The afterglow from Monday night’s rip job on the Magic hasn’t faded yet. This week on 5-on-5, we’re joined by Chris Forsberg and Greg Payne of ESPN Boston to check in on the changing fortunes of Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce and the entire Celtics team.
Assuming, of course, they are changing.
Chris Forsberg: No, not yet. It’s an encouraging win, especially on the second night of a back-to-back and playing without a third of the roster. But let’s see that sort of defensive intensity (and results) on a consistent basis before we declare this ship righted. Just like no one should get too low after some of these early season losses, let’s not put too much stock in one quality win.
Hayes Davenport: Not really. I thought they were a back-of-the Conference playoff team, and I still do. The win was amazing: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of players perform that far beyond expectations. But wins like that will come out of nowhere, and don’t necessarily prove anything about a team’s title hopes. The Wizards beat the Thunder a week before, but I’m not sure that should make them buyers at the trade deadline.
Ryan DeGama: The C’s have been such a wimpy bunch of Bruce Banners this year that I didn’t think they had any Incredible Hulk left in them. Turns out they can get angry. And who expected Sasha and Avery to do all that SMASHING? One win doesn’t alleviate the rebounding and offensive problems, but maybe Boston can rally around the beating they laid on Orlando Monday night. That’s what I’m hoping for: the feel good story of a team that remembers how to bully others.
Greg Payne: No, but that was because I was never all that down on the team in the first place. Sure, the losses were disappointing and there might have been some reason to panic at times, but I was figuring it would only be a matter of time before the club got its act together. Could the C’s still get blown out on Thursday? Definitely. But regardless of Thursday’s outcome, Monday’s win over the Magic counts as progress.
Brendan Jackson: Not really. The win against Orlando was great, but there needs to be some sustainability in order for me to completely change my mind. Can this team continue to beat good teams? Furthermore, beating Orlando did not miraculously make this team healthy, which has been the biggest detriment to their success this season.
Forsberg: Yes, but his role is still a bit fuzzy. From the three-game glimpse as a starter, it would seem he should be the top option behind Rajon Rondo and Boston should let him pester opposing guards by picking them up full court the entire time he’s on the floor (maximizing his minutes). I like the idea of a defensive-minded second unit featuring, say, Bradley-Pietrus-Daniels-Bass and maybe keeping KG on the floor with that unit. Even if shots aren’t falling, teams are going to struggle to put up points against that lineup, and you can spell Rondo, Pierce, and Allen with that lineup. The one trouble: Still no pure ball-handler until Bradley strengthens that area of his game, and I can’t tell where Keyon Dooling fits in all this yet, either.
Davenport: Yes, but he probably wouldn’t be on a top-five team. That’s not really a knock on Bradley: last season I’m not sure he could have cracked the rotation of the Powerade Tigers. This year, he’s found actual purpose: he can take struggling guards like Jameer Nelson and become a pillow over their faces. He still occasionally derails the team defense and can be ignored on offense until he proves he can make wide-open shots, but two of his last three games have been the two best of his career.
DeGama: Yes. The exciting thing about Bradley is despite all the whiffs on his jumpers, his mechanics look fine. And despite getting regularly rejected lately, he keeps attacking the rim. But he’s gaining confidence and capability, so those things should improve. I’m not sure his ball-handling and passing will ever make the grade, but he’s an NBA player, and since E’Twaun Moore is probably not, Boston might as well stretch him out the next few months.
Payne: Yes. He’s had too much of an impact on too many games for Doc Rivers to keep him benched from now on. He spearheaded the defensive effort that led to the embarrassment of the Magic on Monday, and he can certainly hound other teams’ point guards the way he bothered Nelson. Bradley’s defense is his calling card, and his ability to legitimately impact games with it will keep him in the rotation.
Jackson: Yes, for better or worse. Luckily, his defense is definitely a plus and his offense is slowly coming along. After dismantling Orlando, Bradley talked about how Rondo has been telling him to be more assertive on offense: specifically, to not just pass the ball. If he can find some sort of consistent offense — it doesn’t even have to be pretty — he’ll be in this league as long as his body will allow.
Forsberg: At the moment? False. It’s not that he can’t get back towards that level, but Pierce was an absolute monster last season (and we tend to forget that). Last season he shot a career-best 49.7 percent, his scoring averaged jumped back up a bit, and he did so many little things that he was quietly the team MVP. This heel injury has prevented him from being that player so far, but we’ve seen glimpses over the last five games that he’s getting back to that level. By season’s end he might be playing at a level that shows little-to-no drop-off.
Davenport: True. The player Pierce was against Orlando and Washington is the player he was last year, maybe better. He’s still going to have bad shooting nights, but if he’s still capable of carrying the offense on consecutive nights, that means his struggles with injury early on probably had more to do with conditioning than with old age. I do not think Pierce expected to play this season, and I think he rewarded his body accordingly. We’re still seeing the effects of his going to Santarpio’s every day for the three months leading up to November 30th.
