By Matt Richardson
If the Celtics don’t compete for a championship, it’s going to be because they are weak at point guard. So goes the conventional wisdom, and hence the acquisition of Sam Cassell. And how could you watch the third quarter of last night’s game and not agree? You had an absolute pro going up against a pup, and frankly it looked like a mismatch. In Chauncey Billups, you have a guy whose physical skills and game savvy are meshing perfectly at this point in his career. A guy who knows exactly what to do and exactly when to do it, with a purpose behind every step he takes. How many trips to the line did he take in the third? 39? Detroit also showed their veteran savvy as a team, changing the defensive assignments between Rip Hamilton and Billups to create mismatches for them, and of course it worked. But we’re all thinking, if there are mismatches for Detroit , there must be mismatches for us, right? How come they are figuring it out and we’re not? Tommy Heinsohn is apoplectic on the sideline, begging for Rondo not to settle for jumpers, to take it to the hoop against Rip…. and then he did. In the absolute signature play of the game, Rondo exploited his speed mismatch against Rip and threw down a dunk, taking a hard foul from Maxiell in the process. The play completely fired up the team and sent the crowd into a frenzy. I thought it was a big time play by a young player under the bright lights, and showed the grasp of the game that is so critical in turning a young athlete into a Chauncey Billups.
Over the years, how often have we listened to Tommy yell out instructions to the team as they are melting down, and the instructions make perfect sense, and it’s all the more frustrating because the team never seemed to follow them? Last night was a great example of the team following them. Rondo’s aforementioned dunk, where after settling for a jumper when Rip played off him (baiting him into it), he figured out the thing to do was to blow by Rip and get to the hole. Another instance was either late in the third or in the fourth when Garnett had the ball against ‘Sheed and ‘Sheed fouled him, giving the Pistons 4 team fouls. Tommy immediately exhorted the C’s to take the ball to the hoop to draw that 5th team foul, and presto, Garnett was backing down ‘Sheed and drawing that foul. This speaks to veteran basketball players knowing what they are doing given the game situation, but it also speaks to good coaching, and no doubt keeps Tommy’s blood pressure out of the danger zone.
One other play I want to mention: mid-fourth, Pierce has the ball at the top of the key and drives into the lane, basically getting the whole defense to collapse on him, and then he fires the ball out to a wide open Garnett, who was oh-by-the-way the hot hand and leading scorer, for a wide open 18 footer that Garnett buried. It was a mature, under-control play by Pierce, who seemed to know exactly where he was going with the ball if the defense did commit to him, exactly the kind of play I want my Captain making.
The danger in posting thoughts before the euphoria of a big win has worn off is that you’ll overreact, yet I can’t quite shake this feeling: the Pistons are a very good, but not great team. They will not beat themselves because they have smart veteran players who know what they are doing (like getting 57,000 free throws in the third quarter, many of them as a result of savvy flops) and yet they can be beat. The Celtics are a very good team that has greatness in them. None of us have a crystal ball so we’re not sure how far they can go. They still have room to improve (Rondo’s ongoing maturation; Kendrick Perkins: 20 rebounds last night yet outrebounded by everyone else who played a week ago). We don’t know what Cassell or P.J. Brown will bring to the table or how that will affect chemistry (or how Doc will juggle the rotation)… but they have a chance to be great, which is more than you can say for Detroit. Given good health (knocking on wood, looking for even more wood, knocking on that), it’s hard to imagine them not coming out of the East. Lakers, anyone?