By J.M. Poulard
With the 2011 All-Star game now a thing of the past, we can now set our sights on the remainder of the regular season. So far this season, the Boston Celtics (40-14) have stood atop the Eastern Conference standings and are hoping to remain there by the time the playoffs start. The Golden State Warriors (26-29) do not plan on accommodating the Celtics in their quest when these teams play tomorrow at Oracle Arena but then again neither has the rest of the NBA and look where it landed this Boston team. Let’s see how they have done this so far this season.
On offense, Boston averages 97.9 points per game (20th in the league) on 49.3% field goal shooting (best in the NBA).Teams do not shoot that well without nearly flawless execution on offense and such is the case for the Celtics. Their core four players of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett all display a marvelous basketball IQ, which allows the team to consistently create open shots. They truly are breathtaking to watch with the way they share the ball as a unit.
Indeed, it’s not by accident that this team leads the league with 24.3 assists per game. As previously mentioned, the stars on the team always understand where their shots will come from but also understand when and how to get their teammates easy shot attempts. For instance, Ray Allen runs a lot of curl screens (underrated part about screens is the actual screen setting and this team does it quite well) that typically get him open at the wings and sidelines for jumpers. However, in order to counter these plays, teams usually ask the man guarding the screener to help out on Allen to give the primary defender time to recover to contest the shot. This is a great strategy provided that every other defensive player on the court understands their responsibilities and reacts to them accordingly. Typically, opponents react late and thus once Allen catches the ball, he is able to feed the player that executed the screen for an easy look at the basket.
Defending Allen is hard enough but the presence of Garnett complicates things even more. Other than Dirk Nowitzki, there might not be a better jump shooting power forward in the league. As a result, the Big Ticket must be guarded on every possession and cannot be left alone. And yet, the Celtics throw so many plays at you with a variety of options that the reaction time to decide who to leave open is often small. As is often the case, one small mix up usually leads to an uncontested shot. And yet, that’s not even KG’s biggest contribution on this team. His passing ability is quite possibly the biggest asset that he brings on offense to this team. Don’t get me wrong, Garnett is a terrific offensive option but he routinely finds cutters off double teams and post ups for attempts directly the basket.
It’s part of the reason that the Celtics manufacture 25.8 shots at the rim per game (sixth in the NBA) and convert them at a 68.1% mark (best in the league). Given the fact that Garnett is often feeding the likes of Big Baby Davis, Shaquille O’Neal, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen at the basket (all good finishers), it stands to reason that they convert most of their shots there. This explains how Boston generates 42.9 points in the paint per game (ninth in the association).
Further exacerbating the problem for opposing defenses, Rajon Rondo can get to almost any spot on the floor that he wishes to; and does so with the intent of finding open players. He will often probe the paint and suck the defense in and then kick it back out to an open player. He reminds me of Jason Kidd in his New Jersey days in that sense; he is such a pass first guard that he will surprise you and take the ball all the way to the rim at times because defenders aren’t expecting him to. And by the way, if all those options fail, just isolate Paul Pierce at the pinch post.
On defense, the Celtics surrender 91.1 points per game (best in the NBA) on 43.6% field goal shooting (third in the league). Boston plays at a slow pace, which explains to a certain extent their relatively low scoring numbers on offense and also on defense. But do not let that fool you, this defense is incredibly tough to score on. Remember the speech that Al Pacino gave in Any Given Sunday about not conceding any inches to opponents? If I didn’t know any better, I would say that the C’s defense was built off of that monologue.
Their first order of business is pressure. The Celtics unleash Rondo on the opposing point guard to make life tough for their opponents. His long arms, foot speed and quickness make it tough for guards to beat him to a spot and thus he has a lot of success against guards. Granted, his defense might not look great against players like Steve Nash and Derrick Rose, but against the likes of Luke Ridnour and Mario Chalmers, it’s practically Hall of Fame worthy.
The second order and really the most important one for team green is help defense. Lots of it. If an offense dares to put them in a pick and roll, they more often than not take it out completely out what it is trying to do. Indeed, the Celtics big men do a terrific job of jumping out at the ball handler and then recovering back to their man while the back line of defense adjusts accordingly. According to Hoopdata, Boston defense yields 22.5 shots at the rim per game (ninth best in the league) and only allow a 60.1% conversion rate (second best in the association).
Kanye West has a song in which he says “no one man should have all that power”; and against this defense, no one man does. Boston’s defense was built to stop just about everything, but really it completely stymies isolation heavy teams. The way to beat this defense is with ball movement and rebounding. The Celtics defense displays a great amount of toughness, however when their defense is forced to constantly rotate on defense and then close out possessions by rebounding the ball, they are quite often left vulnerable. The problem is that few teams are patient enough to consistently attack them as such.
Also, there is another way to beat this vaunted defense: an incredibly gifted passer. Steve Nash made the Celtics look silly on defense in late January as the Suns kept moving the ball and then forced them rotate to shooters as Kid Canada just kept threading the needle with some incredibly tough passes that just kept finding open teammates. Mind you, there are only a handful of players in the NBA today that can do to that defense what Nash did. And the irony? The Suns only scored 88 points in the game (a Suns win). Perhaps Curry (known to make some impressive passes) can attempt to try and replicate the Suns game plan: push the pace and force the Celtics to defend much earlier than they are ready for in the possession and then see if they can rotate accordingly as they wear down progressively during the game.
Boston game notes: Doc Rivers essentially had his players on the bench in crunch time of the All-Star game. Let’s see if these guys come out with fresh legs.
Golden State game notes: Boston is a tough team that likes to impose its will on opponents physically and mentally. Let’s see if the Warriors get pushed around; it will determine who wins this game but could also determine the fate of the team for the rest of the season.