Wednesday, March 19, 2008

State of the Celtics

I've been holding off talking about the surprisingly dominant Celtics all season long. That time is through.

After they dismantled both the Spurs and Rockets I feel the need to address what's going on. Usually I would leave this for French, but he's apparently retired or cut down to posting once a month. Slacker!

Part of the reason I held off was because I was waiting for the inevitable crash to earth. I didn't fully buy into this team for several reasons:

Age: The three stars are all 30 and above and at the tail end of their careers. The excitement of the new season and playing with new, competent teammates pretty much guaranteed a fast start, but I was convinced there would be a let down at some point.

Injury: I was sure some season ending injury was going to befall one or more of them. Especially Ray Allen, who was coming off double ankle surgery. At the very least there would be some lingering issue that affected their play. There was some of this, of course, with Garnett's ab strain and Allen's jammed ankle which is worrying me.

Bench: It initially seemed that Ainge & Co. were just signing whoever they could get to fill out the roster. As if Pierce, Garnett and Allen were more than enough to carry any team, even if it consisted of Development League rejects and unproven young guys.

Coaching: Look, I like Doc Rivers. He seems like a good guy, but his career in Boston up until this year was questionable at best; disastrous at worst. He fiddled constantly with lineups, refused to stick with a regular rotation and managed games (especially close ones) with the finesse of a sumo wrestler. It was ugly.

Conferences: Even with just the three stars (btw, I refuse to call them the 'Big 3'. That refers to Bird, McHale and Parish. Nicknames should not be recycled. You listening Tomlinson?), you could pencil in the Celtics for one of the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference. This was even before Miami and Chicago shit the bed. The problem was how this team was going to match up with the power houses of the Western Conference. Keep in mind this was before the Lakers acquired Gasol and the Mavs picked up Kidd.

Point Guard: I liked Rondo last year and thought he showed enormous promise and improvement throughout his rookie season. But it's one thing to like the potential of a player and an entirely different thing to entrust the success of a potential championship contender to an unproven, still learning point guard who can't hit a shot outside of 18 feet.

So what happened? Well, the Celtics currently have the best record in the NBA, they are officially feared by EVERY team in the league and, when playing at their best, are scary good and enormously fun to watch. Just ask the Rockets who had beaten down 22 teams in a row and were playing at home. Final score: Celtics 94 - 74 and that isn't even an indication of how badly the Celtics whipped this team last night.

How - I mean really - how the hell did this happen? Let's break it down.

Age: Yeah, the three stars are over 30 years and you could argue that both Garnett and Pierce have more miles than that on their bodies since they've been carrying crappy teams for the past 4 years or so. But they are a young 30 (Pierce is 31, Garnett 30 and Allen 32) and, more importantly, they keep themselves in tremendous shape.

Here's a telling story. When Garnett first signed with the Celtics, he decided to start his usual early morning workout routine at the practice facility. He arrives at 6 am and find Pierce already there covered in sweat. He is startled because throughout his career he has always been the first to workout. As he walks around to get his bearings he hears someone else and finds Ray Allen working out. Like Pierce, he's drenched and it's apparent he's been there for a while.

Age be damned with these three. If anything, this team won't lose for lack of conditioning.

Injury: So far so good. Garnett lost some time before the All Star break with an ab strain and Ray Allen's ankles are holding up for now. Just as importantly, Tony Allen seems back to his explosive self after back to back knee injuries the past two seasons. I forgot how quick and energetic he is when healthy. I also commend the Celtics for not rushing back any of their players. They realize there is a bigger goal at stake then the regular season. It helps that the team went 7-2 when Garnett was out and the All Star break hit at just the right time, but still.

Bench: Which brings us to the most important part of this team. This isn't just a collection of random castoffs. Leon Powe, Big Baby, Eddie House, James Posey, Tony Allen and even Brian Scalabrine are perfect compliments to the three stars. Nobody tries to do more than they are capable of and all of them are perfectly aware of their roles. Even the additions of Sam Cassell and PJ Brown (an addition that could be a huge difference maker in the playoffs) were logical. The way this team has been assembled to assimilate with the three big guns is the second biggest surprise of the year.

