With arguably the most grueling stretch of their post-All-Star schedule now behind them, the Boston Celtics can adjust their focus to the final 25 games of the regular season. But with a little less than one-third of the 2012-13 campaign remaining, there's still plenty to sort out while ramping up for another playoff push:
FINALIZING THE ROSTER
There's still a chance the Celtics' roster as it currently stands won't be the one we see when the playoffs begin. Keep an eye on March 1. Not only is it the day Terrence Williams' current 10-day contract expires, but it's the deadline for players put on waivers to be eligible for another team's playoff roster (the Celtics don't have to sign a player by that point, but anyone waived after that point simply isn't playoff eligible). Boston is set to sign former Charlotte big man D.J. White to a 10-day deal (he'll likely make his debut against the Warriors on Friday), but the Celtics still have one roster spot open. The C's likely would fill that spot with another insurance big man, although the list of potential buyout candidates isn't swimming with frontcourt help.
If Boston is determined to add a final body and doesn't go the D-League route, it could consider Lou Amundson, who was released by the Timberwolves earlier this month. Amundson isn't an eye-opening prospect, but he does have playoff experience and he'd be good for an extra measure of toughness on the glass (his career defensive rebounding rate is better than that of Brandon Bass). Beyond that, the Celtics will have to make decisions on Williams and White for the remainder of the season. Each player can run through two 10-day contracts before the Celtics have to decide to keep him for the rest of the season or let him walk.
REST VS. RECORD
Ever since Kevin Garnett came to Boston, this has emerged as the proverbial end-of-season debate. How does coach Doc Rivers balance fighting for a higher playoff seed versus giving his veterans (and best players) the necessary time off to be rested for the playoff push? Rivers has been pretty transparent with his philosophy, which is that he doesn't have a clear-cut answer. There's no simple solution to this problem, particularly when you're dealing with veterans such as 36-year-old Garnett and 35-year-old Paul Pierce, who don't always agree that rest is in their best interest (although Garnett did oblige when he was asked to sit against the Phoenix Suns on Friday).
The thing about these Celtics is that they can't ever truly be counted out, no matter what type of adversity they're forced to endure. Whether it's losing key players to season-ending injuries or battling general inconsistency, Boston always seems to bounce back to life just when it looks like it should be pushed out of the picture.
Rivers said after Friday's win in Phoenix that the Celtics are aiming to just be "a seed" in the playoff picture, which should tell you they aren't exactly gunning for a higher spot. A quick look at the standings shows that, entering Tuesday's action, Boston, sitting in the seventh slot, is a mere 2.5 games back from sixth-place Chicago, and just three games shy of fourth-seeded Atlanta and fifth-seeded Brooklyn. A late-season push for a higher spot wouldn't necessarily have to be a fully taxing endeavor (it's not like Boston would have to win out to earn a higher seed), but Rivers' insistence that he'll rest his vets at other points during the stretch run suggests Boston won't be making too hard of a push for a higher spot.
The Celtics likely will be satisfied if they can keep everyone healthy for the rest of the season and maintain at least the seventh seed to avoid the Miami Heat in the first round.
INTEGRATING THE NEW GUYS
The first thing Celtics players probably did when they made it to the team plane following Monday's win in Utah was sit back and catch their breath. After enduring a pretty brutal five-games-in-seven-nights stretch that featured two sets of back-to-backs, the Celtics will play only one game in the next seven days and should finally have a stretch of much-needed practice time.
That time will be vital for the team as a whole, but especially for the new faces who are still getting acclimated to Boston's systems. Williams and newly acquired guard Jordan Crawford will have a slight head start on White when the team reconvenes later this week, but all three will be getting the crash-course treatment as they seek to integrate with Boston's eight-man core.
Crawford might be the biggest priority of Boston's three newcomers. While Williams and White aren't guaranteed to be here for the rest of the season, Crawford is, and the Celtics are counting on him to provide a scoring spark off the bench. While it'd be unfair to critique him too heavily after just three games, it does seem evident Crawford will be in for a steep learning curve, particularly on the defensive end. Crawford has never been held accountable on that side of the ball the way he will be in Boston.
After coming through with a solid 17-minute, 10-point debut against the Suns on Friday, Crawford delivered a scoreless 12 minutes against the Blazers on Sunday and was held to just 4:41 of playing time in Monday's win over Utah as Rivers tightened his rotation. Rather than punishing Crawford, though, Rivers likely was just trying to grind through the Utah victory knowing that rest and practice time were looming on the other side.
There's no question Crawford has the potential to help the Celtics, but it'll come down to both sides working together to get Crawford to harness his talent and sharpen his focus if he wants to be a real factor moving forward. Otherwise, he'll truly be the "wild card" type of player, and while those guys can sneak in a big shot to help win a playoff game, it would be better for Boston if Crawford can hit important shots on a more consistent basis.
Speaking of wild cards, the Celtics need to get some of their key role players playing well at the right time. Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox all have battled inconsistency this season (Wilcox while battling through several injuries) but will be called on for key roles into the postseason.
Wilcox and Bass need to be better on the glass than they have been. Although he came through with a solid offensive night against the Jazz with 15 points (7-for-7 from the free throw line), Bass grabbed just three rebounds in 41:44 of action. Bass has vowed to be a better rebounder all season but has been inconsistent in following through on that claim.
Wilcox, meanwhile, needs to be ready for a greater role after the Celtics shipped veteran center Jason Collins to the Wizards in the Crawford trade. Wilcox is one of Boston's most athletic bigs and one of its best finishers on the break, and the Celtics will need him to be as active as possible in the minutes he does receive. After coming through with 14 points and eight rebounds against the hapless Suns on Friday, Wilcox has totaled just four points and three rebounds in 37 total minutes over his past two games. Finding consistency on the defensive end is most important for Wilcox.
As for Green, he has the potential to swing quite a few playoff games in Boston's favor. But has he finally reached a point that will allow the Celtics to heavily rely on him night after night? He's in the middle of his best month of the season, as February has seen him average 15.3 points on 51.2 percent shooting from the field and 41.4 percent shooting from 3-point land. His rebounding numbers (4.1 per game in February) are still lower than the Celtics would like them to be, but if Green can emerge as a consistent scoring punch who attacks the rim, it could spell good things for Boston in the playoffs. Keeping Green in a solid groove and not letting him flounder back into inconsistency over the next two months will be vital to the Celtics' playoff hopes.