Pace: 93 possessions (average)
Offensive Efficiency: 97.8 points/100 possessions (Nets-like)
Defensive Efficiency: 107.5 points allowed/100 possessions (below average)
Thumbnail: The same old problems: Too many turnovers, too much Jamal Crawford, too little Rasheed Wallace and Ray Allen and no answer for Joe Johnson in the clutch. If not for a monster Paul Pierce performance (35 points on 15 shots), the C’s may not have cracked 80 tonight.
Here’s a frozen moment for you: The Celtics are up 16-7 with 3:10 left in the 1st quarter. They are getting good looks inside by attacking Mike Bibby and frustrating Atlanta’s halfcourt offense with their usual stalwart screen/roll defense. Rajon Rondo dribbles left to right along the baseline, slides under the hoop and curls up toward the right elbow around a solid Rasheed Wallace screen. The pick catches Rajon’s man (Joe Johnson), and Sheed’s man (Josh Smith) stays with Sheed on the roll toward the hoop.
Rondo is wide open 15 feet from the rim. I’m looking at the video right now. No one is within eight feet of him. He’s so wide open—and Joe Johnson is so unconcerned about it—that Rajon actually takes an extra dribble in toward the rim and still finds himself with plenty of space to jack what would now be an open 14-footer.
Except, of course, he opts to pick up his dribble and throw a left-handed pass across the court to Paul Pierce. Mo Evans sees it coming, jumps into the passing lane to steal it and goes coast-to-coast for an And-1.
And so began a 28-10 run over the next 6:43 bridging the 1st and 2nd quarters, a span in which the Celtics turned the ball over seven times. That’s more than a turnover per minute. Among the highlights: Rasheed Wallace throwing an inbounds pass to nobody; Brian Scalabrine throwing a entry pass off of Rasheed’s knee and out of bounds; Tony Allen throwing an entry pass too far over Sheed’s head, forcing Sheed to deflect it desperately and into Atlanta’s hands; Sheed getting called for an illegal screen and then, of course, a technical foul because Sheed is incapable of changing his behavior.
An absolutely horrific stretch that personifies everything that is wrong with Boston right now: The C’s are turnover prone with an unreliable bench led by a creaky power forward prone to temper tantrums.
To Atlanta’s credit, they made the Celtics pay for those turnovers. They were brutally efficient on the fast break, especially Jamal Crawford, who scored at the rim in transition and from three-point range in delayed transition. Overall, the Sixth Man Who Should Die of Gonorrhea and Rot in Hell scored 18 first half points on 6-of-9 shooting. When he crossed over Paul Pierce in transition and hit a runner—plus the foul—I joked that I wanted to hang myself from my apartment ceiling.
And then, on the very next Boston possession, Kendrick Perkins and Ray Allen botched a simple hand-off/screen on the right wing. Joe Johnson picked up the loose ball and went coast-to-coast for uncontested dunk.
It was at this point that a less mature version of myself would have hurled the remote control against the wall. Oh, how I’ve grown.
Overall, 17 turnovers for Boston on 93 possessions—a turnover on about 18 percent of Boston trips down the floor. To put that in perspective, the most turnover prone team in the league (Charlotte, though Boston may surpass them after tonight) turns the ball over on 15.2 percent of its possessions.
This has been a problem for 2 1/2 seasons now. For a veteran team that pays such attention to detail on defense, the Celtics are amazingly careless with the basketball. Look at that list of turnovers up there. Those are not forced turnovers. Yes, Atlanta’s bigs are athletic and can make things like entry passes difficult, but the Hawks rate almost exactly league average at forcing turnovers, so it’s not as if the C’s were playing against the 1990 UNLV team or something.
A lot of those plays are just sloppy turnovers. And I have no good explanation for why they happen.
Bullets, because it’s Friday and I’m cranky:
• The Celtics are not in this game without Paul Pierce. He hit from the mid-range, he scored on the post when Atlanta—the switch-iest team in the league on the screen/rolls—switched a smaller guy onto him, and, most importantly, he drew fouls. The C’s were in the bonus by the 8:08 mark of the 3rd quarter because Pierce drew four fouls in the first 3:52 of that quarter. The C’s shot 20 free throws in the 3rd after attempting just six in the first half; they made 19 and had cut the lead all the way back to 1 entering the 4th quarter.
