On the May 26 BS Report, ESPN’s Bill Simmons and Ric Bucher spent time talking about Oklahoma City’s struggles to get key scores down the stretch against Dallas. Bucher attributed it in part to the difficulties of getting Kevin Durant the ball, and how OKC’s top-scorer wasn’t physically strong enough to avoid being pushed around the court, and out of his preferred areas.
They also talked about Carlos Boozer’s failures against Miami. Boozer is still taking deserved heat for his porous defense, but the power forward shot only 40.7% for the series. Three games of five, Boozer failed to exceed ten shots. This isn’t entirely his fault, as Simmons and Bucher noted, as the Bulls weren’t exploiting the high screen-roll that Deron Williams and Boozer used so effectively in Utah.
But these failures to get the ball to key, expensive players may remind Celtics fans of game four of the Boston-Miami series.
We seem to have committed to a narrative where Kevin Garnett had an incredible game three (28 points, 18 rebounds) and then found himself gassed for the remainder of the series (he was 7-23 the final two games despite hauling in 21 rebounds).
There’s some truth to that story but if you re-watch game four, you’ll notice how hard the Heat worked to deny Garnett the ball, sending weakside defenders to apply pressure, pushing him off his spots and crowding him. The Lakers did the same thing in the 2010 finals and as a result, Pau Gasol outplayed Garnett. This is distinct from the 2008 finals, where KG routinely managed to get deep position on Gasol.
With all three of these elite players, you can seriously impede their offense by just keeping the ball away from them. The same holds true of Ray Allen, but for different reasons: a relatively weak handle and lack of explosiveness for his position.
Certain players are harder to deny. Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook (all of whom had their names bandied around as MVP candidates at one point this season) can pick up the ball just across the half-court line and do damage with it.
Of course, this is partially due to the way the game is officiated now. A defensive player can get away with more physicality pushing a big off his spots than can a perimeter defender, who isn’t permitted to hand check, or even extend his arms. For example:
If championship teams almost always require two superstar players, it seems increasingly crucial to have at least one of those two be a shot-creating scorer with a great handle. That’s not, by the way, an argument for late-game clearouts for your scorer to go one-on-one (or one-on-five), but a reflection of the difficulty of generating good looks against elite NBA defenses that routinely choke off individual offensive stars. This is why Paul Pierce remains Boston’s best offensive player. He can dribble, shoot, drive, and finish. He’s not the world’s greatest passer, and he’s aging, but he remains a difficult cover, especially given his strength.
All this lends itself to an argument for and against Rajon Rondo as the leader of the next prospective Celtics’ title contender. Rondo can take almost anyone off the dribble, and once by them, can draw the defense and find the open man. But he doesn’t fit in that above group of MVP candidates because of his shooting deficiencies and stretches of tentative play on offense.
If you think Rondo can overcome his offensive problems (and let’s not kid ourselves — they are significant), then you could move forward with him in confidence. A Rondo with a reliable jumpshot, who shoots 75% from the line, could easily be first-team all-NBA.
But if you think Rondo’s headed for another five years like his first five, you have to seriously consider moving him for an offensive upgrade. Because if winning titles is your goal, the incremental upgrade at the top of your roster is probably worth it. There’s a difference between a star who rates an A- and one who rates an A+. Just ask Larry O’Brien.