Rose Blooms as He Dooms Celtics in Game 1

by Kevin on April 18, 2009

By Kevin Henkin

The NBA: Where Immense Frustration Happens. Ugh. Where to begin? With some salient facts, I suppose, which are as follows:

The Chicago Bulls defeated the Boston Celtics at home in Game 1 of their first round playoff series, in overtime, by a score of 105-103.

Bulls rookie point guard Derrick Rose submitted a performance for the ages. In 49 minutes of play, he recorded 36 points on 12-19 shooting to go with 11 assists. He also hit all 12 of his free throws.

Rajon Rondo was almost as magnificent with 29 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists.

Ray Allen, meanwhile, was horrid. Yes, he missed the shot on a good look at the end of overtime that would have tied it for Boston but it was his overall line of 4 points on 1-12 shooting (including 0-6 from deep waters) that spoke volumes. With Kevin Garnett out, the Celtics simply cannot afford to have Ray Allen become invisible for another playoff series.

Joakim Noah hauled in 17 rebounds to go with his 11 points and 3 blocks. Noah in particular seemed to swallow up Glen Davis whenever Baby approached anywhere near the basket. Brad Miller grabbed another 12 boards off the bench. For the game, Chicago out-rebounded Boston by a margin of 66-57. The effort by the Bulls on the glass was certainly among the primary deciding factors.

Paul Pierce had a lackluster first half, scoring only 4 points before coming alive in the third quarter and beyond. For the game, he finished with 23 points on 8-21 shooting. What he’ll be remembered for most, however, was missing the second of two free throws with 2 seconds left in regulation. Hitting the shot would have sent the Bulls packing. Instead, the miss left the game tied at 97 all. In the subsequent overtime, Tyrus Thomas seemed to become Ray Allen by connecting on multiple contested outside jumpers whereas Ray Allen seemed to become Tony Allen, suffering form a sustained poor shooting touch as well as a nasty case of butterfingers at the most crucial of times.

Now for some musings beyond the numbers:

I think anyone watching the game had to feel very early on that the Celtics were not submitting a playoff level of intensity. Doc Rivers admitted as much during his in-game comments to ESPN. I remain mystified by this. As a team without its emotional leader and defensive anchor, the Celtics obviously realize that their margin for error, even against a lesser team like the Bulls, has shrunk considerably. Therefore, one would think that no one in a Celtics uniform would ever be seen – on the parquet floor, no less – TAKING PLAYS OFF. And yet that’s exactly what happened on numerous occasions over the course of the game.

Take, for example, the last play of the first half. With time winding down, Ben Gordon launched a three point shot from the top of the key. When the shot left his hands, only Brad Miller moved towards the basket. When the shot bounced wide to the left with one second left, it fell into the hands of the advancing Miller, who laid it in easily just before time expired. Replays showed that no Celtics players were even in the lane when Miller received the ball, with most of them still stuck to the floor exactly where they were when Gordon launched the shot. It was an inexcusable collective lack of effort that ended up costing the Celtics dearly later in the game.

There were other examples, such as a Rajon Rondo drive just inside the three minute mark of the third quarter. On that play, Rondo took a deep rebound and charged full steam up the court against a back-peddling Bulls defense. Again, replays showed that the only other Celtics player even within twenty feet behind him was Ray Allen as the lagging trailer. Meanwhile, the other Boston players – Pierce, Davis and Kendrick Perkins – all jogged up the court behind the play. Left alone, Rondo stubbornly charged hard into the heart of the Chicago defense with the hopes of drawing a foul. He turned the ball over instead.

These are the plays that I cannot erase from my mind, and believe me, there were others worthy of scrutiny. Look, we all know that losing playoff games at home is going to happen. It just shouldn’t ever come down to a lack of proper effort. Yes, it’s true that Derrick Rose played out of his mind. It’s also true that the officials were regrettably a factor. Hell, an entire article could be devoted to exploring their gross incompetence displayed over the course of this game. Leading the charge was Bennett Salvatore, the man you may well remember for calling the ludicrous offensive foul against Paul Pierce in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit last year.

Regardless, if we’re going to assign blame, accusing fingers should be pointed first and foremost at everyone in a Celtics uniform not named Rajon Rondo. Outside of the young point guard, who nearly dragged his team to victory all by himself, all other Celtics players were guilty of either inexcusably dogging it on occasion or submitting a sub-par overall performance. Ray Allen, as noted above, was beyond ineffective. So too were Eddie House, Glen Davis, Stephon Marbury and – to a lesser degree – Paul Pierce.

In the wake of the news that Garnett was likely a scratch for the playoffs, the Celtics players to a man said all the right things. Don’t count us out. We’re still playing for a title. Sounds great in front of the microphones but now it has to be backed up on the basketball court. That includes the entire forty-eight minutes of the game, by the way. Forget all the doomsday prognostications about Cleveland or even Orlando. Chicago is the team that presently stands in the way of a successful title defense. Get past them and maybe we can resume discussing of likelihood of an upset against the vaunted Cleveland Cavaliers.

To be continued…

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THE FIVE-PACK – PLAYOFF EDITION

by Kevin on April 17, 2009

By Jeremy Gottlieb

Woke up this morning all ready to do some serious Celtics playoff analysis. There were visions of the KG-fortified Celts bludgeoning their way back to the Finals and a rematch with the Lake Show dancing in my head. I couldn’t stop thinking, “finally.”

Then I turned on the computer.

Now, I’m feeling rather confused about the whole thing. I mean, aren’t you? Not only did we discover that KG would not be returning from his endlessly shape-shifting knee injury for the playoffs, but then came word that GM Danny Ainge had a heart attack and was in the hospital. The actual games and all that would go into them don’t seem nearly as interesting, appealing or important anymore. Ainge is going to be fine – word is, he’s resting comfortably at the Mass. General and will be home in a couple days. But his situation takes the conversation to an entirely different level, rendering any analyzing of matchups or strategy or what have you far less meaningful, at least temporarily. KG’s injury is just bad timing for his team, bad luck for him. It’s also just an injury. What happened to Ainge is far more serious, and transcends the game.

The show must go on, though. Just as KG will recover, so will Ainge, and the games will be played, starting tomorrow with Game 1 against the better-than-you-think Chicago Bulls. They pay me the big bucks to write about stuff like that, not to get holier-than-thou on all 12 of you. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at five playoff-oriented issues regarding the Big Ticket-less defending champs on the eve of the postseason.

1. THE BIG GUYS BETTER BE READY TO PLAY D

News Flash – the Celtics will miss Garnett the most on the defensive end. There’s simply no replacing the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, which was more than evident in the 22 regular season games he’s missed since the injury happened. His absence on defense will be magnified in the postseason because at this point, so many games become bruising, half-court battles of attrition. This is where Big Baby Davis, Leon Powe and Mikki Moore come in. Big Baby, a free agent who was hardly a regular contributor and seemed ticketed out of town on Opening Night, has made himself into a highly skilled and valuable offensive player and now looks like a guy at whom the team will have to throw some money. Leon is another guy you don’t need to worry about on offense while Moore has shown a nice shooting touch since his arrival from Sacramento. But on the defensive end, all three combined might not be as good as Garnett. Davis is the furthest along – he doesn’t ever seem too lost on D. But Leon has a rather maddening tendency to miss a rather important rotation or two and Moore is, to put it extremely kindly, a foul machine. This troika, along with Kendrick Perkins, has quite a bit of work to do if it wants to even approach recouping the loss of Garnett on defense. The perimeter will be well secured most of the time thanks to Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and the defensive demon, Rajon Rondo (as well as Stephon Marbury, hopefully). How the healthy bigs perform will reflect a lot on how far the Celtics advance.

2. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER TO PLAY PHILLY

It’s not like the Bulls are the second coming of the ’96 champs or anything, but they pose a bigger threat to the Celtics than the Sixers. The Bulls extricated themselves from nearly two full seasons of serious underachieving when they banished Andres Nocioni and Drew Gooden (since resurfaced in San Antonio) to Sac-town and rid themselves of arguably their worst acquisition of that stretch in Larry Hughes. In came Brad Miller and John Salmons, two talented, hungry dudes who were stagnating in the depths of the Western Conference. A team that was floundering at the all-star break then seemed to turn itself around, ending the season with eight wins in 11 games while getting clutch, consistent play not only from alpha dog Ben Gordon but from promising youngsters Tyrus Thomas and Derrick Rose. The Bulls are relatively young and fresh-legged. They have the guns to run up and down the court with Rose, Joakim Noah and the freakishly athletic Thomas leading the way, or they can slow it down and have Salmons (38 points in their St. Patty’s day win over the Celts) and leading scorer/wizened veteran Ben Gordon generate the offense. They also have the experience of upsetting another defending champ in the first round just two years ago when they dispatched D-Wade, Shaq and the Heat with a few of the same guys under taskmaster Scott Skiles. In short, there is a wealth more talent and know-how here than in Philly. The champs will win the series, but not without a fight. Celtics in 6.

3. EVEN WITHOUT KG, THE MAGIC AREN’T THAT SCARY

Odds are that while the Celtics are dispatching the Bulls, Orlando will be doing the same to Philly, which was mired in a crushing, six-game losing streak down the stretch before needing overtime to barely beat the LeBron/Mo Williams-less Cavs on Wednesday. Assuming both outcomes are fulfilled, it’s hard not to like the Celts’ chances, KG or no KG. A month ago, the Magic looked better than the Celtics, looked like they would have home court in a series between the two teams and even looked like they could potentially give the Cavs a run if given a chance. Now, they seem a bit lost. Tied with the Celtics in the standings 10 games ago, they went 5-5 down the stretch, giving three games and guaranteeing a potential Game 7 here. Dwight Howard, who is capable of looking eerily like Moses Malone with a bit of Bill Russell sprinkled in, seemed to fade as the season wore on. His April averages of 16 and 12 were his worst of any month of the season. And his primary running mates, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, were hobbled by nagging ankle and knee injuries in the season’s final weeks. Even if all three are operating at peak efficiency, is there enough defense here? Will their offensive style, reminiscent of the Hakeem Olajuwon-led teams on the ‘90s on which four guys stood around the three-point line and Olajuwon roamed the post, hold throughout the tournament? Will their weaknesses in the back court hurt them? It’s likely that some combination of these potential problems will creep up in a slugfest against a team as focused and determined as the Celtics. Can the Magic work through it? I don’t think so, not yet. They’re too much finesse, not enough toughness.

4. IT MAY NOT BE SO BAD TO BE UNDERDOGS AGAINST CLEVELAND

If the Celtics can survive the first two rounds and meet their fated opponent the Cavs, they will be huge underdogs, as well they should. Not only are the Cavs better, they will have home court and if you haven’t heard, the Celtics haven’t won in Cleveland practically since the halcyon days of the Richfield Coliseum. But it remains to be seen how the LeBrons react to that kind of pressure. The Celtics will be playing with house money. To have gotten that far will be even more improbable than winning 62 games amidst all of the tumult of this season. The Cavs will be the team that’s supposed to win. The Celtics were anointed as such last year and even though there were some very serious bumps in the road, they proved to be up to the challenge. It’s likely that the Cavs will be as well – LeBron is so unbelievably good and so amazingly tough that he may be able to single-handedly keep them from losing if it comes to that. It probably won’t, but under the current circumstances, the Cavs either getting psyched out or psyching themselves out may be the only chance for the Celtics to beat them outside of LeBron breaking his leg while participating in one of those wacky pregame rituals they’ve adopted.

5. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE HEART OF A CHAMPION

Grasping at straws? Hardly. In fact, it’s fair to say that the Celtics showed even more heart and passion this season than they did last. In winning those 62 games, the Celtics did it not just having to deal with Garnett’s injury, but also huge shots to their depth thanks to injuries to Powe and Davis. Rondo had to battle ankle problems for half the season yet he still took the proverbial “next step.” Rivers had to turn Marbury and Moore from insurance policies into regular contributors far faster than expected. And Pierce, who had what is most likely his best all-around season, had to maintain his usual workload while also guarding the opponents’ best perimeter guy and getting everyone’s best possible effort every night, more than 20 times without Garnett at his side. It certainly helped that Ray Allen played like a true, unquestionable Hall-of-Famer all year long and that the Celtics got off to such an incredibly hot start and maintained the pace for as long as they did (remember when they were 28-2?). Naturally, if they want to win again, he is going to have to carry them. I don’t think that they will, but I have no doubt that he can.

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THE FIVE-PACK – HOME STRETCH EDITION

by Jeremy on March 25, 2009

THE FIVE-PACK – HOME STRETCH EDITION

by Jeremy Gottlieb

There, now that’s more like it, eh? A nice, tidy, four-game winning streak and with 72 games down and 10 to go, the Celtics seem to have returned to their happy place, or at least something that resembles it. KG is back, Ray Allen shook off his tender elbow and is still shooting lights out, Stephon Marbury has yet to take a blowtorch to the locker room and Tony Allen is still a ways away from returning. It would seem that entering the regular season’s home stretch, the Celtics are right about (or near) where they need to be. And with a crucial, playoff-esque showdown with Orlando on the schedule for tonight and the postseason just three weeks away, what better reason is there to examine the state of things for your defending World Champs? So with that in mind, let’s take a look at five issues at the forefront of the final days of the regular season.

1. THE SWAGGER IS BACK

All it took for the Celtics to at least slightly resemble their old selves was (HELLO!!!) the return of Garnett. When it was reported that he was on the team plane down to San Antonio last weekend, it was a foregone conclusion that he’d be getting some run against the Spurs – the guy can’t even sit on the bench at home games when he’s out due to his competitiveness so how much sense would it make for him to fly to Texas only to stay at the hotel? Anyway, even though he only played a handful of minutes (and will apparently continue to do so for at least a few more games), his mere presence made the Celtics look like a different team than the one that had been staggering through the previous several games, mixing and matching lineups, displaying zero defensive intensity and generally looking lost. Sure, the Spurs were/are struggling without their sparkplug Manu Ginobili, but they still trotted old standbys Tim Duncan and Tony Parker out there to play at home against Garnett at half speed and Paul Pierce suffering through a dreadful shooting night and still lost (of course, it helped that they missed so many foul shots down the stretch). That win, coupled with the win against Miami last week propelled the Celts to two blowouts over doormats Memphis and the Clippers, no small feat considering that just weeks earlier, without Garnett, the Green either were beaten or made to sweat profusely by both. So, headed into tonight’s game, another winning streak has been borne and just at the right time. Even if KG only plays 20 minutes tonight, as he pretty much has for the last three games, those are 20 minutes in which the Celtics will be the better, more intense defensive team, will be more cohesive on offense and will be 20 minutes in which rookie Bill Walker and foul machine Mikki Moore don’t have to be out there as much. That gives the Celtics the edge, even in Dwight Howard’s house.

2. PIERCE IS STILL THE MAN

Since Garnett’s return, Pierce is 8-29 for 24 points. That’s three games worth of stats. In the final game prior to KG coming back, a thrilling overtime win over Miami in which Pierce was forced to completely take over in the fourth quarter and OT despite the fact that the Heat were playing without MVP candidate Dwayne Wade, he scored 36 points on 14-23 shooting. It should also be mentioned that in the St. Patrick’s Day game at Chicago (you know, the one in which the Bulls inexplicably wore green), which just so happened to be the night before the Miami win, Pierce went for 37, again hoisting a slew of shots just so his team would have a chance. The point to all of this, of course, is that he expended so much energy in those two games (with Ray Allen hurt against the Bulls and out against the Heat) that he’s stepped on the brakes somewhat since then. There is no need to be alarmed, however. He did go 3-16 in the San Antonio game, but took six and seven shots respectively against Memphis and the Clippers, both blowout wins. With the Celtics nearly at full-strength (the only key contributor missing is Leon Powe), Pierce can afford to kick back a bit when the situation deems fit, especially against powder puffs like the Grizz and Clip joint. There has been not a whisper about any kind of injury, he’s simply a bit spent, as coach Doc Rivers confirmed after Monday night’s contest. This is completely understandable given the hits the Celtics have taken since the all-star break. It seems like everyone except Pierce has missed at least some time over the past month and that, combined with mixing in the new guys who are trying to learn the system without actually practicing it, has put an onus back on the captain’s shoulders not seen in these parts since Al Jefferson/Ryan Gomes days. Pierce will be fine. He is fine. It’s only a matter of time before he explodes in the final quarter of a close game and leads the team to a win again. It may even happen tonight. You can count on it.

