After the Celtics blowout loss to Sacramento on Sunday, which ended a merciful 4-game road trip, a trip that began with a blow-out win of the Nets, before descending into bewildering darkness, Chris Forsberg’s commentary for ESPN Boston on the state of the Celtics, entitled, “Can the Celtics Turn Things Around?” ended with a Kevin Garnett quote. It should shed some light on the state of things-Celtic.
Garnett explained, “These are dog days. This is when you really see who’s with you right now. Ain’t nobody cheering. Ain’t no lights on us right now. And I love this right here, because this is when all the plastic people melt. So we’ve all got to look at ourselves in the mirror, including myself, and try to figure out what I can do better to help this team…We’ve been known to defend. For some reason we’ve gotten away from that, so we’ve got to go back to our origins and figure it out.
Remember that Garnett played his entire career in Minnesota prior to 2007. Despite his best efforts, those Wolves were bounced from the first round of the playoffs for seven straight years (1996-2003). Despite his tenacity, Garnett wasn’t given a supporting cast that could compete defensively. During the 2003-2004 season, in which the Wolves boosted their win total from 51 to 58 games and fought their way to the Western Conference Finals, Garnett finally had that cast. Here’s a look at the differences between those 2003 and 2004 rosters. This is where we see how the roster was finally assembled with a defensive-focus, one that allowed them to play their best in April and May:
- Replace Wally Szczerbiak with Latrell Sprewell. Szczerbiak’s injuries starting piling up in 2003. He played a mere 28 games, becoming a sixth-man during playoff time in 2004. Compared to Szczerbiak’s questionable defense, the mercurial (this adjective fits Sprewell better than perhaps any other NBA player of the last twenty years except for Marbury) Sprewell was sparked by Garnett’s intensity, and found the wing-stopping defense which had garnered him All-Defensive First-team votes in his second year (1994).
- Replace the lightning fast, but easily overmatched, Troy Hudson with the pesky, gritty Sam Cassell. Without analyzing it too deeply, anyone who remembers the Houston Rockets teams of the mid-1990’s knows that Cassell was not only a clutch shooter, but a true aggravation on defense.
- Replace the aging (34) Kendall Gill with the aggressiveness of Trenton Hassell (the poor man’s Bruce Bowen). During Hassell’s nine-year NBA career, he averaged a meager 5.8 ppg. However, he averaged more playoff minutes than Szczerbiak (26 to 25) because of his ability to hassle (sorry, couldn’t help it) Peja Stojakovic of the Kings in Round 2 and Kobe in the Western Conference Finals. In addition, Hassell’s biggest contributions came in the first three games of the second round series with Sacramento, during which the Wolves took a 2-1 advantage.
During the 2002-03 season, Minnesota finished 5th in offensive rating, but 16th in defense. The next year, with this rebuild roster, the Wolves remained at 5th offensively, but jumped up to 6th on defense.
A team’s deep confidence on the basketball court comes from the collective belief that they, as a unit, can stop the other team from scoring. It’s one thing for Pierce to hit his first few three-pointers and work his way to a 40 point game against one of the worst teams in the NBA. That’s nice. It’s retro. It’s reassuring. But it’s not satisfying the way a defensive-stand and an expiring shot-clock possession against a playoff team is satisfying. It’s another thing entirely to make stops at crucial moments against the better teams in the league. That’s what these playoff runs have always been about. That’s what the character of this team has been about since Garnett came in pointing and badgering, occasionally screaming and making damn sure every Celtic on the court knew where they needed to be at any given moment. A jolt of confidence comes from those stops, which leads to these victories over good teams. A bigger jolt comes from road victories over good teams. This year, after 31 games, the Celtics have one big victory, and it came six weeks ago. Kevin Garnett’s presence on the defensive end still gives the Celtics the top defensive efficiency rating in the NBA when he’s on the court (29 minutes per game). During the other 19 minutes, the Celtics are 30th out of 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency. The lack of communication and intensity from the second unit is glaring. Something has got to give.
