Pace: 92 possessions (slow)
Offensive Efficiency: 123 points/100 possessions (league best)
Defensive Efficiency: 119.5 points/100 possessions (league worst)
Earlier this week, Doc Rivers talked about the Celtics apparent belief that they could “flip the switch” whenever they needed to. I cringed. Sportswriting (the bad kind, anyway) is filled with cliches already; we certainly don’t need coaches giving writers the go-ahead to use another one.
But damned if tonight didn’t look like a game in which the Celtics flipped the switch when they needed to—specifically, when they woke up from a three-quarter nap and found themselves losing at home to a bad team missing three of its four best players.
I’m not going to tell you the Celtics weren’t trying for 36 minutes. I will say there are games when you try and games when you freaking try, and this was the former—from the coaching staff to the players. And if I’m wrong, well, then this team is in heaps of trouble. Because there isn’t another (comforting) excuse for letting the 20th rated offensive team in the league score 120 points per 100 possessions and hit 13-20 from three when they average 32 percent from there.
But I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong, and my evidence would be the line-ups the C’s used tonight. By my calculation, the Sixers used a smallish lineup for all but 13:22 of this game. They used it continuously in each half after their first substitution—Rodney Carney for Jason Smith at the 4:33 mark of the 1st quarter and Jason Kapono (who nearly destroyed the C’s with his white-hot shooting) for Smith at the 6:05 mark of the 3rd quarter.
And the C’s did not respond in kind until the start of the 4th quarter, when they inserted a line-up of Rondo-House-Daniels-Pierce-Wallace and went on Rondo-fueled 23-6 run. (We’ll get to Rajon’s strange performance soon).
That run proves that when we say “flip the switch,” we should mean something more complicated than “started to play hard.” It also means putting in the right sort of line-up and running the right sort of plays.
So what worked in that 4th quarter?
1) Matching Philly’s smallish line-up with a smallish line-up. This made a bigger difference defensively than on offense. For the first three quarters, the C’s were asking one of their big guys—Sheed, KG, Perk and Shelden—to guard Thaddeus Young or (on a couple of possessions) Andre Iguodala. And that is asking too much. When the Sixers broke down the C’s defense on screen/rolls, the C’s line-up, as a whole, did not appear quick enough to make all of the proper rotations. Open threes resulted.
Those looks (mostly) disappeared when the C’s used a quicker line-up in the 4th; the Sixers shot just 6-15 form the floor in the quarter.
This is not to overlook some sloppy and lazy defense in the first three quarters, because there was some. Sheed and Daniels lost track of Willie Green, allowing him to cut from the left side into the paint for an easy floater with 9:04 to go in the 3rd; Ray Allen went (way) under a screen, giving Green an open look from three; and the C’s fell for a simple misdirection inbounds play at the end of the first half, allowing Smith to lay the ball in uncontested (and drawing a throatier-than-usual exacerbated “wooooww” from Heinsohn).
Back to the second thing that went right in the 4th quarter:
RONDO. In all caps. He attempted six shots in the 4th after taking just three through the first 36 minutes, and he hit a baseline fadeaway with 9 seconds left to put the C’s up 109-105 and ice the game. Great shot.
But as Kelly Dwyer tweeted, the shot also illustrates an obvious flaw in Rondo’s game: He goes through long stretches where he appears reluctant to shoot at the rim. Even Heinsohn called him on it tonight: Rondo is being too unselfish, if unselfish is even the right word. Early in the 3rd quarter, Rondo sliced down the left side of the lane and rose for what appeared to be an easy lay-in—only Smith was there to challenge him, but Smith also had to pay attention to KG under the rim. Rondo didn’t even get to the peak of his jump before he dumped the ball to a surprised KG.
Next possession? Rajon drove around Dalembert on the left baseline and headed for the area under the rim, where he loves to draw the defense, go airborne and kick the ball out to a shooter. Only Rajon jump-passed before his teammates had rotated into their proper positions—before he had gotten to the rim, even—and the pass missed Pierce by at least five feet.
Dwyer’s theory? Rondo is afraid to shoot free throws, since he’s 8-24 on the season from the stripe. I’ll admit: I was thinking the same thing all game long. He passes up so many chances to go up strong and (at least) draw fouls. I mean, how many times have you seen him rise up on a fast break only to throw a 25-foot pass back out to a trailer and thought to yourself, “Damn, he might be the only player in the league who can and would do that”?
And that wonderful baseline J with nine seconds left? He took it after dribbling through the paint without even looking at the rim.
Maybe it’s not free throw fear. Maybe it’s natural unselfishness. Who knows.
The development of Rajon Rondo continues.
• One of the things that got Rajon going in the 4th was that pet play I talked about earlier this week. The C’s ran it twice, and it resulted in two baskets. That’s another meaning for “flip the switch”—running your A plays.
• I’ve gushed about Paul Pierce so much in the last year here, but the guy is just a rock. In 2008, everyone jumped all over themselves to award KG unofficial Team MVP status. And he deserved it. But Pierce is just there, every single game, doing his thing and doing it as well right now as he ever has. Chalk up a ho-hum 27 -6-6 on 10-of-15 shooting, and the Truth is hitting 51 percent of his shots this season.
• And his defense on Iguodala was spectacular. Iggy started 5-of-7 and finished 8-of-18, in large part because Philly’s use of a small line-up allowed the C’s to shift Pierce onto Iggy and Allen onto someone else. Lots of 20-footers with one of Pierce’s hands in his face.
• KG took 12 foul shots tonight. He had taken 27 total in the first 14 games of the season. He and Perk took 18 combined, which is as it should be given the match-ups. And yet still: Didn’t it feel like the C’s missed an opportunity to just hammer the Sixers in the post? In a related story, here is Sheed’s shot chart, via ESPN.com:
We may just have to accept the fact that Sheed doesn’t really have a post-up game anymore. Either that, or he’s saving it for big moments. What other reason could there be for choosing not to post up Thad Young, who defended Sheed for much of this game?
• Should we be concerned that KG grabbed only four rebounds in 31 minutes? Probably not—he’s still grabbing about 25 percent of all available rebounds on defense, an elite number. (And though it seems like KG never grabs so few boards in so many minutes, it’s actually happened 29 times in his career, according to Basketball Reference).
• More line-up experimentation for Doc, and this is the time of the season for it. On Sunday, we saw the first ever use (in non-garbage time, anyway) of a Rondo + Four Bench Guys line-up. Tonight, we saw Rondo play alongside three bench players and Pierce/Allen. This sort of experimentation could allow Doc to rest Pierce and Allen more (though Pierce played 42 minutes tonight), and it gives House the chance to play more minutes with the starters.
• Classic Heinsohn: referring to Primoz Brezec as “Brezhnev” several times—first by accident and then on purpose to continue the joke. Tommy actually said, “Give him a fur hat!”
• I realize this is like calling someone the thinnest kid at fat camp, but was Rondo’s jumper the biggest jump shot of his professional career?
That’s it for tonight. Everyone enjoy the holiday.