3. THE BENCH? STILL???

Is anyone else starting to get bored with seeing the horrors that occur in almost every game around the beginning of the second quarter? That’s bench time, folks, and you know what that means. It means fasten your seatbelts. In the Miami game, with Eddie House, Marbury, Gabe Pruitt, Walker and Moore on the floor to start the second, everything went into complete vapor lock. A 15-point, first quarter lead was a two-point deficit within nine minutes and the Celtics would eventually be outscored 33-15 in the period. It was completely predictable that Rivers then left the starters in throughout the third quarter and Pierce and Rajon Rondo for the fourth. Then in the Clippers game, most of the same crew surrendered a 19-5 run in the second, this time allowing a 31-18 first quarter lead to be whittled to two at the half. One has to think that by the time the playoffs come around, having been here for nearly two months, that Marbury and Moore will have learned enough to be more consistent on both ends of the floor than they have been over the last three and a half weeks. Given that they both were needed to contribute immediately upon arrival thanks to all the injuries the team has suffered, it is completely reasonable that they’ve had their fair share of tough moments, but such things can’t happen in the postseason. It would be nice to see Moore make one rotation on defense without fouling someone; hopefully, it’s only a matter of time. The fact that he was signed means he must have something to offer, right? And now that Garnett is back and Big Baby has willed himself into a valuable weapon at both ends, the need for Walker – who it says here will be a very solid pro someday – to do anything more than clean up is gone. Still, the issues the Celtics have had all season with their reserves continue to linger and it’s getting awfully late.

4. SAINT STEPH

Um, yeah, so I was wrong on this one. So far. Actually, I take that last part back. I was wrong about what Marbury would bring to the team and I’m pretty happy about it. For all of the apparent insanity over the years, Marbury has never been dumb, which is why he must realize that this is his last chance. If he flips, as I incorrectly predicted he would, he’s gone right away and every other team in the league wonders, “If he can’t step into line there, how would he possibly step into line here?” It’s perfectly plausible to assume that he’s seething about being a reserve, averaging 17.6 minutes a game. But he has to know that making a big deal out of it, or shooting off his mouth, or pouting, could mean the end of him. And on the court, he’s shown flashes of his former, all-star self, enhancing the possibility that he could really be a big help in the playoffs. I hope it turns out that way. And then, when he signs a multi-year deal with Milwaukee or Memphis or Golden State in the offseason, he can do all the freaking out he wants.

5. HOME SWEET HOME

The Celtics don’t seem to outwardly care that they probably have no shot at home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. I’ve read several quotes from Rivers and some players unequivocally stating that it doesn’t matter where the games are played, they can win anywhere. Of course this is what you will hear and read, but do they really feel that way? Remember last season when no home court would have meant losing to Atlanta in the first round? Or to Cleveland in the second round? Of course, they figured it out by the time the Detroit series came around, winning twice at the Palace, including the clincher. And the huge comeback that turned the Finals came in L.A. But even with those wins under their belts and a 25-12 road record thus far this year, there is enough doubt to suggest that having to win a Game 7 in Cleveland instead of here won’t be so easy. Just the same, the Celtics would probably much rather not have to play an elimination game in Orlando either, lending more importance to tonight’s matchup, with only one game separating the two teams in the standings. Repeating as champs is hard enough. The Celtics will need every advantage they can get their hands on if they want to do it, the home court advantage the most important one.

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Marbury NOT the Answer

by Kevin on February 27, 2009

By Jeremy Gottlieb

In an interview with the New York Times yesterday in which he disclosed the news that he was to sign with Celtics, Stephon Marbury was asked to discuss his thoughts regarding his role as Rajon Rondo’s backup. His response?

“I’ll just let my game speak for itself.”

Not, “I’ll do whatever is asked of me to try to help win a championship.” Nothing of the kind, in fact. Just the words (or variations on the words), I and me.

And thus, the Stephon Marbury in Boston era begins.

This move stinks so bad I can smell it here in Somerville, a few miles from the TD Banknorth Garden. The Celtics are going to bring in the league’s single biggest knucklehead in their quest to repeat. Batten down the hatches.

It feels awfully strange to think that such a bad guy will be a part of this team, as genuine a group of good guys that you’ll find in all of pro sports. The Celtics rationale for making the move is completely understandable. The depth that played such a huge role in last season’s title is not as strong thanks to the absences of James Posey and P.J. Brown. There is no one on the roster that can adequately back up Rajon Rondo (Vaya con dios, Gabe Pruitt). Marbury has put up all-star caliber numbers throughout his career and to get such a talent at such a low cost is a no-brainer.

It would seem that the next logical question is: How much are those factors worth? The Celtics aren’t guaranteed banner 18 by making this move – they may have a better chance at it, but obviously, that’s all. There probably will be no better options, especially in light of the rule that no one signed after Sunday is eligible to play in the playoffs, another pro to making the deal.

And then there are the cons, starting with the fact that for all intents and purposes, Marbury is a total and complete malcontent certain to be overcome by ego and selfishness if things aren’t satisfactory to him. I’ve talked to a couple people this week who have likened the circumstances to those of the Patriots acquiring Corey Dillon prior to the 2004 season. It’s not close. Dillon played for the worst team in the NFL for seven years, dutifully put up big numbers and seethed over the losing. After a few outbursts near the end of his tenure in Cincinnati, he was branded a bad team guy, as if the Bengals absolutely sucking for all that time had more to do with him than anyone else. He came to Foxboro, didn’t say a bad word all year, put up one of his best seasons and won a Super Bowl.

Marbury has played for four teams and managed to be banished from each one. He is a perpetual complainer. He is eminently unlikeable. The only time he has ever been in a winning situation, he flipped out over not being the highest paid/most visible/go-to guy and forced his way out of town. Teams routinely get better after he leaves (check out the Nets, Suns and Knicks’ records in his final year with each of them as well as the first year after he’s gone). He cannot/will not be coached (see Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Don Casey, Scott Skiles and Flip Saunders for more information). He epitomizes the stereotype of the modern, me-first athlete and if that wasn’t already evident in his play throughout the years, it was unmistakable in his behavior toward the Knicks this season, from his refusal to play when needed to his hard-headed unwillingness to surrender $1 million in his buyout negotiations of a contract worth more than $20 million. He is so toxic, he couldn’t even get along with his brother from the coaching/executive division of human team incinerators, Isiah Thomas, who enabled and coddled him more than anyone this side of his old stomping grounds in Coney Island.

Everyone, both with the Celtics and who supports the move is saying all the right things. Everything stays in house. The locker room is policed by Capt. KG and his lieutenants Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. If anyone steps out of line, they will have to face those three future Hall-of Famers. The winning culture and mutual respect will force Marbury to stay in line. The financial commitment is relatively small, making it an easy option to send him packing if he doesn’t comply. This is his chance to prove to any doubters (meaning, pretty much all observers) that he can function in a winning atmosphere, that he’s capable of subverting his massively over-inflated opinion of himself for the greater good. Etc.

It doesn’t matter. To repeat, Marbury has gotten himself run off of four teams. His exploits are not comprised of isolated incidents. They are all part of a large pattern that suggests an irredeemable quality. He has never played for a team on which he didn’t commit some act of loserdom, so why are the Celtics the exception? He’s such a negative that I can’t even describe him without resorting to double negatives.

Anyway, what’s done is done. He has been signed. He’s on the team. The experiment has begun. Perhaps, he will be a good soldier, come off the bench, play 15-20 minutes a game, score about 10 points and dish out three or four assists, smile and keep his mouth shut. Maybe, when Garnett is healthy, the two of them will rekindle some of the magic of their youths in Minnesota. Who knows? He may be just what the Celtics need to stave off Cleveland and the Lakers and win another championship. I hope he is. And I will gladly declare mea culpa if needs be.

I just can’t see it, though. I see him lasting a month here, maybe less. And then we can all move on and pretend the time the Celtics brought in the league’s biggest knucklehead never even happened.

