The Celtics’ biggest red flag

By: 11.01.10

With every team in the NBA having played only two or three games so far in the young season, it’s too early to make many proclamations.

Nasty as he’s been, I can’t yet say that Chris Paul (20.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 9.3 apg) is back until he makes it through Thanksgiving without suffering a significant injury or choking one of his backcourt mates during a game. Productive as he’s been, I can’t say Wilson Chandler (21.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.0 bph) should be Sixth Man of the Year yet until we find out if he’ll be playing any meaningful games beyond Christmas. And as impeccable as they played on the world stage of Opening Night, I can’t yet say the Boston Celtics are the clear front-runner to win the Eastern Conference.

Why? Because the Celtics are already developing a bad habit of playing up (or down) to their competition.

With the bright lights on and everybody watching against Miami, the C’s were razor-sharp, racking up 25 assists on 32 made baskets, forcing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade into 14 combined turnovers, and closing down the stretch with big shots by Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. The following night in Cleveland, against a Cavs team expected to be among the worst in the League, Boston’s focus — plus its collective shooting stroke and offensive execution — never got off the plane, and the Celtics were on the wrong end of the season’s biggest upset so far. Two nights later, back home for the traditionally-moribund (at least recently) Knicks, the Celtics were again sluggish. They turned the ball over five times in the opening four minutes and fell behind 11-2 before Rajon Rondo (10 pts, 10 rebs, 24 asts) carried the team back to a win that came down to the final minute of the fourth quarter.

It’s nothing new for wildly talented basketball teams to overlook inferior opponents and lose games they should have won on paper. High school and college teams do it all the time — it’s the dirty little secret of what makes March Madness so mad. When I was a kid I followed the Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp-era Seattle Supersonics, whose propensity for only getting up for big games led to consecutive first-round playoff exits in ’94 (Nuggets) and ’95 (Lakers) to lower-seeded squads who weren’t seen as championship threats.

The Celtics did it last season, when they were just average down the stretch before bouncing back to find their rhythm in the playoffs and get with a few possessions of winning another NBA championship. But for a veteran team — led by Pierce, Allen, Kevin Garnett, Shaq and the playoff-experienced Rondo — that has been through the wars and knows the importance of staying focused and consistent, it’s a red flag.

The Celtics will get another test of their focus on Tuesday, when they visit the Pistons on the road. A fierce playoff rival for the C’s as recently as 2008, Detroit was in the Lottery last year and aren’t expected to do much this year. Ben Gordon‘s and Co. are 0-3 right now, but two of those losses were down-to-the-wire games against playoff teams in Oklahoma City and Chicago. If the Celtics overlook Detroit — perhaps eyeing an upcoming stretch that has them home for the Bucks and Bulls before playing at OKC, Dallas and Miami — Gordon and Rodney Stuckey and the Pistons’ talented scorers will hand Doc Rivers another unexpected L.

Playing up or down to one’s competition won’t be a problem in the playoffs, when every game is big-time. But in the regular season, losing too many “We beat ourselves” games could cost Boston valuable seeding in a conference where home-court could mean everything.

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