Coaching: Allow me to take this opportunity to officially apologize to Doc Rivers. He has managed the team nicely and even has some sort of rotation going on. Maybe he just had crappy players to work with? He always got his teams to play hard (even in Orlando) and with Garnett showing up that wasn't going to be an issue any longer. I have a sneaking suspicion that Garnett has more to do with Doc Rivers resurgence than anything else. Garnett reminds me of Magic, Jordan and Bird in that they were all unofficial coaches. During the KC Jones era here in Boston it was more likely Bird was calling the shots on the floor. Not that this is a bad thing. Both Rivers and Jones were smart enough to let their superstars take control and enjoy the free ride.

Conferences: Here is the most telling stat of this years: Against the Western Conference the Celtics are an unheard of 22-4. 22-4!!!!!!!!!! I don't think they've won 22 games against the West the past 2 seasons combined. Maybe the past three. This tells me that not only are the Celtics legit, but that they can match up against any team in either conference. This is very good news.

Point Guard: As anyone who has watched the Celtics this year can tell you, Rondo is the motor behind this group. He is improving every game, every play, every minute he's on the floor. Defensively he's a pain in the ass; swarming, slapping at the ball, harassing the other team's PG. Offensively, he's getting better and better at blowing by his man and setting up the inside guys. I'll bet half of his assists have ended in Perkins or Garnett dunking the ball. Plus, Eddie House has been surprisingly effective as a backup and with Sam Cassell now on board, this team should be good to go.

One other thing I didn't think of - Rivers made a point (sorry, no pun intended) of taking the pressure off Rondo early in the season by letting Pierce or Ray Allen bring up the ball. Or Rondo would give up the ball early and let the offense flow through Pierce or Garnett. It's a small, logical game plan, but as Rondo became more comfortable and confident (and as a result his teammates becoming more confident and comfortable with him) he has been running the offense more often. This makes the Celtics even more difficult to defend. Not only can Pierce, Allen, Rondo, House and even Posey bring the ball up and run the offense. How do you plan for that?

Those were just my early season concerns. Here are some things that I didn't even consider and have been the driving forces:

Defense: Forget about the star power, the energy the players have been bringing, the point guard situation, Doc Rivers actually coaching. The real reason this team owns the best record in the NBA is the oppressive defense it brings every night. One thing I never noticed about Garnett was the pride he took in his defense. He works on it constantly and, in effect, makes his teammates work on it as well. The Celtics have gone from one of the worst last season to the best. No, really, they lead the league in defensive field goal percentage at a shade under 42%, points per game allowed (90.8; ahead of even the Pistons) and point differential.

For those that watched the Celtics last season, this is just shy of a miracle. I'll let a professional have the last word on this topic. After last night's Rocket beat down in which the Celtics held Houston to 34 points in the second half, Tracy McGrady said, 'In my 11 years in the NBA, that's the best defense I've ever seen'.

Paul Pierce: I'll admit taking him for granted in the past. Always thought he was a bit over rated. He was always very good; normally one of the best 15 players in the NBA, but he had the tendency to try to do too much. One of those offensive players that forced the issue. Sure he would have spectacular games and had the ability to literally take over games on the offensive end, but there were also those times where he would heave up a desperate fall away with two players on him or launch a three pointer with 15 seconds still on the shot clock.

This year is far and away his best. His scoring and stats may be down, but don't underestimate how efficient Pierce has been making that extra pass. Or passing up the three pointer to dump it into the post to get a better shot for his team. He can still score, but now he does it only when he needs to. I guess that's what happens when you have competent teammates.

But there is another, perhaps more important change in Pierce this year. He seems to be enjoying himself. I remember his first two years in the league, Pierce couldn't help but smile as he learned just how good he could be. The last few seasons he's been scowling and pouty even when the team was playing well. The infamous Indiana playoff game when he completely lost his cool and wore some sort of bizarre face bandage was nearly the undoing of Pierce in Boston. Fans were disgusted with his antics and embarrassed by his behavior. That summer there were calls for the Celtics to trade him.

Looking back it seems that trying to do it all - be THE MAN - was too much for him to handle. With the arrival of Garnett and, to a lesser extent, Allen relieved the pressure. Pierce no longer needs to heft the team onto his shoulders and lug them around. He still can do that and at times he has (the Spurs game Monday night is a perfect example), but just knowing he no longer has to score 30 points just to give his team a chance has lifed the burden. He's playing like he wants to this season and not because he's required to.