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THE FIVE-PACK – AN ALL-STAR BREAK REPORT CARD

by Kevin on February 17, 2009

By Jeremy Gottlieb

It’s the NBA All-Star break, faithful readers, and even though it was a quick, mostly uneventful (unless you’re Nate Robinson or anyone in the Suns’ organization) weekend and games resume tonight, the Celtics have a couple of extra days to do some serious chillaxing before their season resumes Thursday night in Salt Lake City against the Jazz. With all this bonus free time in the middle of the schedule, it seems appropriate to attempt to assess exactly where the Green is at with just 27 more games on the regular season slate. So, we’re going to try a different tack with this little ditty and hand out report cards to your defending World Champs. Grades will be given in five groupings, one for the starters, one for the bench, one for the coaching staff, one for the front office and one for the entire operation as a whole. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at who makes the Full Court Press honor roll, and who doesn’t.

1. THE STARTERS

Look closely at the fivesome comprised of Messrs. Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rondo and Perkins and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any real signs of wear and tear. After 108 games last year (not including preseason) and 55 more this year, signs of long term fatigue aren’t terribly noticeable. In fact, an argument could be made that each individual member of this group is even better than last year. Naturally, such a discussion must begin with Rondo, who in less than three full seasons has gone from being a legitimate question mark to the cusp of elite point guard status. For proof, look no further than the final game before the break at Dallas in which he carried the Celtics through the first three quarters and finished with a jaw-dropping stat line of 19-15-14, while shooting 9-of-14 from the field. It wasn’t the first time Rondo has put up such numbers this year and likely won’t be the last. As has been mentioned before, both in this space and elsewhere, as soon as Rondo develops some semblance of a mid-range jumper (and the confidence to take it), the coronation will commence.

As for everyone else, it’s steady as she goes. Pierce got off to somewhat of a slow start but for the most part, has continued to be one of league’s best. He remains stellar with the game on the line, the most recent example being the Dallas game, in which he woke up from a three quarter nap to completely take over the game in the fourth quarter, wrestling it away from Dirk Nowitzki (who was playing at the absolute apex of his talents that night) with an 18-point fourth quarter in which he featured pretty much the entire repertoire in leading the Celtics from the brink of a sure loss to a remarkable win. Allen is consistently excellent, averaging 18 points a game while shooting 49 percent from the floor (four percent more than his career average) and 40 percent from 3-point land. Garnett is steady as ever, still putting up his at or about nightly double-double, though his scoring average, 16.4 PPG, is down two points from last year and four from his career mean. And Perk is humming along, providing size, strength and an element of intimidation while posting the occasional big game and fighting for the league lead in technicals. If the Celtics are going to win another title, it’s these guys who must lead them there. There isn’t much of a reason to expect otherwise.

Grade: A-

2. THE BENCH

The toughest item on this list to figure out, the Celtics reserve unit this season is not operating at the same level as it did last year and may end up being the difference between whether banner 18 is raised up next fall or not. Of course, the most obvious reason for the drop off is the absence of James Posey, who, as loyal Celtics followers know, was the X factor in the team’s run to the title last season. But at this point, it seems more reasonable to suggest that it isn’t Posey’s departure, but the lack of any legit replacement for him or what he brings. The reserve who has had the best season is Eddie House, whose long range shooting has been a godsend. But House is a jump shooter, period. There aren’t a lot of intangibles to his game beyond an element of veteran leadership. He is not a lock down defender, doesn’t handle the ball particularly well and is too small to be a consequential rebounder. These factors are not pointed out to criticize House – he is a very valuable member of the team whose offense has mightily contributed to several wins. They are pointed out to show that there is a huge difference between this year’s second unit and last year’s. For all of their selling points, Leon Powe and Big Baby Davis (both of whom have run off immensely important stretches of play in recent weeks) are too young, limited and inexperienced to approach Posey’s level. And Tony Allen, who has the talent and ability to at least approximate Posey’s skill set, doesn’t even understand enough basic basketball concepts to come close.

What does all of this mean? It’s too soon to be certain. We won’t know for sure what the lack of Posey’s contributions will mean until playoff time. Between now and then, there is time for the acquisition of a veteran big man or guard (or both) who can step in and inject some more leadership and consistency to the second unit – someone who can step up and hit a big 3-pointer, play tough defense against one of the opponent’s best players, grab an important rebound in traffic or slide into the lane and take a charge. Sound like anyone you know?

Grade: C+

3. THE COACHES

Actually, the heading should just read, THE COACH, as the merits of Clifford Ray, Kevin Eastman, et al is mostly irrelevant (although that isn’t true of Tom Thibodeau, who is still a defensive wizard as evidenced by the Celtics’ No. 2 ranking in points against and No. 1 ranking in opponent’s field goal percentage, and acquitted himself very nicely running the show for the final quarter-plus in Dallas last week). All that matters for our purposes here is Doc Rivers and Doc Rivers only. Doc is still riding the wave provided for him by Pierce, Garnett and Allen and is still doing so impressively. He has the occasional brainfart (I still don’t understand why Davis and not Powe was in the Laker game down the stretch after Garnett fouled out), but what coach doesn’t? The thing that is so striking about Doc is that he is exactly the same as he was two years ago during that wretched, 18-game losing streak. It’s not like he suddenly learned to coach last season (though the importing of Thibodeau from Houston certainly helped). In any sport, the coach is only as good as his players and in the NBA, when you’re sending guys like Garnett, Allen and Pierce out there as opposed to guys like Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes (even though we have a soft spot for good, ol’ Ryan) and Michael Olowokandi, chances are you’re going to win a few more games. Doc is steady, he’s tough enough, he has a very imaginative and precise sense of how to coach offense (and has Thibodeau to provide the same qualities on the other end of the court) and he’s smart. He understands exactly how to use his experience as a former player to motivate his players without coddling them or condescending to them. He’s the right guy for this group. Put him in a rebuilding situation or at the helm of a rudderless ship alongside a bunch of kids, as he was pre-Banner 17, and you’re asking for trouble.

Grade: A-

4. THE FRONT OFFICE

Danny Ainge, one year removed from Executive of the Year honors, has some decisions to make in the coming days/weeks if he’s to be considered for that honor again. Ainge’s biggest moves so far this season are a) not re-signing Posey, and b) extending Tony Allen’s contract. The jury is still out on option A, as mentioned above, and anyone who has ever read anything I’ve ever written about this team probably can deduce my opinion regarding option B. So now, we can sit back and wait to see who, if anyone, is acquired for the stretch run and the playoffs. It still says here that the Celtics would be well-served to bring in a veteran or two for leadership and insurance reasons. Given the team’s cap situation and current roster, such a move won’t likely come via trade (unless Oklahoma State wants to pass off Earl Watson and Joe Smith for Tony Allen and Scal). It’ll have to be the buyout option again, a la Sam Cassell last year (Bon Voyage, Sam – thanks for everything and enjoy spring time in Sacramento!) which means that Ainge will have to rely a lot more on timing and luck (or a change of heart by P.J. Brown) than his shrewdness and skill as a GM. Ainge has never been one to shy away from a move if he thinks it will help the team – for evidence, look at his first few seasons at the wheel. It would be easy to give him an incomplete instead of a grade here, but since memories of last season still invoke the warm and fuzzies, let’s be a bit more generous.

Grade: B+

5. THE OWNERSHIP

Tough to find fault with these guys, is it not? After a few years of aimlessness in the organization, principal owner Wyc Grousbeck pretty much said, “F This!” and unlocked the vault, giving Ainge carte blanche to bring in Garnett, Allen and their max deals, and voila! A championship. Meanwhile, he and Steve Pagliuca have gone about their business with a nice mix of class and aplomb. They don’t meddle in the basketball side of the operation, nor do they whine about contracts or the luxury tax or anything, for that matter. They just sit under the basket and cheer for their team to win another banner. Is Grousbeck on the same level as his fellow local championship owners Bob Kraft and John Henry? If he isn’t he’s pretty damn close.

Grade: A

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THE FIVE PACK: STUMBLING INTO THE BREAK?

by Kevin on February 9, 2009

By Jeremy Gottlieb

Last week proved quite an interesting stretch on planet Celtics, eh faithful readers? Boston’s second double-digit winning streak of the season came to an end against the Lakers last week and Sunday, in their second home game in four days versus Western Conference power, the Celtics didn’t exactly acquit themselves very well in crunch time. There was good last week (this year’s group obviously has no problem getting up for the proverbial big game) and bad (fourth quarter/overtime problems, a 3-2 record that easily could have been 0-5) and with that in mind, let’s send the Celts off on their two-week sojourn across the NBA landscape with a look at five issues that may well come back to haunt or help them as they approach the postseason.

1. DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS

In the Celtics five games last week, they allowed, in succession, 101, 99, 110, 100 and 105 points. Giving up 100+ to the Lakers or the Spurs, two battle-tested teams that know as well as anyone how adapt to circumstances in order to put themselves in position to win, isn’t the end of the world. To a lesser degree, the same holds true for the Knicks, who scored 100 on Friday night and would be perfectly happy to spend an entire game standing at the offensive end shooting at will while ignoring defense altogether. But giving up 101 to Minnesota and 99 to the Sixers is what’s troubling. Granted, Kevin Garnett, only the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, didn’t suit up for those two games thanks to the flu. But the T-Wolves and Philly are two teams the Celtics should be able to put the clamps on with their eyes closed (something they did twice previously this year to Philly, which put up 78 and 91 in its first two games against them, and to the Wolves, who were held to a paltry 78 when Boston invaded the Target Center back in November). When San Antonio had 60 points on the board at halftime on Sunday, the idea that the Celtics might just be forgetting the driving force behind Banner 17 was overwhelming, regardless of the fact that New Hampshire’s Matt Bonner was having the game of his life (send Bonner out there again, 20 more times with no opponents, and he won’t score the way he did on Sunday). They redeemed themselves in the second half of that game, holding the Spurs to 30 points in the first 22:30 of the second half before self-immolating in the final minute (more on that later). But someone, whether it’s Garnett, Doc Rivers or assistant coach/defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, needs to remind the troops that it’s the stops that matter most.

2. THANK GOD FOR RAY ALLEN

Really was there any doubt that he would eventually find his way onto Eastern Conference All-Star squad? An argument could be made that he’s been the most valuable of the Big Three this season. Allen, who everyone knows is a long-range shooter by trade, is firing ‘em up at a 49 percent clip on the season, a lofty number for someone who’s game primarily keeps him between 15 and 20 feet from the rim. After being snubbed for the All-Star team, as if on cue, Ray responded with a huge week, averaging 21.4 points and almost three 3-pointers per game while contributing four rebounds and three assists and shooting 47 percent from the field. The capper on his All-Star berth was likely his tour-de-force in the game at Philly, when he nailed a couple of bombs on consecutive possessions in the final minute, the first which tied the game and the second which won it with 0.5 seconds to play. Allen at times seemed like the forgotten man among the Big Three last season, struggling to find his role throughout the season and suffering through a horrific shooting slump in the first two rounds of the playoffs that led to some (hello, self!) pontificating that he might be toast. It’s probably safe to say that reports of his early demise were, ahem, greatly exaggerated.

3. WHO’S THE GO-TO GUY IN THE CLUTCH?

This seems like a strange question to ask considering Allen’s heroics of the past week and Paul Pierce’s career-long proclivity to make big plays when it matters most. But in the Lakers game and the Spurs game, the Celtics not only lost in the final minutes, they looked bad doing it. Pierce repeatedly gave up the ball during crucial possessions against L.A. and San Antonio exploded for seven points in a span of 1.4 seconds at the end of Sunday’s game. It’s not like Pierce has suddenly morphed into Chris Webber with the game on the line – his choice to pass the ball instead of shoot it against the Lakers was more a result of the defense (he was double teamed repeatedly) and the fact that Glen Davis, who missed one jumper after another in that game, was so wide open there may as well have not been anyone else on the floor (it’s also important to note that Davis was only in the game because Garnett had fouled out, otherwise it would have been KG popping out and firing as he’s done so efficiently over the course of his Celtics’ tenure). And against the Spurs, the Celtics fell victim to both San Antonio’s best three-point shooter (Roger Mason) happening to make an off-balance try and quintessential pest Manu Ginobili doing what he does best, which is to disrupt even the most rudimentary inbounds play with his swarming, buzzing defense. Also, it’s not like the Lakers and Spurs are inexperienced during crunch time – as mentioned before, they are both as well-learned in situations when the game is on the line as anyone. But it was still troubling in both instances to see the Celtics taken out of their game and beaten when it matters most so quickly and completely, especially at home. There will be a boatload more similar instances in the weeks and months to come, especially in the playoffs, where the competition will be weighted more toward the Lakers and Spurs than the Knicks and Sixers. An emphasis on fixing the breakdowns that occurred Thursday night and Sunday afternoon is advisable.

4. THE BENCH IS AGAIN REARING ITS UGLY SIDE

You have to love the way Leon Powe has been playing of late, especially against the Lakers and even more so in light of the fact that he’d been invisible for what seemed like ages prior to that game. And Eddie House has been a godsend – even in games when his shot isn’t falling, he still manages to make a couple biggies and it’s nice to see that he is spending more of his time running around screens and spotting up and less of it pretending to be a point guard. But there just isn’t enough consistency coming from the reserve unit which has led to more instances of Pierce being out there with four subs and trying to go one-on-five when things bog down than there should be. Davis, who had a stellar string of games a couple weeks ago, highlighted by his outplaying Dwight Howard in the game at Orlando during the last winning streak and has become the primary backup to Garnett (though it was Powe, not Big Baby, who should have been out there after Garnett fouled out against the Lakers) will always play hard and hustle, but he’s too limited on both ends of the floor to be a consistent option. It would be nice if there was someone on the bench who could create his own offense, something that the team inexplicably thought Tony Allen would be able to do when it extended his contract after last season. In other words, a transaction is in order, whether it’s for another big man (Joe Smith?) or a guard (Earl Watson? Monta Ellis? Not Stephon Marbury?).

5. BREATHE A SIGH OF RELIEF FOR THE SCHEDULE

Beginning with tomorrow night’s game in New Orleans, the Celtics will be on the road for over two weeks, not playing another game in Boston until Feb. 27. This may be cause for alarm, but look closer and you’ll see that there’s a mess of time off over that stretch. Following the game in Dallas on Thursday night, the Celtics will have a full week off (excluding Pierce, Garnett and Allen, of course), not reconvening until the 19th in Utah. Boston will have played 55 games before the break, the most of any team in the NBA other than Toronto and Milwaukee. If anyone needs some rest, it’s the Celtics – a lot of their problems right now (defense, turnovers, inconsistency down the stretch) could be traced to fatigue. We’ll miss them while they’re gone – and wonder what to watch on all of the upcoming nights off. But they will be resting, hopefully in a comfortable fashion, which could go a long, long way toward a repeat.

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By Kevin Henkin

I’m at the Lakers/Celtics tilt and I’m doing another edition of the rolling observations. Like the drunk guy says in “Back to School”, the whole world is there. Without further ado, let’s get rolling.

Pregame

When the Lakers arrive on the floor for warm-ups, they are met with a hearty chorus of boos. Following that, the fans rise up with a few “Beat LA” chants. When Kobe is introduced, the crowd erupts with some genuine hostility. We’ve certainly come a long way from that dark moment in the winter of 2007 when Boston fans chanted “MVP! MVP!” for Kobe Bryant at the end of a 43 point effort.

First Quarter

After shooting an air ball, Perkins holds up his forearm and slaps it, making the “Kendrick Perkins is very unhappy face” and jabbering at the nearest official. Meanwhile, the Lakers run past him to play 5-on-4 with the remaining Celtics up at the other end of the floor.

Kobe Bryant drives from the edge of the perimeter and knocks Ray Allen on his tookus. No call. Maybe when Ray gets named to a few more All-Star games and earns a little respect in this league, he’ll start to get those calls.

Garnett gets a good straightaway look at the top of the key but misses it. There was a time last spring when that shot was more bankable than an Angelina Jolie pornography flick.

At the end of the first, the Lakers lead 23-20. Kobe Bryant has 10 points (on 10 shots, which is positively Iverson-esque) while Ray Allen has 7 (although Allen is only 1-4 from deep waters, which is disconcerting).

Second Quarter

Leon Powe throws a pass directly into Pau Gasol’s unsuspecting pointy shoulder. Actually, I think that would have probably represented the high point of Gasol’s defensive play during the Finals last year.