Over the last four games, Celtics fans have seen how hard it is to win consistently with a team that lacks a true defensive identity. Early in the pre-season, all the talk was about how good the offense might turn out to be. No more ugly half-court sets, like the ones we saw at times last spring when Philadelphia’s defensive intensity and length (Young, Turner, Igoudala) was handling the C’s in the second round. Now they have instant offense in Terry. Now they have the athletic Jeff Green back. Now Courtney Lee will rescue those dwindling possessions with corner threes. That was before the season started, when all new things are shiny. Before Darko departed for Serbia. Before Courtney Lee forgot how to shoot. And before Terry was thrust into the starting role. Over the last few weeks, Celtic fans have been given a reminder that their current roster includes only three defensive-minded players (Garnett, Bradley, Lee). Of those three, one is being saved for a post-season run that may start as a 7th or 8th seed. Another missed the first 30 games of the season, and has yet to show he can consistently shoot the ball. The third has shown a perplexing knack to suddenly misfire from distance. Lee’s 28% three-point shooting garnered the unenviable distinction of making Sports Illustrated’s All-Disappointment team last week.
Forsberg’s conclusion, as to whether or not this version of the Celtics can indeed “turn it around,” is to wait until January 24th. At that point, the C’s will have played a dozen games with their starting 2-guard, the ball-hawking master of offensive-disaster Avery Bradley. At that point, they will have played 8 of their last 12 at home. Forsberg doesn’t mention that of those 12 games, 4 of those opponents are some of the weakest in the league (Phoenix, Cleveland, New Orleans, Charlotte). Of course, after losing to a tough Memphis team (with Tony Allen reminding us of the grit we once had), they face Indiana, Atlanta and the Knicks over the course of the next four days. The way Boston is currently playing, they’ll be happy to take one of those three. Assuming the Celtics eek out a win against Indiana or Atlanta, the Knicks meeting may tell us how far we have to go. If the Celtics drop both games before Monday, they’ll be rolling into New York with a 14-19 record, having lost six straight, the kind of dismal run we were accustomed to back in 1999 and again in 2006. Before KG came and saved us from mediocrity.
This caravan has eclipsed the 200,000 mile mark. We can admit it. The engine still turns over, and it will go, but not like it used to. The new brakes aren’t stopping us as quickly and the new radiator takes a while to warm up in the wintry mornings. With that in mind, here’s an invitation: if you are one of those fans who jumped on this Celtics train in 2007 after the Garnett trade, and you need a team to be one of the best in the league to put your heart into them (also known as being a “front-runner,” or a “casual” fan), if this describes your attitude, then I invite you to take the leap: it’s time to jump off this bandwagon and melt away into Patriots fan-dom–goodness knows the Red Sox won’t provide you a front-runner in 2013.
If you’re still reading after all of that, here are the reasons for optimism you’ve been waiting for:
1) On a team that is determined to save two of its three best players for April, the bench has been given intensified scrutiny from day one of this season. First, the scrutiny was optimistic, and it has since turned predictably antagonistic, as the proverbial “pieces don’t fit” cliche is now tossed around. Well, they may not fit, but let’s figure out why.
2) Darko Milicic was signed to be the back-up shot-blocker/rebounder they now need to trade for. Every time an opponent drives to the hoop at will against the front-court of Brandon Bass and Jeff Green we are reminded of how necessary it seems to trade for Gortat.
3) For the final time, Avery Bradley missed 30 games. He forced Jason Terry, and his weak perimeter defense into the starting lineup, which in turn weakened the bench.
4) Jason Terry (and Jeff Green, but let’s start with Jet) has been a model of inconsistency. However, wouldn’t you expect some inconsistency from Terry, who is in a new role on a new team for the first time since 2004? In addition, he’s 35 years old. In addition, he’s putting up similar per-minute numbers to the numbers he’s put up over the last three seasons in Dallas. We may remember Terry as the clutch-shooting playoff performer from the Mavs’ runs of 2004-05, 05-06, and 10-11. Remember that those offenses spread the floor and distributed the ball. Terry played perfectly off of Nowitzki’s double-teams. KG and Pierce are not demanding those same double teams. So, you ask, where does that optimism come in? Terry’s minutes will be lowered from 31 to 25 or so with Bradley back in the lineup. This can only help him. As a starter, playing 32 mpg, Terry is shooting 42.7%. As a reserve, playing 26 mpg, he is at 46.6%.