Kevin Garnett: Admittedly I only watched Garnett on occasion. He was in the Western Conference and I never had much of an opportunity to see him. Most of the time I saw Garnett was on SportsCenter highlights. Don't get me wrong, I was pumped when they traded for him (tempered a bit by giving up Al Jefferson), but the first month of the season was a revelation for me.

Forget the athleticism or the dunks or the aggressive approach - we were already aware of that. What surprised me was the energy he played with. The dude is tireless. He's jumping just as high, running just as hard, playing defense just as ferociously if the team is down by 3 or up by 25. Relentless is the word.

I was used to watching players like Lebron and Kobe coast at times and I expected the same from Garnett only because I had never seen him play an entire game before. Well, allow me to say fuck that! KG is like a starving, abused Rottweiler on a basketball court. He attacks, attacks, and then attacks some more. If he senses fear or weakness you can forget about containing him. He'll eat you alive.

But, of course, it's not just that he plays all out all the time (something Boston fans LOVE by the way; there's a reason Bird and Orr are gods in this area), it's that innate sixth sense of the game he displays. I had no idea what a great passer or tireless rebounder he is or how he seems to be in the right place at the right time on nearly every play. He is not just an athletic, seven foot freak of nature, he's a student of the game. He studies it, practices it, hones his abilities and wants to be the best player he can be. Not just for him, but for his team.

This extends to the other players. Do you think Big Baby or Leon Powe would be as effective this season if they didn't practice with KG? How much does a player improve when you have to guard him in practice every day? By all accounts, he plays just as hard in a scrimmage as he does in a real game and he does so in order to help the guys playing against him. If you have to guard Garnett every day how much more prepared are you to guard Tim Duncan or Pau Gasol? Exactly.

What's really strange is how Garnett would gladly sacrifice his stats and glory to improve his team. Maybe that's the main ingredient to this year's success. Not that they have good role players or a sound approach to defense (although that certainly helps). Maybe the key is combining three unselfish players who happen to be some of the best at their position. Ainge deserves credit for rolling the dice, but I don't think even he saw this coming.

I do have concerns. Doc Rivers is still the coach and I have a nagging feeling that he will cost them at least one playoff game with a boneheaded decision or substitution. He could very easily out think himself, if that's possible.

There is Cleveland and Lebron to worry about. There are the Pistons, but they don't worry me too much anymore. They've been showing their age lately. Orlando, too, could cause problems. Not to mention whoever emerges from the West.

I am taking solace, however. Doc Rivers is our coach, Garnett and Pierce and Allan have never reached NBA Finals, and a number of things could go south from now until the end of the season. But if Eli Manning can beat Tom Brady in a Super Bowl and the Red Sox can win 2 World Series titles in 4 years, then anything is possible.

Doc Rivers: Coach of the Year? Believe it or not, it wouldn't be the first time.

Today's distraction: Check out this ridiculous story about the Timberwolves owner accusing Garnett of 'tanking' last season. Pretty dubious claim considering Garnett refused to be traded and wanted to stay in Minnesota until the middle of the summer (when the Celtics acquired Ray Allen). What a putz!


son pere said...

Great column! I love the way you can just "hit the nail on the head"! I was never much of a Celtics fan until this year. Now that I've been following your blog on a daily basis (thanks to French!), I'm gaining more and more insight into the inner workings of basketball, and the Celtics. Thanks for the enlightenment.

Oh, yeah, I LOVE your "post mortems" on "LOST" too! They always either bolster my take, or clarify something I wondered about.

Keep doing what you're doing, man! We love it!

ThePowerOf10 said...

Garnett was the second coming of Jesus here in Minnesota, so be grateful for him while you have him. One thing is for sure with him, you're never completely out of a game because he can go on these tears and just take the whole arena over.
Thanks for Al Jefferson though, I am really into him after seeing him play live last month. I truly believe he will be the face of the Minnesota franchise soon.

BeachBum said...

Thanks, son pere. Much appreciated. The Celtics were my favorite team growing up. Mainly because watching Hondo and Cowens, then Bird and Mchale completely spoiled me.

Getting Garnett's been better than I could have hoped, but I hated giving up Jefferson. Great low post moves, good rebounder and a likable guy to boot.

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