During a time-out, the Jumbotron unveils a promotion called “The Lucky Row”, which basically features a scantily clad girl and a guy wearing Celtics warm ups giving away free team gear. It’s an awkward moment for everyone involved. To be fair, I think it’s going to take a while longer to fill Lucky’s floppy shoes.

After grabbing a hard-earned rebound and put-back, the PA announcer booms an emphatic “LEEEEE-ONNNNNNN POOOOOOOOWE!!” I think this meant to serve as a helpful reminder of how to properly pronounce Leon’s last name during Phil Jackson’s post-game press conference.

An Eddie House three in transition brings the Celtics back to within 4 and the crowd back into the game. Phil Jackson calls a rare “calm down” timeout. Usually he lets his team fall apart, which must be some sort of secretive Zen motivational tool.

In a blatant attempt to make me look bad, Garnett swishes a 20 foot straightaway jumper.

Third Quarter

Lamar Odom crashes into Kevin Garnett and sends him sprawling down to the floor. However, despite his set position outside of the circle, Garnett draws the blocking foul. This is a terrible call. Automatically, I look around to blame Violet Palmer but she is nowhere to be found.

Ray Allen is heating up and doing his impression of Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson. Well, except for the fact that Ray Allen actually has a visible neck.

The game is getting certifiably chippy. First, Rondo and Bryant get heated after a Rondo foul and draw double technicals. Now Garnett and Gasol are jawing at each other and in need of separation. This game easily has the potential of devolving into one of those frisky “Bird and Dr. J strangling each other” or “Robert Parish punching Bill Laimbeer repeatedly in the face” moments.

Rondo picks up his fourth foul midway through the quarter and is replaced by Eddie House, who almost immediately hits an open three. House now has 11 points. The Lakers tend to leave a man open in the corner with a floating helper so this could become a big development down the stretch. On the flipside, the Lakers (mostly Jordan Farmar) are applying a full court press on House’s weak handle.

Thus far, at the 2:14 mark into a timeout, Gasol has 10 rebounds and 17 points on 7-10 shooting. I’m suddenly uncomfortable with this new “responds well to pressure” version of Pau Gasol.

During a break in play, the Jumbotron shows a smiling Bill Belichick in the crowd. The ESPN contingent and other members of the national press do an admirable job in restraining themselves from booing.

House hits another dagger three on a cross-court feed by Pierce. I can’t believe the Lakers are giving him this much daylight.

Through three frames, the Celtics are clinging to an 81-77 lead. Eddie House has 16.

Fourth Quarter

It remains a very tight game but the Lakers have a lineup of Odom, Vujacic, Farmar, Ariza and Josh Powell out there, which must set some of record for euro-vowels. It’s also a bizarre offensive lineup . With Bryant and Gasol on the bench, the Celtics had better makes some hay and get some separation.

Rondo and Garnett connect on another one of their nifty alley oops, easily one of my favorite upside developments of this second year with the new roster together.

Lamar Odom schools Garnett down low and converts on a three point play. It seems pretty clear tha the flu hangover is affecting Garnett’s stamina.

At the 4:22 mark, Garnett fouls out of the game. On the plus side, at least they haven’t shown that guy dressed in the green spandex unitard on the Jumbotron yet, which should ease my nightmares for at least a couple of nights. For better or for worse, it is now Big Baby time.

Correction, it’s Kobe Bryant time. Seemingly on a whim, he hoists up and sinks a three over Pierce, thus giving the Lakers a 1 point lead.

Down 1 coming out of a timeout, the play is called for Pierce but he gets tied up in traffic and passes to an open Glen Davis jumper from the baseline. Of note, Davis has been missing that shot all night long, and does so again. The loose ball comes to Pierce, who draws a sloppy foul. He hits one freebie.

Down the other end, everyone in the building knows it’s going to be in Kobe’s hands. Pierce plays terrific defense and Bryant misses.

With 7.7 seconds remaining, a Ray Allen inbounds pass to Pierce results in a botched play. Overtime.

Overtime

Three possessions in a row, the Celtics convert on tough layups. That success, however, is offset by an inability to stop the Lakers on the other end.

Approaching the 1 minute mark, Big Baby gains some redemption by actually hitting a 17 foot jump shot and putting the Celtics up by 1. However, that feel-good story is very short-lived because on the next possession, he shoots the same shot, misses (actually, Gasol partially blocked it), then commits a loose ball foul that puts Odom at the line. Odom hits them both and gives the Lakers back the lead with 16 seconds left. This ends up being the deciding play because the Celtics fail to get off a good last shot. Ray Allen does a good job of falling down as time expires but the officials don’t bite on the phantom foul. Celtics lose 110-109 and thus the season series to the Lakers. The crowd theatens to rush the court and mob the officials but eventually a dejected fan base files out of the building. It goes without saying that this is a disappointing loss on so many levels. To be continued, perhaps in June.

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By Kevin Henkin

Ah yes. I’m here to cover yet another early Sunday afternoon Celtics game, this one an unusual nooner squeezed in early to allow sufficient time to head off to Super Bowl parties afterward. This game, against the not-quite-there-yet Minnesota Timberwolves, has more tired angles than a typical Dan Shaughnessy column. Among them, in no particular order:

- Kevin Garnett once spent twelve years playing for the Timberwolves. You may have heard this one already.

- Randy Foye was drafted by the Celtics before becoming part of that whole Telfair/Ratliff/LaFrentz trade that ended up playing an eventual role in landing Garnett (see above).

- Present members of the Wolves’ roster include Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes and Sebastian Telfair, all former Celtics.

- Former Celtics’ Great and Hall of Famer Kevin McHale is the new coach of Timberwolves after finally giving long-suffering Randy Wittman the boot. McHale has actually achieved a surprising level of success with his own groceries thus far, earning 10 wins out of his roster in January until back-to-back losses against the Pistons and Lakers this week. Personally, I think it would be a terrific moment if the Celtics dimmed the lights at pre-game and tried to present McHale with a championship ring for his pivotal role in earning that title. “No, seriously Kevin, take it.”

- Lesser known angle: Minnesota assistant coaches Ed Pinckney and Jerry Sichting are both former Celtics. For the uninitiated, Pinckney is best known for the playing on the winning side of the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history (when Villanova beat Patrick Ewing’s hugely favored Georgetown Hoyas in the 1985 NCAA Finals, the college basketball equivalent of Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson) whereas Jerry Sichting’s claim to fame remains being punched in the face by Ralph Sampson during the 1986 NBA Finals.

Onto the game, and the rolling observations…

First Quarter

Kevin Garnett isn’t part of the starting lineup because he’s out with the flu. Glen Davis takes his place and J.R. Giddens actually gets to sit on the bench and wear Celtics’ warm-ups. It’s a special moment for the team’s 2008 first round draft pick.

Ryan Gomes scores easily over Paul Pierce. On the other end, Pierce goes hard against Gomes and converts. I wish I had a percentage to show how often Pierce scores immediately after he gives up an easy basket on defense. I’m willing to bet that percentage would be pretty high.

Early on, Al Jefferson is eating Kendrick Perkins up for lunch (6 points in 4 minutes). Thankfully, Pierce is doing the same thing to Gomes on the other end (9 points in the first 6 minutes).

During the first break in play, some random member of the T-Shirt Patrol comes out brandishing the big T-Shirt Bazooka, formerly the property of one Lucky the Leprechaun mascot (who left the team earlier this week based on artistic differences, or something to that effect). The new guy fires his second shot straight into the 360 degree lighted billboard. Following that, his assistant struggles mightily to load the next t-shirt into the cannon. Hmm. Watching this B-Team performance, you just know that Lucky would‘ve hit the balcony crowd blindfolded, then celebrated his marksmanship later on by blowing off a team promotional event.

Referee Violet Palmer, she of the “fix me some bacon and eggs” fame, blows her first call of the day.

Tony Allen ends the quarter by converting on a fast break layup with 0.1 seconds left. Nice work. At the end of the frame, the Celtics lead 29-24, which seems just about right. For the season, opponents of the Timberwolves average 102 per game. Boston, meanwhile, gives up an average of 92.2 points.