5) Jeff Green and Courtney Lee: Corner 3.
One definite positive is Green’s corner 3-point shooting, which sits at 43%. Courtney Lee, however, has been woeful from the corners, despite hitting the third-most corner 3′s in the NBA with Houston last season. This may be a case where Lee was unaware of the analytics last season, but as the trending topic of corner 3′s and percentages buzzes through the NBA, it’s in Lee’s head that he’s supposed to be a master of this shot. Watching Green release this shot is actually a thing of beauty. He gets full extension and rotation. Green’s length allows him to take his time, while Lee’s shot appears rushed. Lee’s minutes will evaporate if he isn’t traded or doesn’t begin to hit this shot within the next week or two. In terms of the oft-mentioned lack of aggressiveness on the part of Green, it seems clear he cannot sustain his intensity from quarter-to-quarter or game-to-game. Some players don’t have the off-the-bench 0-to-60 gear-shift mentality that Terry has. Green needs to play for longer stretches to find his game. Early in the season, Doc has eased him in for 6-7 minutes stretches on the court. As Green develops his stamina and, hopefully, plays longer stretches at a time, his confidence should continue to rise. Green has to be a more physical presence on the rebounding side in order for him to play any minutes at the power forward spot. Since it appears he can’t be that presence, the C’s need to deal for a 6″10″ rebounder who can keep the Larry Sanders’ of the world at bay.
6) Defense leads to easy offense: Rondo and Green in transition
One aspect of Green’s up-and-down start is this: the lack of defense being played when KG is on the bench minimizes Green’s athleticism. In the open court, Green can out-run and out-maneuver most big men. As long as they can’t get stops, the Celtics are not optimizing Green’s skill set.
Watching the win over Oklahoma City in November, Green (17 pts on 11 shots, including 5-of-5 from the line) was at his best because Rondo was at his best. Rondo was at his best because the Celtics were holding OKC to 6 of 24 shooting from distance, and Rondo was able to get out and run, finding Pierce and Terry for open 3′s (combining for a blistering 8 of 12), while Green was committed to flashing his driving ability at his old teammates and the C’s got out in transition. Interestingly, the Thunder are possibly the only elite team that doesn’t take many corner 3′s, which is a Celtic weakness.
7) The Celtics go as Rondo goes…and lately, he ain’t going.
The two-game suspension made it obvious. The hobbled Rondo we saw on this recent road trip and against Memphis made it more obvious. Rondo is the engine that drives this offense. Without efficient defense and rebounding from the team, Rondo is a much different player. In the half-court, and without accurate three-point shooters spacing the floor, his ability to slash and dish is minimized. When he has it going, Rondo is a top 5 point guard. When he’s hobbled, or when the team isn’t getting the hustle plays it needs to compete with a small-ball roster, which clogs up the court as Memphis did, Rondo is only slightly-above average.
8) Sullinger is willing to throw his body around. Unlike Bass or Green, Sullinger has a massive backside and tree-trunk legs, which allow him to carve out space down-low and occasionally, the Celtics grab a miracle offensive rebound. It’s like a little present when this happens. Tommy screams for joy from the sidelines. The retreating four Celtics have to stop, turn around and realize they still have the ball. Sullinger is still learning how to rotate, and will never block shots, but at least he can use his size effectively.
So….what do we have with this team?
Many questions, and few answers. But here’s one answer: If you need your team to dominate, go watch the Patriots. This team is flawed, but they’ll be all the more fun to watch in May if you (and they) make it that far…
Jonah Hall blogs about the Celtics, the NBA, and what being a fan means at The Darko Index.