DeGama: True. The last 30 days were just about rust and fat and something with Pierce’s heel that’s never been explained to my satisfaction, per Boston’s usual obscurantist approach to sports medicine. Which is why some of the proposed returns on these trades are preposterous. Drop Pierce on any contending team and he immediately becomes a huge part of their offense and defense. Trade him away, Danny, if you must. Just make sure you get something worthy if you do.
Payne: True. Pierce was out of shape and injured to start the season, lacking the right timing and lift on his jump shot. I think it’s safe to say now that Sunday’s win over the Wizards was a breakthrough for Pierce, and he’ll now go back to being the player we’ve seen for so many seasons. Nothing was more refreshing these last two games than seeing the captain bury his signature step-back jumper with confidence and ease.
Jackson: True… provided that he doesn’t drastically fall off in the next five games. Pierce has really kicked it up a notch since Rondo’s injury. He realizes that without Rondo, and now Ray Allen, he is the Celtics’ primary play-maker and scorer. So far, he’s stepped up and been really effective at facilitating and attacking defenders.
Forsberg: Of course. This isn’t a knock on Allen, he’s never been a lockdown defender, and when you’re bringing a Mickael Pietrus or Sasha Pavlovic into his spot, the defense only naturally improves. But the drop-off offensively is so pronounced, it doesn’t make up for the defensive improvement. According to Synergy Sports data, Allen allows 0.898 points per play, which is well above what fellow starters Rondo (0.697), Garnett (0.667), and Pierce (0.701) allow. By comparison sake, Pietrus is allowing a mere 0.633 points per play (which ranks in the 93rd percentile in the league — only Brandon Bass has better overall numbers on the team right now). The flipside, Allen averages 1.182 points per play offensively, which is the 98th percentile in the league.
Davenport: Yes. Wait, do they get to replace him with another player or just run with four? Either way, I’m not sure it would make a huge difference for Ray’s man on the perimeter. Ray sees more drivers barrel past him than a yellow light, and when his teammates are forced to help out, favorable matchups are generated for the opposition. That’s why I’ve advocated Ray coming off the bench, where he can lead the second-team offense and will match up on defense with less dangerous players. Let Pietrus handle the Kobes and Wades of the world, and let Allen feast on the Bill Walkers and Roger Masons.
DeGama: It’s strange to consider this question because we so rarely see Allen out of the lineup. But the perimeter defense has been a problem this season and you can lay much of that at Allen’s feet. The rest of the starting five protect him but because the C’s have precious few capable bigs on the roster, against teams with dangerous SGs, or even decent ones, Allen’s weakness could end up landing KG, JO and co. in regular foul trouble.
Payne: I’m not sure it necessarily matters, because even if the C’s are better off defensively with, say, Pietrus, over Allen, they won’t play him less because his offense is so pivotal to their success. Allen’s still a credible one-on-one defender and isn’t a defensive liability or anything close to it, so nothing will change, even if there might be a better defensive candidate out there.
Jackson: No…not really. It’s not as if Allen is a non-factor defensively. He plays hard, knows the schemes and where to be at all times. He’s also fairly adept at harassing opponents one-on-one. He’s never going to block a shot or mix it up down low, but the team defense does well to cover up his shortcomings. I would, however, like to see what a Rondo-Bradley backcourt does on the defensive end now that Bradley has gained some confidence.
Forsberg: It’s hard to imagine the Magic struggling as much as they did the other night. Expect more of those shots to fall, especially from beyond the 3-point arc. It might come down to how effective guys are jumping back into the fray. This one will likely be decided in the first quarter. If the Magic continue to struggle, Boston might be in their heads a bit from the other night, and can take advantage. If those outside shots start falling, it’s going to be a battle.
Davenport: After Monday’s blowout, I may not ever try to predict a game again. But I don’t think this game will go as well as the last one did. Jermaine O’Neal may actually follow through on his plan to sit out a game this season, which means that Greg Stiemsma would start in his place. I understand some have advocated Stiemsma’s promotion for a while, but Dwight Howard may not be the best matchup for the Blonde Bill Russell. Careful what you wish for, Stiemsmaniacs.
DeGama: The C’s could be even more shorthanded than they were Monday and yet — I think they’ll win again. There’s something inescapably fragile about these Howard-era Magic teams that Boston consistently exposes (the same way Rafael Nadal gets into the head of Roger Federer, for all six of you tennis fans out there). Stan Van Gundy’s a great coach and he’ll have his guys ready, but if Boston comes out throwing haymakers, Orlando may again find themselves punch drunk. Assuming JO is in there, I’ll take the C’s to win a close one.
Payne: The Celtics win again, in what will be a closer, down-to-the-wire contest. Boston’s going to have to absorb an early punch or two from the Magic (figuratively, not literally — although with Jermaine O’Neal and Dwight Howard in the paint, who knows), but then the C’s can grind it out from there. They just have to be ready to bring the same defensive energy that they showed up with on Monday. As Pierce reminded everyone after Monday’s win, now that they’ve proven they can perform like that, there’s no reason for them not to.
Jackson: A much closer game and an Orlando win. The Magic carried that terrible feeling after the loss in Boston through to Indiana where they laid the absolute wood on the Pacers. You know, the team the Celtics have yet to beat this season. Orlando did this by revving up the defensive intensity and I expect them to do the same against Boston.