Second Quarter

Patrick O’Bryant is in the game to start the quarter. Puzzled, I check my calendar and confirm that the date is in fact NOT April 1st. In his first action, O’Bryant doesn’t get a hand on a pass from Pierce with some mustard on it. He does, however, block a shot down the other end on the next possession.

Tony Allen ties up Mike Miller for a jump ball, a play he created out of nowhere. He then hits an open mid-range jumper and scores a couple possessions later on an aggressive three point play, prompting me to wonder for roughly the 387th time if this “Good Tony Allen” is going to stick around for awhile.

A dagger three by Eddie House – created from a beautiful no-look feed by Ray Allen – gives the Celtics a 39-28 lead and their first real separation from the Wolves in this game.

During the next break in play, the Jumbotron shows a random zany NBA bloopers video, which just serves to further highlight the absence of Lucky. Part of me wishes that Lucky went out in a blaze of glory, emptying two cans of green silly string onto Sasha Vujacic and screaming a string of Gaelic profanities while being dragged away by a large team of security guards.

At the 1:56 mark, Rajon Rondo scores his first basket of the game on a three point play. Honestly, I expected Rondo to be more of a factor against the likes of Telfair man-up and Jefferson and Kevin Love as the help down low.

The score at the end of the half is 62-44 in favor of Boston. Jefferson is the only Minnesota player in double figures with 16. Minnesota’s bench scored 4 points in total versus Tony Allen’s 12.

Third Quarter

Pierce comes out hard, scoring 5 in the first minute. He looks determined to get some well deserved rest in the fourth quarter as the Celtics have a heavy load coming up, with 4 games in the next 7 days.

I observe that Sebastian Telfair still does that thing where he keeps his hand raised while his jump shot sails in the air. As if he’s expecting it to be a swish (he missed). As if he’s Ray Allen or some other equally reputed shooter. As if his shooting percentage was above 35% for the season (it was 34.6% coming into today).

Randy Foye is giving Ray Allen some trouble. Allen has had a hard time keeping up with the younger player and hasn’t received much help from his defenders in the paint thus far.

Al Jefferson is suddenly killing the Celtics with his mid-range jumper. If Bob Lobel was still alive, he’d say “Why can’t we get guys like that?”

At the end of three, the Celtics are holding onto an 87-73 lead. I think we can forget about that rest for Pierce and Ray Allen. Pierce, by the way, already has 29 points while Al Jefferson has 30. Both have been fairly unstoppable.

Fourth Quarter

Less than two minutes into the quarter, the Timberwolves have the lead down to 10, 87-77. I predict that Dan Shaughnessy is already framing out a “Curse of Lucky” column.

Violet Palmer just called herself for a delay of game after being too nitpicky about where the Wolves should inbound the ball. Okay, I made that up.

In this quarter, Eddie House has been slotted back into the point guard role. Earlier, he was the shooting guard with Tony Allen as the point guard. Gabe Pruitt has sat throughout. Because why would you want to replicate the success that House has achieved in recent games as a featured shooter? This part of the rotation, now that Tony Allen is back, definitely needs to be sorted out.

Kevin Love has legitimate size and he makes good commercials for ESPN. But, he is a seriously terrible help defender. Pierce just abuse Ryan Gomes, spinning by him with an open path to the basket. Jefferson was too far out of position to help but Love was sitting right there on the weak side and you could almost see the thought bubble above his head at that moment, which probably would have said: “Uh oh. Do you think I’m supposed to swing over and bother that guy’s open shot?”

Piece draws a mismatch with Telfair on him and shoots a “Pierce of old”, an isolated fall away. Swish.

A Big Baby put-back with 43 seconds remaining restores a 10 point lead and effectively seals the win. In summary, it wasn’t pretty but it counts as much as the other 39 that they’ve tallied thus far. Bring on the 76ers.

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By Kevin Henkin

It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these so it’s time to roll out the rolling observations, Full Court Press-style. I’m at the Celtics game against Dallas on a generally rare early Sunday afternoon tilt (although there a couple more of these coming up in the next month). Dallas is almost always a frisky opponent for Boston, even though they typically take a laisssez-faire approach to defense and feature a star player who brags about smoking dope during radio interviews. Onto the game…

First Quarter

With sudden daylight, Kendrick Perkins takes a wide open 15 footer along the baseline. Hmm. Despite the fact that he missed, I still feel like I just spotted a unicorn.

Wow. Dallas seems to be exerting some genuine effort on defense, which I suppose is a reflection of Rick Carlisle’s instilled attitude.

Thus far, Paul Pierce has been having some problems on defense against Josh Howard. He responds by going at Howard hard on the other end of the floor, getting Howard up in the air on a fake and converting on a lay-up in the absence of any help defense.

On the next possession, Pierce hits on open three. Josh Howard was so far away that Pierce could have flossed his teeth and read a 5,000 word Bill Simmons article and still had time to get the shot off uncontested. Maybe I spoke a little too soon about the vaunted Dallas defense.

Garnett intercepts an inbounds pass from Dirk Nowitzki and goes for a quick slam before drawing the foul. Nowitzki raises his hand dejectedly to accept the foul, which seems sort of obvious considering he was the only Dallas player within thirty feet of the play. The big German is capable of many things on a basketball court but playing effective defense against the likes of Kevin Garnett does not appear to be one of them.

During a break in play, the Jumbotron shows Lucky the Leprechaun spraying the entire contents of a silly string canister onto an unsuspecting fan wearing a Mavericks jersey. The Dallas fan seems to take it in stride but it makes me wonder if Lucky ever pauses before spraying certain fans with pink silly string, thinking to himself, “Hmm, that guy in the Marbury jersey looks like a serial killer. Maybe I’ll stick with the fat guy in the next section wearing the Renaldo Balkman authentic.”

Brian Scalabrine enters the game at the 1:42 mark to a hero’s welcome. He even wipes his hands on the bottom of his sneakers a la vintage Larry Bird, which is pretty cool in a spoofy sort of way. Ten second later he sinks an open three pointer, prompting a Dallas timeout with the score 31-17 in favor of Boston. I’m thinking the Big Three are going to play limited minutes in this one.

Rondo hits a contested 18 footer with two second left in the quarter, bringing the score to 38-23 for the frame. 38 points? How embarrassing, even by Dallas standards. For the quarter, Garnett and Ray Allen have 11 points apiece while Pierce has 8. Boston is shooting 67% with no turnovers. Dallas meanwhile is shooting 40%.

Second Quarter

Early on, Dirk Nowitzki takes about seven steps on his way to converting a layup through traffic. No call. The NBA: Where Blatant Superstar Treatment Happens.

Rondo hits another jumper. I’m going to keep mentioning this whenever it happens because if it continues, it’s going to seriously screw up opposing defense game plans.

Scalabrine hits another open three, bringing the score to 56-31, prompting yet another Dallas “calm down” time out at the 6:50 mark. For what it’s worth, this is the best ball movement I’ve seen with three bench players on the floor all season. God bless this Dallas defense.

Holy crap. The Jumbotron just showed Nomar Garciaparra sitting courtside with Lou Merloni. The Boston crowd at first seems unsure what to do before giving him a classy cheer. There’s nothing quite like two World Series titles in four years to help a fan base put aside some mixed ill feelings.

The Jumbotron also shows Lenny Clarke sitting courtside. Like Garciaparra, he gives a friendly wave to the crowd. I’m suddenly nervous. I hope this doesn’t mean that the rest of the Celtics’ season is about to be canceled.

Rondo just hit another jumper. Keep counting.

Eddie House just sank his second consecutive three, officially bringing Boston their first 30 point lead of the day at 64-33. I’m pretty sure that if this was a little league game, Rick Carlisle would just forfeit.

End of the half score is 74-47, which is about as ugly a palindrome as you’ll ever see in this league.

Third Quarter

I keep waiting for Jason Kidd to get to the line so I can see whether he still blows kisses before he shoots. Hey, if he’s still blowing kisses to his now ex-wife, he’s clearly a better man than I.

Jason Terry gets a little gabby with Kevin Garnett after being called for a foul away from the play. He looks ridiculous acting tough with Garnett. For what it’s worth, Terry has always struck me as a punk, in a Nate Robinson sort of way.

