Pace: 92 possessions (average)
Offensive Efficiency: 112 points/100 possessions (elite)
Defensive Efficiency: 119 points allowed/100 possessions (league-worst)
Confession: I had plans after work, so I DVR’d this game and watched it beginning at about 9 p.m. By the 2nd quarter, a few well-meaning people had sent me gchat messages asking me what I thought about the C’s loss tonight. Suspense ruined, I watched the game with a different eye—I was looking to find the keys to defeat. The numbers obviously pointed to defense—the Suns shot 50 percent from the floor and 13-of-24 from deep; coming into this game, the C’s had held opponents to 40 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three.
Bloggers, writers and fans have the tendency to look at numbers like that and blame their team. And the Celtics defense was obviously not at its best tonight. The team at times looked confused and indecisive, a few assignments were missed (some egregiously) and rotations were shaky. But you know what? The defense wasn’t awful. There were possessions where the rotations were damn near perfect and the Suns just made shots. Jared Dudley hit a corner three in the 2nd quarter with Marquis Daniels nearly stepping on his foot. Jason Richardson used a ball screen on the right wing early in the 4th to get himself about a foot of space, pulled up and hit a three with Marquis Daniels right with him. That’s not bad defense.
I went back and watched nearly every Suns basket in slow motion, and I feel very comfortable saying this: It would not be accurate to the argue the C’s played “bad” defense tonight. I’d explain it more like this: The C’s were often a step out of place—a fraction of a second off the play, a tiny mistake away from a stop—but that one misstep is all Phoenix and Steve Nash need to punish you. The Celtics could play defense the way they played tonight against 20 NBA teams and win by 10 at home. Not against Phoenix and not against Nash, who, by the way, had quite a lot to do with the C’s being a step off all night.
Take the Nash three that put Phoenix up 107-100 with less than a minute to go and iced the game. (Or, if you hate play-by-play, skip to the jump for bullets). It was a fairly simple play: Nash received the ball on the left wing and went around a stacked double screen set to his right by Stoudemire (who needs to shut up, by the way, but that’s a different story) on the inside and Frye (guarded by KG) on the outside. KG read the play and motioned for Stoudemire’s man (Sheed) to slip down below both screens and get in position to guard the paint. KG jumped out above both screens to cut off the penetration.
At this point, the C’s D was perfect. KG had forced Nash back near midcourt and Sheed squelched any potential Stoudemire roll to the hoop. Well done. Nash and Frye make the proper adjustment, which is to run a screen/roll back in the other direction, with Nash (guarded by Rondo) dribbling left around a Frye screen.
And here’s where that just-a-step-off thing happens. Rondo fights over the Frye screen, as he did all game. At the same time, KG jumps out to prevent Nash from the turning the corner, almost hip-checking that cute little Canadian. It’s nearly perfect work, but note quite—Rondo and KG are occupying the same space, and Rondo, chasing Nash, nearly collides with KG and loses a bit of momentum. Nash gets the space he needs, pulls up and hits a three as Rondo tries desperately to close out. Rondo gets close enough to hit Nash’s wrist on the follow through. But that’s not good enough. Money, game over, go get drunk.
Just a step slow. Not terrible. A step slow, and good offensive teams do that to you.
Some harsher criticism and other thoughts in bullet form, after the jump.
• This is not to say the C’s didn’t suffer the occasional meltdown. Hell, they botched two inbounds plays, allowing Phoenix to get two easy hoops directly off the inbounds pass. Inexcusable. On one of those plays, with about 2:30 left in the 3rd, Nash cut into the paint and set a screen on Stoudemire’s man (KG). Amare used the screen to cut toward the rim and receive the inbounds pass. Nash’s screen hit KG perfectly (man is Nash tough) and Amare had a clean lane to the hoop.
What did Nash’s man (Rajon) do? He just stood there. Watch the tape. He didn’t help on Stoudemire and he didn’t really follow Nash. He just…hung out while stuff happened around him. Really, really bad. An aberration, yes, but still bad.
• Bright spot: KG had his best offensive game so far, hitting for 26 points on 13-of-20 shooting and generally having his way with Stoudemire and Frye on the interior. He also finished several tough lob plays inside. He looked great.
