A conclusion based on Tuesday night’s 102-91 loss to the Miami Heat: this Celtics’ offense is built for the regular season, not the playoffs, and all the ball movement and ubuntu in the world isn’t going to change that. Against a fierce Heat defense, every failing in Boston’s offensive architecture is suddenly threatening to bring the whole structure crashing down.
The Celtics don’t have a consistent post threat (a la Zach Randolph or Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum), nor a lethal off-the-dribble scorer (a la Derrick Rose or Dwayne Wade), nor a shooting freak who can get his shot off in ISO situations against length (a la Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Durant).
In fact, absent Shaquille O’Neal and save for the rare stretches where the C’s gather in a batch of offensive rebounds, this offense is basically composed of jumpshots, or, at its most efficient, guys getting open underneath the basket as a result of multiple passes or a Rajon Rondo drive (often in transition).
The lower-pressure regular season disguised this flaw, in part because the Celtics routinely got wide open layups and wide open jumpshots because opposing teams wouldn’t put in the effort necessary to contest them.
Things have changed. The Miami Heat are contesting. They are positively contesty.
Result #1: a Celtics team that was fourth in the league finishing at the rim during the regular season (67%) is, for the first two games, shooting at 51% (23-45). This includes a 14-27 mark in game two, which included the following individual tallies:
- Rajon Rondo 6-7
- Paul Pierce 3-4
- Ray Allen 1-4
- Glen Davis 1-4
- Kevin Garnett 1-2
- Jeff Green 2-3
- Jermaine O’Neal 0-3
Result #2: a Celtics team that was fifth in the league from the mid-range (40.9%) is, for the first two games, shooting at 28% (9-32). This includes a 5-22 mark in game two, with special delivery stinkbombs from Garnett (2-9) and Rondo (0-5).
It’s not just the stat geekery that paints a bleak picture. It’s Doc Rivers, who for the second game in a row, accepted blame for failing to get the right shots for the right people. After game one, we heard about how Boston needed more post touches. After game two, Rivers lamented the stretch that followed the 80-80 score, where Miami reeled off 14 straight points. Jackie MacMullan writing at ESPN Boston:
The momentum, it seemed, might just be swinging toward the men in green — until the Heat instantly ripped off a 14-0 run to put the game out of reach.
That burst included four trips to the line as well as a 3-point play for LeBron when he slipped in and followed up an errant Wade jumper with an offensive slam. It started when the Celtics’ defense converged on a driving Wade, who kicked it out to a wide open Mario Chalmers for an uncontested 3-pointer.
“See now, that can’t happen,” Garnett scowled.
Boston’s offensive possessions during Miami’s run included back-to-back Glen Davis isolations that came up short, an Allen trey that rolled in and out, a Jermaine O’Neal offering that was rejected by Joel Anthony, a KG jumper that rattled around and out, and a perimeter jumper from Rondo that wasn’t even close.
But rather than ponder the reality that Doc is being outcoached by Erik Spoelstra, ask yourself what this was all about:
Pierce may have been lecturing Rondo on something completely unrelated to the slodgy offense but whatever it was, Rondo wanted no part of it. This bit of dissension is indicative of the way Miami has bullied this Celtics team into the self-doubt that goes along with an 0-2 series deficit, something this C’s core had yet to come up against until last night. All of a sudden, Boston looks like the mentally fragile team while Miami looks like the group that’s ready to push the Celtics down the mountain and plant their own flag in the snowcap.
Or to put it more bluntly, Miami is the new Boston. At least right now.
It’s hard to take any solace in the idea that all Miami has done is hold serve. That’s starry-eyed, at best. What Miami has done, besides force the Celtics to win 4 of the next 5 to stay alive in the playoffs, is demonstrate they have the two best players in the series, that Chris Bosh can play Garnett to a draw and that Rondo can be slowed up and controlled.
All of which leaves us with a batch of questions to ponder over the next few days:
- Can Shaq’s return do enough to change the course of this series?
- Is Rondo going to step up and dominate this series the way we would expect from “the best point guard in the NBA”?
- Will the Paul Pierce that closed out the regular season so aggressively please step up?
- Will Kevin Garnett ever attempt a free throw (he’s now played 74 minutes against Miami without attempting even one)?
- Is Glen Davis playing himself into a veteran minimum contract? (mostly kidding).
- The offense was bad, to be sure, but the defense was even worse. Miami put up a 114.6 offensive efficiency rating. Boston has to be close to perfect, rotationally speaking, to stop both Wade and Lebron James (35 points, 7 rebounds) from creating shots and so far, it’s not happening. It’s a far more correctable problem than the offense, but it’s not a given especially because guys like Green, who had a nice little first half on offense, still gets lost far too often on D. At what point does his Basketball IQ come into question?
- Injuries: Pierce is day-to-day with a strained achilles, Rondo was battling a stiff back, and Allen had a bruised chest. Of the three, Pierce’s injury seems the worst but he’s got plenty of time to get ready for Saturday night’s all-but-must-win game three.
- While the C’s were getting Rondo, Pierce and Allen mended, Rivers leaned heavily on his bench in the second quarter, and for once, they didn’t disappoint him. Delonte West stepped into all four of his jumpshots and knocked all four down. Perhaps he’s coming out of his recent funk.