in close games. Right now Johnson and Moore will have to settle for the bite-sized chunks they get, such as the final minutes of Sunday's win over Philadelphia. I see Johnson getting every chance to flourish down the road.
Q: When are the Clippers going to start losing some games? It doesn't look like I will have a chance to be drafted by my Dad's Celts at this rate. -- Austin (Orlando, Fla.)
A: Don't sweat it, Austin. I remain convinced that the combination of pre-draft hype and name recognition is going to have a team drafting you before the teens. The father-son dynamic would have been intriguing to watch, but it'll be just as fun to see you going up against the Celtics.
Q: Just thought I'd let you know that I am finally enjoying this team. Took me a few months, but they are fighting like they did in 2009, like true Celtics. They might not win the title, but if they do, they would truly earn it, wouldn't you say? -- Red (Ghost of Celtics' past)
A: I'll say this: For much of the season, I told people not to get too emotionally invested in this team because of the seesaw play over the first half. I figured it would be better on fans' nerves to wait until the playoffs rolled around before they dived in headfirst. Well, for those who stuck on the bandwagon, the recent resurgence has to be incredibly rewarding, especially because, while the Celtics have the same core, they've resurrected the team while reinventing themselves given Garnett's shift to center and Allen's move to the bench.
With all the injury woes, particularly the heart ailments of Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox, this team has had to endure, it's amazing to see them surge to within two games of the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Think about it: Two weeks ago we were wondering if there was a chance they'd slip out of playoff contention. Now only four teams in the league have better odds at making the NBA Finals (according to John Hollinger's playoff odds).
The Celtics have been forced to grind all season long, and that will undoubtedly make any success they achieve that much sweeter for themselves and their fans. Keep those seatbelts on, but feel free to enjoy the rest of the ride.