• Bad thing: Zero free throw attempts between Sheed and KG despite their 32 collective field goal attempts. That is really, really hard to manage. I mentioned this earlier today: The C’s are not getting to the line so far this season, primarily because their two scoring big men no longer play the sort of style that gets them there. Is this a problem? Well, it certainly can be on a night when the C’s hit just four of 18 threes (including an 0-6 stinker from Sheed).
• Related topic: Kendrick Perkins did not appear in the 4th quarter tonight. We’ve all wondered who would get the clutch minutes at the center spot, and tonight, with the C’s behind instead of ahead, Doc went with the “better” offensive player. Should he have mixed it up more?
• Related topic: I know he took 12 shots, but I didn’t think Rajon Rondo attacked Nash enough tonight. We all know Nash is a sieve on defense, and yet we didn’t see a lot of screen/roll plays for Rondo or isolation sets from which Rajon could go at Nash. Part of this, I’m sure, is that the team (and Rondo) are not confident enough in Rajon’s jumper to let him dominate the half court offense.
• The Suns bench became the first bench unit to outplay Boston’s bench today, and they did so soundly. Jared Dudley is a player. Louis Amundson might look sort of funny, but he works the offensive glass, sets good screens and moves well without the ball. He committed three basket interference violations in the two Suns games prior to this one—three! Dude is all over the place.
• And what can you say about Goran Dragic? He was awful last year. Nobody would have blamed Phoenix for giving up and getting rid of him. But the Suns didn’t, Dragic worked hard and all of a sudden he’s a relevant NBA player with a shocking vertical leap. Fun stuff.
• For everyone who watches these games and thinks, hey, we don’t need Big Baby now that we’ve got Shelden Williams, keep this game on your DVR. The bench scored 19 points on 9-of-23 shooting tonight and attempted one free throw in 70 collective minutes. Put simply: The jumpers weren’t falling, and without Davis, the C’s second unit lacks an interior scoring threat or someone who can roll to the hoop on screen/rolls, receive the ball and finish or a draw a foul. Big Baby can do that. His presence would have made a difference tonight, and he will reclaim his minutes from Shelden.
• Finally, the best/worst play of the game shows the fine line between a stop and bad defense. It happens with about 8:30 left in the 3rd when Nash (guarded by Rondo) runs a simple screen/roll at the top of the three-point arc with Frye. Nash dribbles left around the screen; Frye’s man (KG) jumps out to try and cut Nash off while fights over the screen and chases Nash. The communication/strategy between Rondo and KG isn’t perfect—they nearly collide, allowing Nash to turn the corner.
But Perk is there, standing at the foul line, patrolling the paint. He has left his man (Stoudemire) lingering over on the right wing, but he had no choice. In a nifty bit of defense, Perk forces Nash toward the left baseline. All four other Suns are on the right side of the floor. Marquis Daniels shifted over onto Perk’s man (Stoudemire), leaving Jason Richardson behind the three-point line on the right side of the floor (opposite Nash). Stoudemire, sensing a mismatch with the smaller Quisy, shoves his way into the paint near the hoop. Paul Pierce comes to help Daniels as Nash squeezes pass Perk and dribbles along the baseline, toward the area right under the hoop.
If you freeze it right now, the C’s have four guys surrounding the paint—Perk and Rondo chasing Nash, Pierce and Daniels sandwiching Stoudemire.
But the C’s, particularly Rondo, don’t really account for Nash’s ability to slip a difficult pass through the tiniest of spaces. Stoudemire gets position under the rim for just a second, and Nash somehow shovels him the ball. Stoudemire gathers and slams.
It’s hard to tell who is at fault here. Watching the play slowly, you’d say Rondo should have anticipated the pass and veered away from Nash and into the potential passing lane. Instead he sort of followed Nash’s dribble path. Maybe Pierce or Daniels could have helped more aggressively, but if you watch them carefully, they are paying attention to both Stoudemire and the Suns perimeter shooters behind the three-point line.
Like I said: Imperfect defense, but hardly “bad” defense, especially considering the opponent. The C’s made a half-dozen tiny mistakes on this play, but they didn’t do anything big wrong. And Steve Nash has a way of making every tiny decision a difficult one—and difficult choices breed mistakes.
We pick up, we move on. Beat the Nyets tomorrow.