There are no moral victories when you are the defending champs in the NBA. When you are in a dogfight for home court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs, you either take care of business, or you don’t.
Today’s defeat against the Magic may prove to be an exception as this depleted team put together a gritty 2nd half effort that gave them a chance to beat the East’s third best team.
The Celtics, despite playing without two of their stars, four of their rotation players and eventually a fifth in the 3rd quarter, fought their way back from a 22 point deficit and were a missed Ray Allen 3 point shot away from tying a game in the closing moments that they had no business being in. Even though they fell short in the comeback, it was a gut check performance that exemplified this team’s unwillingness to pack it in no matter the circumstances.
The 1st half of this one was a train wreck for the C’s and with that being said, I’ve seen a lot of train wrecks that have gone better than these first 24 minutes for the Green. I went through a lot of the team’s issues from the first couple frames in my halftime update during the game. The Celtics clearly dug themselves an extremely deep hole, and initially I laid all of the blame with the players for failing to show up on both ends of the floor during the matinee.
Doc Rivers had some interesting comments in his postgame press conference that changed my line of thinking, specifically noting his decision to start Stephon Marbury over Eddie House.
Rivers stated how he agonized over the decision with his coaches citing both players’ flaws and went against his instincts in starting Marbury, which clearly came back to haunt the team as the Celtics delivered their worst offensive half of the year with 33 first half points.
I give Rivers a lot of credit in owning up to his mistake in giving Marbury the start today. He clearly choose the greater of two evils by inserting Marbury into the mix because his lack of knowledge of the C’s offensive sets contributed to their stagnant scoring output early on.
The Marbury haters out there will use his performance today (4 points, no assists, 3 turnovers, -14 +/- in 23 minutes) as an omen that Marbury’s presence will be a negative for this team the rest of the way. I think the key here in evaluating Marbury’s play must be patience. We have to remember this is a guy who has only played 4 NBA games in the past 13 months. He is still going through his own training camp right now and with the injuries piling up for the C’s, Doc put him in a tough spot today by starting him against one of the top teams in the league.
Am I excusing his play entirely? Absolutely not. However I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the next few weeks as he tries to learn the system and find his niche in the offense. As long as Marbury’s legs and his basketball IQ are up to par come May, it will be worth enduring the hiccups in his play for now. The majorirty of the team, not just Marbury did not show up to play today (10 assists to 17 turnovers!) so the reality also makes it hard to put too much of the blame on Marbury.
Stephon didn’t do a lot of things today but he can’t be held responsible for his teammates inclination to play one on one and be sloppy with the basketball. Plus looking at the other options, it’s hard to see Gabe Pruitt being a better alternative for the time being given his recent off the court problems.
More thoughts on Pierce, Allen, and Powe after the jump.
Additional Game Observations
Paul Pierce and his minutes
Like most of the team today, Paul Pierce must have forgotten to put his clock ahead last night since he failed to show up for the first half of this game. Clearly, the Marbury start had an impact as Pierce failed to find a rhythm but his performance was especially awful early on with several ill advised shots and careless turnovers that enabled the Magic to extend their lead in the early going.
Hedo Turkoglu also must be given credit for an admirable performance in defending number 34 and limiting the effectiveness of his mid range game, knowing he had Dwight Howard (5 blocks) lurking to help on any penetration by The Truth.
One thing that concerns me about Pierce that could have led to his lackluster performance today are his increased minutes. As the injuries have piled up Pierce’s minutes have taken a disturbing upturn as he has averaged over 41 minutes a contest in the past couple months including 43 minutes a game in March thus far.
Rivers has prided himself on giving his Big Three consistent rest over the course of the regular season to keep them fresh but the plethora of injuries combined with the C’s fighting tooth and nail for homecourt advantage have made that hope impossible lately. The situation certainly bears watching as Rivers attempts to balance these two goals over the rest of the year.
Paul rebounded somewhat in the fourth by hitting a couple jumpers but still took a questionable step back three pointer with the C’s down 7 with 3 minutes remaining that slowed down the Celtics final push in coming back as they ultimately ran out of time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum not enough can be said about the tremendous performance by Ray Allen in the 4th quarter. The was Ray’s show today as the shooting guard took a season high 25 shots, hitting 12 of them including six in 4th on his way to 32 points.
The insertion of Marbury in the starting lineup along with a commitment by the Magic to limit Ray’s looks from the perimeter kept Allen from getting going early on as he was held to a quiet 9 points in the first half. In seeing how the Magic were playing him, Allen used his tremendous basketball IQ to adjust his game accordingly. He put on a clinic in the 4th by scoring from all over the floor and perhaps even more impressively varied the arc of his midrange shots to avoid blocks from Howard
The impressive effort was just another notch on Allen’s belt as he put together the best shooting campaign of his career. Number 20 also ranks in the top 10 in the league with his Roland rating, thus it is hard not to consider Ray in the discussion for the team’s most valuable player this year on the offensive end of the floor. When Ray is in rhythm, this team at full strength is almost impossible to beat.
Leon Powe continued his stellar March in the absence of Kevin Garnett with another inspired effort on both ends of the floor. His 12 points and 7 rebounds matched his average for those categories in the past four games, providing the team with consistent offense off the bench in limited minutes.
Perhaps even more impressive was Leon’s work on the defensive end of the floor. Powe drew FOUR charges during his 12 minutes of play in the first half. For those of you counting at home, Leon averaged a charge for every three minutes of play in this sequence.
I don’t know what the league leading numbers are in charges drawn category but I would imagine that ratio would put Powe near the top of the league. Some players aren’t capable or willing to draw four offensive fouls over the course of the season. Powe did it on four unquestionable calls in one quarter of play. Amazing.
Powe’s terrific effort continued in the 2nd half of this game as his defensive presence limited the offense of Howard and Rashard Lewis once Big Baby went down in the 3rd. Powe has always drawn charges, but his overall defense could have been described as mediocre at best in the past couple years.
The backup PF has shown a sharp improvement in this part of his game this season, causing my man crush on him to get even bigger this year. It is my hope that with him and Baby being free agents at the end of this year, the C’s will throw more money at Leon to ensure he stays in Green for a while longer.
Speaking of Big Baby, his ankle injury brings the C’s down to 10 healthy active players and only three big men on the roster. It is unclear how long the injury will keep Davis out of the Celtics lineup, but if he is held out for a couple games one would assume Powe would replace him in the starting lineup.
That development would leave the Celtics bench with two players who have been on the team for no more than two weeks, two rookies who have barely seen the floor this year, and Gabe Pruitt. I do not envy Doc Rivers attempting to manage that roster in the upcoming days.
If Davis is out for an extended period of time, Mikki Moore will be left as the only backup big man on the bench. This could force Danny Ainge to pick up a big man from the NBDL in a 10 day contract to have some additional insurance on the bench if the C’s big men get into foul trouble.
Closing Thoughts on Orlando
Finally I still do not see this Orlando team as being much of a threat for the C’s come playoff time. The undermanned Celtics played one of their worst tames of the year today (10 assists and 17 turnovers) and still only lost by 3. I give kudos to the Magic for holding on to win the game but I can’t see them competing with this Boston team at full strength in a 7 game series.