Maybe you can take heart in this: The Celtics played like themselves in the most important game of their season, or at least like a hyper-exaggerated version of themselves. They did not lose because they broke character.
All season, the Celtics teetered on the edge of being a one-dimensional team—a team with an all-world defense that could be undone by an average offense prone to turnovers and droughts in the half court.
And the one flaw in that defense was a tendency to allow too many offensive rebounds. Boston appeared to have solved that problem in the playoffs, but in retrospect, that probably had more to do with the fact that Miami, Cleveland and Orlando all ranked in the bottom 12 in the league in offensive rebounding.
The Celtics almost won Game 7 because of their defense and lost it in part because of all of the same things that have cost them games this season.
That is not to denigrate the Lakers. It’s more of a compliment, really. The Celtics struggled to score against elite half court defenses all season, and the Lakers played elite half court defense in Game 7. The Celtics couldn’t protect the defensive glass against good offensive rebounding teams, and no team grabbed a higher percentage of available offensive rebounds in the playoffs than the Lakers. Boston too often failed to take care of the ball against aggressive defenses, and the Lakers, when they are into it, can force a ton of turnovers.
Let’s be clear: The 2010 Celtics were by some measures one of the worst offensive teams to make the Finals in the last two decades. Boston averaged 107.7 points per 100 possessions this season, a mark that ranked 15th in the the league, according to Basketball-Reference. The league average was 107.6 points per 100 possessions, so the Celtics were essentially an average offensive basketball team.
In the playoffs, Boston’s offensive efficiency dropped to about 105.0 points per 100 possessions. That’s not as bad as it looks once you factor in the defensive strength of Boston’s opponents. But even so: That mark ranked 7th among the eight teams that advanced past the first round, ahead of only the Hawks.
Consider this: Since 1990, only eight of the 42 teams that made the NBA Finals had regular-season offensive rankings less than half a point (per 100 possessions) better than the league average that season, according to BR. Those teams:
• 2010 Celtics
• 2005 Pistons (team rating: 105.6 points/100 possessions; league average: 106.1)
• 2004 Pistons (team: 102.0; league: 102.9)
• 2003 Nets (team: 103.8; league: 103.6)
• 2002 Nets (team: 104.0; league: 104.5)
• 1999 Knicks (team: 98.6; league: 102.2)
• 1994 Rockets (team: 105.9; league 106.3)
• 1994 Knicks (team: 105.7; league 106.3)
All season, the Celtics struggled offensively when they could not get out in transition. We should not have been surprised that they did so again when faced with a Laker defense determined to get back on defense, shut off penetration and string Pierce and Allen out toward the sidelines on screen/rolls. Rajon Rondo was the beating heart of this team, but his inability to hit a 16-footer on screen/rolls is still the anchor that can sink an offense lacking a consistent post threat and susceptible to player fatigue.
People will remember Boston’s offense going cold in the 4th quarter of Game 7, and they should. The Celtics were flailing, relying on Pierce isolations and post-ups from Davis and KG on the left block as four tired players stood around on the right side of the floor.
But I’ll remember just as clearly the C’s inability to score even a single point over the first 4:47 of the 2nd quarter, blowing an opportunity to assert control of a game they led by nine when the quarter started.
And the turnovers. All damn season with the turnovers. The C’s coughed it up 15 times in Game 7, and that doesn’t sound like much, considering they averaged about 15.5 per game in the regular season. But Game 7 was an ultra-slow game, with about 83 possessions for each team. Those 15 turnovers work out to a turnover on about 18 percent of Boston’s possessions.
Perspective: The Charlotte Bobcats, the most turnover-prone team in the league, turned the ball over on 15 percent of their possessions this season.
The Lakers’ ability to crash the offensive glass shouldn’t have been a shock, either. In 2008, the Celtics rebounded 74.4 percent of opponent misses, the 8th-best mark in the league. In 2009, Boston rebounded 75.6 percent of opponent misses, the 3rd-best mark in the league.
And in 2010, Boston rebounded 73.8 percent of opponent misses, the 14th-best mark in the league. Paul Pierce had the lowest defensive rebounding rate of his career. Kevin Garnett had his lowest defensive rebounding rate since 1999. Rasheed Wallace had his lowest defensive rebounding rate since 2004. Ray Allen used to be a decent defensive rebounder for a shooting guard; he has fallen off in that regard as he has aged.
None of this is surprising. These players are aging, and their athleticism is declining. You can only get so far on mental toughness and smarts, and you can only win so many games when your point guard comes damn close to leading your team in rebounding.
Is it ridiculous to give up 23 offensive rebounds, as the Celtics did in Game 7? Absolutely. The Celtics have given up that many just once since KG and Ray Allen arrived here—and that was in a March 2008 game against the Sixers, according to Basketball-Reference. They allowed exactly 20 in one game this season and had never allowed 20 in any playoff game before last night.
So, yes, 23 offensive rebounds is an outlier. It’s ridiculous and anomalous, but this version of the Celtics was more likely to let it happen than the 2009 or 2008 version. These Celtics beefed up their playoff defensive rebounding numbers against three teams that don’t care much for offensive rebounding and collapsed once they faced a team that does care about it.
Don’t misunderstand: I am not criticizing Boston’s effort. The Celtics squeezed the most out of their talent, and they came within a a few points of winning the 2010 title because their defense is absolutely other-worldly when it is locked in. Nobody in the NBA—nobody—plays defense like the 2008-2010 Celtics, and they brought that defense to this series and to Game 7. For about 80 percent of the series, the Lakers had nothing on offense. No options, no openings, no apparent confidence in anything.
But that defense, alone, was not enough to win the title. Boston needed something more. Against Cleveland, they had Rondo and Ray Allen brutalizing Mo Williams and KG working the post against Antawn Jamison. Against Orlando, they shot 41 percent from three-point range and rode a couple of monster Rondo games.
Against LA, their offense came up empty. Toss out Boston’s 11-of-16 shooting from three in Game 2, and Boston hit just 22-of-101 three-pointers. They attempted just 21 foul shots per game, down from 25 in the regular season. The team’s screen/roll game fell apart in Games 6 and 7, when the Lakers had their big men jump out on ball-handlers and (sometimes) trap them.
But despite all its shortcomings, this team nearly won the title. And we should obviously appreciate them for that. As fans, we can be proud of their effort and their hellacious defense. But the problems we have seen all season against good teams came to the forefront on Thursday night against the best team.
And so the Lakers are champions, again. The Celtics are runners-up.
The 2010-11 season starts in about 4 1/2 months.