Kevin Garnett is tall, skinny, and unafraid of anything, kind of like the grim reaper. Ironically it was the Knicks who decided to wear black suits to the game (Kenyon Martin’s brilliant scheme), in order to symbolically attend a funeral for Boston. Garnett’s 16-point (on 9 shots), 18-rebound, 5-assist, 2-block performance against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night was masterful. Garnett is a master orchestrator on defense, a defiant presence on the block, a fierce competitor in big games, and despite his 57,784 career minutes, Garnett’s career ain’t dead yet. For that, all Boston Celtics fans can be grateful. Kenyon Martin’s biggest contribution in his 13 minutes were 5 fouls. As helpful as Martin was in Games 1 and 2, his attitude has come back to haunt him yet again. When TNT cut to the Knicks bench, you could see Martin staring off into the distance, disconnected from the game at hand, probably wondering how the music stopped so suddenly.
For the Celtics, this was a team win if ever there was one. And that says something about Garnett, Pierce, and the other five players Doc Rivers allowed on the court in Game 5. When your best player is selfless, your team is selfless. The 2008-2012 Boston Celtics have played that way, and the 2013 Celtics have managed to play that way, when at their best. But it’s hard to be selfless with your teammates when you don’t know them. Without Avery Bradley for the first two months, without Rajon Rondo after the half-way point, and with one trade (Crawford) and three Chinese-league signings (Williams, Randolph and White), the team has been re-shuffled more than a deck of old playing cards in your attic or basement.
Playoff rotations are usually controlled and predictable, often team’s go with three reserves, eight total. With older teams, short periods of rest for the aging veterans are necessary. Managing minutes becomes an art-form. Not last night. Pierce played 44 minutes, and Garnett gave 39. The scoring lines could not have been more evenly distributed: Jeff Green’s 18, Jason Terry and Brandon Bass with 17, and Garnett and Paul Pierce both knocking in 16 points.
The Celtics took a 45-39 lead into the half, by wearing down the Knicks on nearly every possession following the 11-0 deficit. “Tightening the screws,” is how Doc Rivers likes to describe the lock-down defense that has been the trademark of his KG-led playoff teams. Put them in a vice, and see what happens. Brandon Bass’ phenomenal on-the-ball defense on Carmelo Anthony has me wondering how it was possible he every was asked to play power forward against 6’10″ defenders. Bass’ lateral movement and ability to make life difficult for Carmelo has been a revelation. Anthony’s shooting line in Game 4 (10 of 35). In Game 5, Anthony was 8 of 24.
Jason Terry was brought in for the sole purpose of balancing the offense and hitting big shots in the playoffs. You know, the way that guy who left for Miami in the off-season used to. Kind of big shoes to fill, the guy with the most 3-pointers in NBA history. Terry’s clutch play in the postseason with Dallas was a critical factor. However, the regular season was nothing short of a disaster for Terry. The NBA is about routines and roles, and Terry’s role in Dallas had been the sixth man/wing scorer, who was unafraid to shoot at any time. In Boston, with Bradley out to start the season, Terry was thrust into the starting lineup. In addition, the Celtics were a brand new collection of players surrounding their new big three of KG, Pierce, and Rondo. Terry kept shooting and kept missing in December and January. To give evidence to Terry’s impact, he has shot 49% from the field in wins, and 38% in losses on the season. Still, he’s been around too long to stop shooting. However, the ball wasn’t dropping. In addition, no matter how you slice it, the man is not a point guard. Fortunately, Terry is not being asked to run point in the playoffs. Avery Bradley was given a shot, but he’s clearly not able to adapt to the offensive demands, decision-making, and ball-handling that a playoff point guard must be ready for. The JET that Celtics fans envisioned took off at the end of Game 4, helping propel the Celtics to the overtime win. Terry is not prepared for his descent just yet, hitting all three of his shots in a crucial 3rd quarter that saw Boston extend it’s lead to 9 (69-60) by the end of the frame.
Jeff Green‘s long-road back from heart-surgery is well documented by now. Green’s lack of game-to-game assertiveness on the court has been talked about endlessly. Bill Simmons continues to say things like, “You never know which Jeff Green you’re going to get!” While Green is sometimes a bit too content to retreat into the corner (where he drops corner 3′s as well as any 6’9″ player in the league, shooting 44% from distance post-All-Star break), and let others dictate, and while he certainly needs to improve his left-hand in penetration, Jeff Green is exactly the kind of second-scoring-option that a team with Paul Pierce needs. Pierce initiated the offense, and in semi-transition (not exactly fast breaks, but not set-plays either), Pierce was able to find good shots for KG and Terry early. Green is the epitome of the player who is content to let the game come to him (the opposite of J.R. Smith, mentioned below). The offense ran through Pierce and Garnett and Bass was able to get good lucks underneath in the first half. When the MSG crowd was attempting to energize his moribund Knickerbockers, Green quieted them with one of his ferocious, swooping slams. Green provided the emerald frosting in this win, draining two three-pointers from the corner to put the game out of reach with 2:24 on the clock.
The unsung hero of this win might have been Terrence Williams, the journeyman swing guard with unique athleticism and great ball-handling, who hadn’t been given a real shot by Rivers until this game. Williams was playing in Southern China in December, and according to the great Chris Forsberg, hadn’t touched a basketball for two weeks after the Chinese season, when Ainge came calling. How was T-Will (there are too many Williams’, right?) a factor? 18 minutes, 4, points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, and zero turnovers.
