I wanted to walk through the last five minutes of the Trailblazers game from Wednesday night and see if we could glean any insight into the late-game offensive stagnation that continues to rear its ugly head. I expect we might be revisiting this as the season progresses.
The Celtics had this game well in hand. With 5:09 remaining, it was 96-80. The Celtics were shooting over 60% from the field. Paul Pierce was on fire, having hit all four of his three-pointers to that point (he eventually finished 9-11 for 28 points). Shaquille O’Neal had 14 points on 5-7 shooting but was anchored to the bench, from which he’d watch the rest of this one. Glen Davis finished the game with 16 points on 7-9 shooting, but none of those points would come in the last five minutes.
At this point, I’d argue the Celtics had already banked this victory. The sense of urgency, so palpable with Pierce imploring his teammates during the timeout between the third and fourth quarters, had dissipated as the lead stretched to 16. The players were ready to cruise home.
Let’s pick it up on Offensive Possession #1 with the Celtics up 14 at 96-82.
The Celtics walk the ball up the floor, and make their first pass with 15 seconds left on the clock. Rondo misses a wide-open 21 foot jumper with 13 seconds on the clock. Note where Pierce is standing. It’s going to be a recurring theme for the rest of this one.
Offensive Possession #2 – Off a Portland missed shot, the Celtics again walk the ball up the court. They make the entry pass into the post for Davis with 13 seconds left on the clock. He finds Ray Allen for an open three. A good look – but a miss.
Offensive Possession #3 – The Celtics again run the ball through Davis at the free throw line. A wide-open Rondo makes a sharp baseline cut to the hoop but by the time Davis delivers the ball, Portland has recovered and they force the ball back up to the wing to Pierce, who travels with it.
Offensive Possession #4 – The Celtics work the right side of the floor with Rondo finding Allen for another missed jumper. Pierce remains on the weak side, essentially uninvolved in the play. Note too, that we’re now four plays into this stretch and Rondo has yet to push tempo from the start of the shot clock or create off the dribble, the way he had been previously in the game.
By now, things are starting to get tense. The Celtics haven’t scored in a couple of minutes and Portland is creeping back in with a combination of tough shot-making and Andre Miller overpowering Rondo. But given the score, it’s still a longshot for the Blazers to pull this out. Assuming the Celtics can make a basket.
Offensive Possession #5 – The Celtics get a good look this time down the floor. KG gets Brandon Roy in a mismatch and despite the help arriving, he has a good look from about eight feet. The ball rims out. The Blazers recover. You could argue that with three defenders collapsing on him, KG should have kicked this out but in previous games, we’ve criticized him for overpassing and he did have a good look at it. I’ll take this shot any day of the week. He just missed.
Offensive Possession #6 – The game is tight. The lead has been cut to five. The Celtics make a curious play call, almost clearing out the right side of the floor for Davis in the post. The Blazers send Rudy Fernandez to help LaMarcus Aldridge (who already has a significant height advantage on Baby). Davis dribbles to the baseline then spins back to the middle, trying to beat the double coverage. With nowhere to go, he throws a bad pass back to Rondo that’s picked off. The Blazers race down the court for an easy layup. 96-93.
Offensive Possession #7 – With 1:20 left, the camera finds Doc Rivers imploring his team to push the ball as Rondo meanders up the floor. Pierce finally gets a good look at the basket, albeit from 23 feet out. He airballs a three with six seconds left on the clock. Note on the screenshot here – it took Boston until 10 seconds left on the shot clock to make the entry pass to the post. And save KG’s borderline interior shot, they still haven’t gotten a look in the paint during this critical stretch.
Offensive Possession #8 – After a tough Roy fallaway over Pierce (and a helping Garnett) the score is 96-95 with 41.2 seconds left. The Blazers have rattled off 15 unanswered points. Desperate for a hoop, the Celtics go to… a three pointer from the ice-cold Allen with 15 seconds left on the shot clock.
Offensive Possession #9 – Finally, the Celtics get the make they need so badly. Pierce has the ball at the top of the arc, with KG coming over to set a screen. Inexplicably, Miller, who appears to be directing traffic on defense, forgets his cover is Allen. Pierce reads it perfectly – finding Ray on the wing for the splashdown three. Celtics win.
But it shouldn’t have been nearly this difficult.
Four takeaways from all this:
- In Rondo, the Celtics have one of the best creators of shots in the entire league, if not the very best. The Blazers had no one who could stay in front of him. When he pushes tempo, and breaks down the defense in the half-court, great things happen for this team. And yet – down the stretch, they had Rondo making entry passes, standing on the weakside (where he’s a minimal offensive threat as a spot up shooter) and rarely attacking the way he’s capable. I’m not that interested in criticizing this plan (given Rondo apparently was struggling with his hamstring on Wednesday night), but keep this in mind down the stretches of close games. Are the Celtics making the best use of Rondo’s elite offensive abilities?
- The Celtics have to get into the paint. I recognize the issues with managing Shaq’s minutes, and his free-throw woes, but he remains a very good passer and often demands a double team. We need to see him in late-game situations more often. At least for the odd possession.
- Pierce has to give the Celtics more on offense than spot-up three-point shooting. I’m not arguing for a run of ISOs for him but he was searing in this game and the C’s went away from him for far too long. I can’t even remember a single cut he made down the stretch. When he finally got the ball, he made the key assist on the game-saving basket.
- Tempo. This offense turns to sludge when the Celtics settle for late-clock jumpshots. They have to push the pace, even when up big. Too often here, they let the Blazers set up shop on defense and ended up with open, but sub-optimal jumpers as a result.
So, anyway, there’s some thoughts on an ongoing area of concern. Let’s see if we get any echoes against the defensively potent Bulls tonight.