Not coincidentally, the C’s turned the ball over “just” three times in the 3rd, which is not great for the NBA at large but is worth popping the $100 $50 $15 bottle of champagne I have sitting on our counter.
When they weren’t turning the ball over, the C’s were scoring points and Atlanta—robbed of any transition game—was struggling to score points. This is not rocket science.
• And the 4th quarter happened and the game changed completely, mostly because Joe Johnson went crazy in isolation sets. Through three quarters, the ex-Celtic scored 11 points and 3-of-13 shooting. He hit 7-of-9 in the 4th quarter to finish with 27 points. Somewhere Tony Delk is committing recruiting violations for Kentucky enjoying life, oblivious to the havoc Joe Johnson is causing.
• The C’s did a nice job through three quarters mixing up their defense on Johnson. They trapped a few times. They slid a guy over onto the strong side a couple of times. They had big guys jump out on screen/rolls to cut off his penetration. It basically worked.
They tried to guard him one-on-one early in the 4th, and he just killed him. He hit a three over Tony Allen to give Atlanta a six-point lead at 83-77. He hit mid-range shots over Ray Allen. He drove past Paul Pierce, who didn’t take a turn on Johnson until the latter stages of the 4th quarter.
The C’s went back to over-loading the strong side late against Johnson (and Crawford), but the margin had grown too large by then.
• The flagrant foul on Josh Smith was bogus, and Perk’s flailing arm swipe/elbow was a dirty play. If Dwight Howard reacted like that every time someone came down over his shoulders to prevent a shot attempt, there’d be a lot of dudes with fat lips and black eyes. Then again, perhaps this was merely the basketball gods restoring order after the shady flagrant on Glen Davis—later rescinded—turned the momentum the last time these teams played and resulted in Doc’s ejection (and Tom Thibodeau’s refusal to use the bench).
• The Hawks have to think seriously about making Mike Bibby a token starter and limited rotation player, because they are so much better defensively without him, at least against Boston. The numbers say the Hawks are playing better defense with Bibby on the floor, but he was -11 tonight and this was not the fluky sort of -11 when a guy is just on the court at the wrong time.
The Celtics destroyed Bibby early in the 1st quarter. Pierce made an easy jumper over him after the Hawks switched Bibby onto Pierce on a Rondo/Pierce screen/roll. Rondo and Ray Allen beat Bibby on simple cuts to the basket as KG held the ball in the post; KG made the pass, and both guys finished easy lay-ins.
Ray scored an easy bucket on Bibby in transition and just missed another one. It was 10-2 when Bibby left the game with two fouls, and eight of those 10 points came directly from attacking him.
It sounds like I’m joking, but I’m not: If these two teams play again, the C’s might want to think about trying to score on Bibby without drawing fouls. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but the offense came so much easier with Bibby on the floor.
• Rasheed Wallace was awful tonight. I’m not sure he’s played a worse game in his career. Six points on 2-of-8 shooting with more turnovers (three) than rebounds (two). A ghastly performance.
• At nearly the exact same instance in the 4th quarter, John Hollinger and I tweeted that we could not understand why Doc Rivers was giving Sheed the crunch time minutes while Kendrick Perkins sat the entire 4th quarter.
I have no answers. Perk put up an 8-12 in 23 minutes and played very sound defense on Al Horford.
• Rajon Rondo still struggles to score against teams that pack the paint with athletic big guys. So does every point guard, I realize, but Rajon depends more on dribble drives for his points and his assists than anyone in the league. I thought he did a nice job in the 2nd half of turning the corner on screen/rolls even when his guy went under the screen—as the Hawks did almost every time.
• The Rondo floater has vanished lately has an effective weapon. Let’s hope it returns.
• KG Watch: He looked better tonight. 15-7-3. That’s a solid line. He looks winded at times—he even lagged behind getting back on defense once or twice—but that’s to be expected for a guy who keeps suffering injuries right as he’s working himself back into game shape.
• Josh Smith may be the 2nd-most terrifying player in the league when he accelerates on the dribble in the open court. (LeBron is easily the most terrifying).
• The C’s were solid on the defensive glass tonight, yielding just seven offensive boards. And Atlanta is a top-10 offensive rebounding team. This is a good thing.
In fact, let’s end there, on a good thing. The Celtics play the Lakers on Sunday. A win there would make everything feel better, at least for now.