In a series where Pierce, Garnett, and Green have struggled mightily to take care of the ball (because of Rondo’s absence), Terrence Williams handled the ball beautifully. Pablo Prigioni, who collected 9 steals in Games 3 and 4, played only 13 minutes in Game 5, managing only one theft. Prigioni, the 36-year-old Argentinean rookie, has been an unsung hero himself for New York.
The Knicks began the game with force, jumping out to an 11-0 run. The Celtics finished the last 44 minutes of the game on a 92-75 run. Not coincidentally, J.R. Smith entered the game, and the Knicks stopped scoring. As impressive one-on-one scorers as Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith can be, they are not selfless. Smith’s elbow to Jason Terry’s neck at a meaningless point toward the end of Game 3 has no doubt swung this series. Momentum is a tricky thing in the playoffs. It leaves a team in an instant. That whole motif of the grim-reaper lurking above the bench. Even though the Celtics were lucky to survive Game 4, an overtime win, the tide had turned, and the great majority of Game 5 was played on Boston’s terms, even though it took place at MSG.
If the playoffs are the time to cement your reputation as a player, potentially earning players huge contracts, and dispelling doubts about each player’s weaknesses, J.R. Smith has done an excellent job of bringing back all of his doubters. As highlighted in Michael Scotto’s piece for realgm.com, Smith had transformed into a better all-around player this season, bought into the defensive side of the ball for the first time in his career, and then parlayed that into two very solid performances in Games 1 and 2. Now as we head into Game 6, Smith’s immaturity has reared its ugly head again. Mike Woodson is probably dreaming about some way to combine Jason Kidd’s mentality with J.R. Smith’s athleticism.
Smith, Kidd and Steve Novak were hugely important to the Knicks success this season. Ball movement is easy against the bottom half of the NBA, where the rotations are sloppy, team defense is lacking, and rebounding is usually a problem. For long stretches of Games 1 and 2 and all of Games 4 and 5, New York has been unable to get it’s 4-seconds-or-less shots off. Three-pointers are contested and not dropping. Kidd seems content to whip the ball around. Novak can’t get minutes, given the match-ups and his defensive inabilities.
On a personal note, I want to take a moment to recognize what is going on. The Celtics played hard and competed well for most of Game 1, some of Game 2, and none of Game 3. It shouldn’t be surprising Garnett, like Andrew Bogut of the Warriors, has played his best in Games 3, 4, and 5 of this series. Both big men rested for much of April to heal themselves for the playoffs. And both thrive off of the emotion of the home crowd. Garnett is now back to what we’ve always expected, with a little less spring in the legs.
Now that the Celtics have dug themselves out of the 3-0 whole, and have the momentum back on their side, our expectations go back up, and we remember how dominant this team has been in the playoffs since 2008. But we need to keep in mind this team is still defining itself. The players are finding their niches, and they’ve prolonged the series. That’s all we could have hoped for after Game 3. If there is a Game 7 in New York on Sunday, we will be filled with optimism and anticipation. Let’s be thankful we’re still alive, Celtics fans. Only thirteen other teams can still say that. It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves. Let’s be like Jeff Green and wait for the games to come to us.
Tonight’s playoff schedule:
Brooklyn @ Chicago, Game 6 (Chi leads 3-2), 8pm EST, TNT
Chicago will be without Kirk Hinrich, who teamed up with the inimitable Nate Robinson to dominate the 3OT thriller in Game 4. Hinrich’s 18 points, and 14 assists will be greatly missed. The Bulls simply cannot get a break this year. Will the United Center and their stifling defense be enough to suffocate the Nets?
Denver @ Golden State, Game 6 (GS leads 3-2), 1030pm EST, TNT
Expect the unexpected. Hope that Curry gets a cortisone shot, and that Bogut can dominate underneath. The Roar-acle will be rocking. Surprised I haven’t heard that term used before. After all, it is supposedly a deafening experience. Ear-plugs at the gate?
Friday’s 4-game Playoff Bonanza of Game 6′s
New York @ Boston, Game 6 (NY leads 3-2), 7pm EST, ESPN
*Get ready for a deafening Boston Garden and a very tight New York Knicks team.
Indiana @ Atlanta, Game 6 (Ind leads 3-2), 7pm EST, ESPN2
*First game of series not on NBA TV, which means Paul George finally has a chance to be seen. Pacers should end the Josh-Smith-era in Atlanta on Friday.
Oklahoma City @ Houston, Game 6 (OKC leads 3-2), 1030pm EST, ESPN
This series is filled with plot twists. Harden with the flu? How about 7 straight 3′s? Beverley, Beverley, Beverley, hack-Asik won’t work! Houston and Golden State are incredibly fun to watch, and simply love playing together. The optimism of youth!
Los Angeles Clippers @ Memphis, Game 6 (Mem leads 3-2), 1030pm EST, ESPN2
There is nothing fun to watch about this series. It’s Greco-Roman and ugly, and filled with impossible calls. What is a foul when everything is a foul? Still, as a fan of Chris Paul, and as a lover of great defense, this one should be equally exciting. Blake Griffin sprained his ankle by landing on Lamar Odom’s foot in practice, during a half-speed drill. And that could be the end of the Clippers hopes. This year is insanely injurious.