Reigning champs have their issues
The Celtics lost six of eight games after a record-setting 27-2 start
Doc Rivers: We're not as good as last year because the bench is weaker
Rivers expects the Celtics to make a move or two to upgrade the roster
BOSTON -- From 19 consecutive victories and the best start in NBA history (27-2), the defending champions have now lost six of eight games. The Celtics' unanticipated conquerors include the sub-.500 Warriors, Knicks and Bobcats, as well as the shorthanded Trail Blazers (without Brandon Roy) and Rockets (minus Tracy McGrady). And none of this can be blamed on injury, as the Celtics have had nearly their full team in place and available.
Surprising? Not entirely, according to their coach.
"I thought during the [19-game winning] streak it was starting to come,'' Doc Rivers said of the Celtics' slump. "I was concerned by it then. By game 13, I was telling my coaches, 'I can't stand the way we're playing right now.' And you couldn't say that publicly because we're winning games, but I did to our players. I just kept saying to them, 'Guys, we're winning games, but it's just not us. We're so ripe for a loss.' "
The Christmas Day defeat to the Lakers was almost predictable, with Los Angeles being a likely place for the winning streak to end. The next night the Celtics blew a 14-point lead to the Warriors, an understandable empty-tank letdown. But two nights later they couldn't raise their level to squeeze out a fourth-quarter win in Portland ... then Al Harrington and Wilson Chandler combined for 61 points in New York ... Tuesday in Charlotte, the league's least prolific offense had its second-best night of scoring this season while shooting 48.1 percent against the Celtics.
And Wednesday night the Rockets, themselves losers in six of their last eight, beat the Celtics 89-85 in Boston with McGrady and Shane Battier sidelined and Ron Artest fouled-out for the final three tightly fisted minutes. The Celtics go into their Friday night showdown at Cleveland trailing the Cavaliers by a half-game in the Eastern Conference standings and leading the No. 3 Magic by the same margin.
This comment speaks to how much the fortnight has altered the league's view of its champion: "They come in and intimidate you and try to punk you,'' said the Bobcats' D.J. Augustin, a rookie point guard, after an overtime altercation with Paul Pierce. "But if you don't back down from them, they kind of fold.''
He may be made to regret those words. For the time being, however, the Celtics' bench is being exploited in the absence of James Posey and P.J. Brown, whose defense, length and timely scoring made all the difference throughout the playoffs last season.
"The bench is well behind last year,'' Rivers said. "People were asking, Are we better than last year? We are not. As a team we're just not, because of [the bench].''
The Celtics' lack of size was exploited last week in Portland, where Blazers 7-footers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla went over the top of the 6-9 Leon Powe and 6-8 Glen (Big Baby) Davis to score down low and plunder the offensive boards. At the other end, the Celtics have been misfiring against taller defenders dating to the loss to the Lakers and their long front line of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
"I thought Bynum's length affected us,'' Rivers said.
The Celtics could also use another ball handler and shooter in the backcourt, as Eddie House remains their only tested guard with three-point range off the bench. But the bigger picture is their vulnerability defensively when Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins aren't in the game.
Their size in the paint was intimidating last season. "That was because of Kevin and P.J. and Perk -- and Pose is just physical and hits you hard,'' Rivers said. "Not having Pose, we've lost our captain for our bench. Our bench has no leadership right now. That's a concern.''
Adding to the drama in Boston is the flexibility of the Cavaliers, who can add to their size advantage over the Celtics by dealing the expiring contracts of Wally Szczerbiak (worth $13.8 million this year) and possibly Eric Snow ($7.3 million) for another big man as insurance for center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who could be sidelined all month by a chipped bone in his ankle. Imagine, for example, a trade enabling Cleveland to bring Brad Miller off the bench this postseason?
The Celtics, by comparison, have very little in the way of excess contracts, which is crucial in a league that demands (for the most part) dollar-for-dollar trades. Beyond their nine-man rotation, the only player earning at least $1 million is Brian Scalabrine, who is making $3.2 million on a contract that runs through next season. This is the byproduct of an efficient payroll of relatively little waste.
"We don't have a lot to trade,'' Rivers said. "It's funny, I bet we're one of the few championship teams that has very few tradable parts. Most teams have guys you could trade all day, and we have to be one of the rare exceptions -- a team that won a title and you can't trade anybody. But that's who we are.''
And yet, Rivers expects the Celtics to fill out their roster. He won't say how, but the obvious route is to wait for veterans -- such as Stephon Marbury and Joe Smith, to name two widely mentioned candidates -- to negotiate buyouts after the Feb. 19 trade deadline, liberating them to play for a championship by joining the Celtics as inexpensive free agents.
"I think we will,'' Rivers said of the possibility of adding to the bench. "I have no idea who or what. But I wouldn't be surprised if we even added two players to our team.''
In the meantime, Rivers will have the attention of his players -- especially of those on his bench -- to focus anew on the neglected details of spacing and timing that have cost the Celtics recently.
"I like our team, I like our team spirit,'' he said. "I did think that our role players bought into the trophy tour a little bit more than they should. But I think they're getting it back.''
In other words, this rough stretch has renewed everyone's attention. The Celtics have been reminded in the harshest way that they are no lock to win another championship -- and that understanding can only improve their commitment to returning to the Finals in June.