I think at this point, both teams have scored baskets in each of their last ten possessions. What with the 30 point lead and all (90-60 at the halfway mark of the quarter), I think it’s safe to say folks won’t be showing film of this half at any defense clinics.

To their credit, Dallas continues to work extremely hard on the offensive end. After all, the opposing defense has softened and there are stat sheets to be padded.

Dallas has the lead down to 25. Honestly, if there were another 8 or 9 quarters left to play, I swear the Mavericks could get right back in this thing.

Yet another Eddie House three boosts the Boston lead up to 103-78 by the end of the quarter, which means the Celtics were able to achieve their season scoring average in three quarters. Nice day at the office for the starters, who can obviously expect to sit for the remaining 12 minutes.

Fourth Quarter

The Boston lineup consists of House, Scalabrine, Glen Davis, Gabe Pruitt and Bill Walker. Patrick O’Bryant seems to take the slight in stride but Leon Powe looks confused. Meanwhile, Dallas continues playing Nowitzki, Kidd, Howard, Terry and Brandon Bass. Carlisle is clearly giving them the “bad dog” treatment.

Patrick O’Bryant and Leon Powe enter the game at around the 8 minute mark, officially signaling the end of the Doc Rivers mind games for the day.

Eddie House sinks another two consecutive threes, bringing the score to 118-89 and another Dallas timeout. Gino gets rolled out on the Jumbotron, which a multitude of fans take as permission to leave. Hey, at least they showed up, which is more that can be said for the Dallas Mavericks today.

Game over. Final score 124-100, and it wasn’t even that close. What else is there left to say except: Update the record to 37-9 and bring on the Sacramento Kings.

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THE FIVE PACK: BACK TO REALITY

by Jeremy on January 23, 2009

By Jeremy Gottlieb

THE FIVE PACK: BACK TO REALITY

It feels good to know that everything has returned to normalcy in the Celtics’ universe. The high stress that accompanied the seven-out-of-nine losses stretch of a few weeks ago seems like a distant memory. Over the course of what is now a seven-game winning streak thanks to last night’s convincing win at fellow Eastern Conference big shot Orlando, the Celtics have found themselves offensively while displaying a similar brand of energy and intensity to what they featured at the start of the season. Fast starts followed by absolute beatdowns are the norm once more and with that let’s take a look at another bounty of five things that are going on with the C’s as they careen toward the All-Star break.

1. THE OFFENSE IS BACK

One of the most puzzling aspects of the slump was how much trouble the Celtics seemed to have on offense. Individually, pretty much everyone struggled, Paul Pierce notwithstanding. Rajon Rondo suffered through his first prolonged lousy stretch of the year and Ray Allen’s shot stopped falling. In losing seven of nine, the Celtics were averaging nearly 10 fewer points per game than during their 27-2 start. The schedule then did the team a favor, beginning with a home-and-home against Toronto, which was a playoff team and is now an injured-Jermaine O’Neal team (perhaps they could ask the {Pacers what the last three seasons of sub-standard Jermaine were like). The Raptors aren’t exactly the best defensive team in the league, to put it mildly, and Allen took advantage, drilling eight of 10 from deep and finishing with 36 in the streak-breaking win. Toronto hung in there in the rematch but the Celtics put up 115 points in the win and they were once again off to the races. Another home-and-home, this one against the mediocre Nets and featuring two hideous performances by Vince Carter, were when the confidence began to fester (a combined 52-point victory margin in the two games), which was good timing with teams like Phoenix, Miami and Orlando coming up. In running the streak to seven with wins in those three games, the Celtics are posting an average of over 105 points per game and getting what they want when they want it, thanks to more ball movement and less early-in-the-shot clock, one-on-one stuff. Rondo is again fearlessly making plays and even hitting some mid-range jumpers, Allen is shooting to his regular standards and Pierce is blistering. The Celtics have the capacity to endure slumps on offense by some of their guys, but not necessarily almost all of them at once. It’s a safe bet that won’t happen again.

2. THE BENCH IS A LITTLE BETTER

Three weeks ago, Doc Rivers turning to look down his bench was a cringe-inducing sight. It felt like each game brought an even more putrid performance from the reserves than the last. But coinciding with the winning upturn (and yet another injury to Tony Allen), has been some breakout games by the non-starters, Eddie House’s against Miami on Wednesday and Big Baby’s last night in Orlando, standing out the most. Scal, who looks more like the Pillsbury Dough Boy every time I see him, has even had some nice moments while logging starts at center in the absence of Perk last week. What a team gets out of its bench is always important but it is even more crucial for the Celtics because any lightening of the load for Pierce, Allen and Kevin Garnett is helpful. The game against the Magic last night had some moments of uncertainty down the stretch and even though it was ultimately Pierce and KG who sealed the win, it was Big Baby who provided a huge spark when Perk, who is still getting back in game shape after his brief absence, scoring 16 points in a 6-of-8 shooting performance that featured the full repertoire of low post moves and short to medium range jumpers. When House hit six 3-pointers in the second quarter against the Heat en route to finishing with 25 points, it afforded the team to breathe easy that Pierce had a rare off-night. It doesn’t matter if one guy can bring it off the pine every night (which is lucky for the streaky House), it matters that someone does, even if that someone is Bill Walker. Funny how there haven’t been any stories over the last couple weeks about whether P.J. Brown is planning to un-retire, eh?

3. WHITHER LEON POWE?

I guess I couldn’t possibly get through one of these without one little scrap of negativity, which leads us to Leon. I was sure that after his performance in the postseason last year that he would be further up the ladder in Doc’s rotation this year, playing more minutes and steadily improving his game even more. Instead, it’s been nothing but inconsistency for Leon, who has completely disappeared over the past week and seems to have regressed. Last night six and change minute, zero-point stinker was his second straight scoreless outing, a stat that alongside his microscopic rebounding numbers and lack of trips to the line of late looks worse than it should. Leon is by no means a go-to guy on offense – he’s out there to hustle, rebound bang into guys and get himself to the line off of second chances and that’s all. But when a player with such a narrow, defined role isn’t playing it properly, it sticks out. It may be the shifting of his minutes (he topped 16 once during the losing stretch, then played 22+ three time in the first five games of this win streak before playing six and eight-plus in the last two games) that’s got him fouled up or he may just be slumping, as all players do. But of all the people to have potentially been so consistently inconsistent on this roster, Leon was one of the furthest to come to mind.

4. DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS

During the winning streak, the Celtics have allowed an opponent to shoot better than 47 percent twice and once was against Phoenix, which trailed by 30 at halftime. Miami shot just 40 percent Wednesday and Orlando, one of the top offensive teams in the league, shot 38 percent and had leading All-Star vote getter Dwight Howard rendered virtually obsolete in the process, which prompted coach Stan Van Gundy to say, “We’ve had no ball movement because they’ve completely locked us up defensively,” during his in-game interview just before the fourth quarter. Naturally, how the Celtics perform when they have the ball is exceedingly important, but for them, it all starts on defense. They’re ability to exert their will against any opponent at any time last year was THE biggest reason they finished the regular season with the league’s best record. It was a given, both in the first 30 games of this year as well as all of last year, that the Celtics would guard physically and tenaciously and that ferocity was absent over the losing stretch. But since they started to win again, not only have the Celtics put up the stellar opponent’s field goal percentage numbers, they’ve allowed over 90 points once, against Toronto in the second game of the streak, which went to overtime. Their next three games are against Dallas, Sacramento and Detroit, none of which have had an easy time scoring this season, making the likelihood of another double-digit win streak even higher – provided that defensive intensity stays put.

5. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

In the end, it doesn’t mean much. Like we said two weeks ago as every “expert” who had spent the first six weeks of the season drooling over a sure repeat was bolting from the Celtics express with breakneck speed, nothing really matters until the playoffs. It would be ideal, of course, for the Celts to have home-court throughout the tournament again – as we saw last year, such an advantage is absolutely huge – meaning that they can’t afford another bump like the last one if they want to stay ahead of Cleveland and Orlando in the standings. But if it happens, it happens. It isn’t possible to properly judge the product until the games really start to mean something. They are not as good as the 27-2 start or the current 7-0 run, nor are they as bad as they looked throughout the 2-7 stretch. They are a work in progress that will not be completed until the playoffs end for them. If they win it all again, then we’ll have a definitive answer.

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