I had pumped my fist during just one Celtics game since KG’s knee injury last month–the win against Cleveland two weeks ago. There were some exciting games in that span, but it all felt…irrelevant. Like the Celtics were just messing around with rotations and new guys until the “real” lineup got back on the court and the games mattered again. As Jeff Clark from Celtics Blog put it in an email exchange, the games had a preseason feel.
Not tonight. Tonight KG was back. He’s not all the way back, but his presence made the game feel different to me, a fan sitting in an apartment watching it on television. I can only imagine what his presence can do for a teammate actually talking to this manic who’s running up and down the sideline whipping his towel against press row and bear-hugging Armond Hill after Big Baby’s game-clinching jumper.
And yet, I feel a tinge of worry. Just a tinge. The Celtics committed just four turnovers (!), held the Spurs to 41 percent shooting, caught a major break with the Spurs missing six straight free throws in the last 2:31…and still only won by three points. And, of course, Manu Ginobili was in (very nice) street clothes. But more on that later. Let’s stick to the good stuff for now, starting with KG’s return.
The C’s did not push KG defensively, keeping him on Matt Bonner for all but three or four possessions during his 15 minutes in the game. He reminded us more tonight about what he brings to the offense, which transforms from merely good to elite with Garnett in the line-up. Check out these three plays from KG’s third quarter stint:
10:38: Ray Allen throws an entry pass to KG on the left block and curls around the outside of KG on a simple give-and-go. KG drops the ball off, and Ray finishes with an easy reverse lay-in.
6:03: Rondo rebounds a Parker miss, and KG simply out-sprints everyone on the Spurs in transition. Rondo hits him over the top for an uncontested lay-up. This was not a case of a big guy lolly-gagging on the perimeter and loafing his way to an easy transition bucket. This was KG creating an easy basket with pure, tough effort.
5:13: Rondo and KG run a simple screen-roll on the left wing. Rondo dribbles left around KG’s screen and Duncan drifts away from KG to help on Rondo. Rondo bounces a lefty behind-the-back pass to KG, who hits a 17-footer.
Good, good stuff.
The Celtics defense, particularly in the second half, looked like the defense that won the championship last year. (The Spurs were 3-of-13 from the floor during KG’s third quarter stint and 13-of-38 overall in the 2nd half). The C’s had no answer for Parker’s penetration (25 points, 8 dimes), but no one does. It’s time to put the Parker-Duncan screen/roll in the Pantheon of The Most Unstoppable Plays in NBA History. But you you what? When the Celtics forced Parker to kick the ball to an open shooter, that shooter wasn’t open anymore by the time he was ready to shoot. The maniacal rotations and close outs were there tonight–with a few exceptions. (Yes, the Spurs missed a few open threes en route to finishing 4-of-17 from deep).
Credit Pierce for the biggest of these close-outs. It happened with 1:20 left (score: 76-74, good guys) when Parker had once again broken down the C’s defense with his penetration. The ball swung out to Finley at the top of the key for what looked like an open three. But there was Pierce, running out with his left arm extended. Finley had no space. So he pumped and took a dribble in as Pierce flew by. Only Pierce had already switched his momentum back toward the hoop and leaped back to contest Finley’s jumper, which missed. Pierce for NBA All-Defense!
Here are the relevant stats (aside from that hugely important 4-of-17 mark from three).
Roger Mason: 3-of-8. Mostly a non-factor.
Matt Bonner: 3-of-6. Did not manage a single shot attempt while KG was on him.
Michael Finley: 2-of-9. Non-factor.
That’s how you win a game in which Paul Pierce shoots 3-of-16, with a lot of the credit for that going to Bruce Bowen, who is still an annoying-as-hell force on defense in his old age.
I’ve saved my worries for after the jump in case you don’t want to read them.
When you look at the stats–especially those four turnovers–this feels like a game the C’s should have won by more. After all, the Big 3 C’s have never lost when they turn it over fewer than 10 times in a game. And Ginobili didn’t play!
But then you remember that this is the Spurs, ranked 26th in pace factor, and you feel better because you know they just suck you into these low possession games that usually stay tight no matter what. And you see that the Spurs only turned it over eight times and stayed even with the C’s on the boards, and you think the C’s could do better in both of those categories next time. And the worries really fade when you think about KG playing 40 minutes instead of 15 and Mikki Moore and Stephon Marbury playing zero instead of 20 and 12, (dis)respectively. (Actually, Mikki contributed a very nice four points–on 2-of-2 shooting–and eight boards tonight, so that’s really fair. His jumper looked smooth, too. I’m just saying I don’t see him getting more than a few minutes once KG’s playing 35 per game again).
So let’s all go out and grab a beer on this Friday night (or, if you’re me, take a few NyQuil to kill this bad cold) and hope tonight was the start of real Celtics basketball again.