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Starting five: Thoughts on the Celtics’ struggles through season’s first five days

12.29.11 at 10:13 pm ET
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Doc Rivers called Jermaine O'Neal the MVP of camp, but he's contributed almost nothing through three games. (AP)

Last Friday, before leaving for their Christmas day showdown against the Knicks, Celtics coach Doc Rivers joked that the media would have to calm fans down if his team started the season slowly. Unfortunately for Rivers, Boston’s first three games have left the team winless, with the very panic that Rivers seemed to anticipate ensuing.

Perhaps the most glaring issue through three games is Boston’s proclivity to fall behind early in contests. The Celtics have trailed by sizable margins at the half in each of their three games, the smallest deficit being nine.

Although Boston displayed strong fortitude against both Miami and New York — finding itself within striking distance in the last two minutes of each game after falling behind by double-digits — they know playing catchup is not a winning recipe.

“All the teams were the aggressors initially,” back-up guard Keyon Dooling told reporters Wednesday night, following the team’s loss to New Orleans. “We were on our heels trying to bounce back. We can’t be that type of team. We have to be a hit-first team if we want to be successful.”

Boston showed some of Dooling’s “hit-first” mentality against the Hornets, jumping out to a 9-2 advantage. However, playing in the second game of a back-to-back caught up to the Celtics, as New Orleans finished the first quarter on a 22-9 run. “We played tired,” Rivers told reporters. “We looked tired. It happens.”

Another alarming trend is overall team defense. In the previous four years of the new “Big Three” era, Boston has allowed an average of 92.6 points per game. Meanwhile, this season the Celtics are allowing 106 points per game. Looking even closer, the Celtics gave up 60 or more points in the first half only four times last season. This season Boston allowed 62 points in the first half against New York, and followed that performance by giving up 69 points through 24 minutes two days later in Miami.

While these and other unfavorable trends are certainly visible in this young season, Boston can take solace that — starting Friday against the 0-2 Pistons — they play 19 of their next 25 games in the confines of TD BankNorth Garden. As the Celtics prepare to open that stretch, here are five lessons from the first five days of the 2011-12 season:

1. On the one hand, the Celtics are not off to an auspicious start. On the other hand, the 1998-99 shortened lockout season, saw the Knicks struggle to a 27-23 record. New York had issues dealing with the compacted schedule. The Knicks lost three straight games in four days, like the Celtics just did, on three separate occasions that season.

Despite their issues, New York secured an eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, where they caught fire and made a Cinderella-run to the NBA finals before eventually losing to the Spurs.

The point is, in a compressed season, the goal is simply to qualify for the dance in one piece. More than anything, 66 games in 124 days equates to a war of attrition. This veteran Celtics squad has to save some bullets for May and (perhaps) June.

2. Early on, the Brandon Bass for Glen Davis and Von Wafer trade looks like a win for Boston. Bass has acclimated himself well, averaging 14.7 points (shooting 50 percent from the field) and 6.7 rebounds. More importantly, the 6-foot-8 forward has seen action in critical situations down the stretch of games, suggesting he has earned Rivers’ trust.

In Orlando’s opener, Davis was just 3-for-9 from the field with four personal fouls. Against Houston, Davis scored 13 points, but he is only averaging 20 minutes of playing time for the Magic, whereas Bass has been playing 28 for the Celtics. Davis also makes $2 million dollars more per season than Bass, making the trade financially palatable to Boston as well.

3. Greg Stiemsma had a solid debut Wednesday night in New Orleans. The former D-League Defensive Player of the Year tallied six blocked shots in 17 minutes of playing time. Even when “Stiemroller” (the nickname he told WEEI.com he likes to be called) didn’t get a hand on shots, he made things harder at the rim for attacking Hornets. In a shortened season, efforts from the University of Wisconsin product like the one on Wednesday could bring the Celtics a long way towards righting the ship.

4. Rivers effusively praised Jermaine O’Neal throughout training camp, even going as far as to call the 33-year-old center the MVP of the shortened preseason. The coach’s rhapsody quickly seems as if it was misplaced. O’Neal’s performance in the 2011-12 campaign thus far: eight points and nine rebounds…total.

5. To some, Boston’s season may ostensibly seem in peril, but that’s the case for many teams in the NBA through five days of play. The defending NBA champion, Dallas, hasn’t tasted victory in two games. Prior to beating the winless Jazz, the Lakers started their season 0-2 as well. Even the upstart Thunder showed internal turmoil Wednesday night as superstars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were involved in a shouting match on the bench and had to be separated by teammates. Then there is the Heat, who despite looking exceptional in the early going, still have been offensively inept against zone-defenses.

Read More: Brandon Bass, Glen Davis, Greg Stiemsma, Jermaine O'Neal
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