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Late Season Joyride

 

It’s impossible to ignore at this point: the prospect the Celtics could ride this unprecedented defensive wave through the Eastern conference to their third NBA Finals in five years.

I’ve spent the entire season convinced the Celtics would be an early round out. As recently as yesterday, I was a cynic. And with good reason. The Celtics have many flaws, any single one of which could prove crippling: they’re a poor offensive team, they don’t rebound at all, they’re old, and there’s no depth should any of the top guys on the roster get hurt.

And yet they just took down Miami for the second time in ten days and even their recent losses to San Antonio and Chicago suggest they’re a team that should be in the title discussion.

More importantly, since Doc Rivers reworked his rotations, a starting five that contains an undersized power forward with no rep for defense and a second year guard who looked petrified as recently as three months ago is spearheading one of the greatest defensive performances in NBA history, as John Hollinger notes:

Boston has allowed an astounding 92.9 points per 100 possessions over its past 15 games, according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, a figure which has propelled it to the league lead in defensive efficiency.

Let me help you try to grasp the significance of that 92.9 figure. The league average in offensive efficiency in that stretch shot up to 103.0, as every NBA team (except the ones playing Boston) found its post-lockout offensive rhythm.

So in the past 15 games, Boston’s defensive efficiency is a full 10 points better than the league average, a feat which nobody has done for a full season since … actually nobody has ever done that. Not even the 2008 champions, who were only 7.98 points better.

The lineup data supports the idea that Boston has found itself a defensive lineup for the ages. Check out the carnage on NBA.com’s advanced stats tool: When Bradley and Garnett play together, Boston gives up 88.8 points per 100 possessions, allows 38.8 percent shooting and forces nearly one turnover for every assist. This is scary stuff, and it’s not one of those small-minute flukes, either — they’ve played 658 minutes together.

You think that’s impressive? How’s this: When Rondo and Bradley play together, opponents average 82.2 points per 100 possessions.

That’s nearly 20 points below the league average. It’s in 271 minutes, so it’s not as robust a sample as the data with Garnett, but good heavens. The Celtics barely need to bother with an offense if the D is going to provide this kind of domination.

Hollinger is deliberately overstating that last point but those numbers are astonishing. And they convince me we’re not dealing with a mirage here. Moreover, with the smaller lineup, the Celtics are more capable of capitalizing in transition which means they’ll score more easily off their defensive stops. And they’ll have more energy to grind out defensive possessions.

Positive outcome breeds positive outcome. It’s just a wondrous little circle of basketball life, isn’t it?

Here’s what I now believe: the Celtics are likely to beat any other NBA team, including Miami and Chicago, with the sheer weight of their defense.

The question is: how often?

How often can the Celtics recover quickly enough between games to put forth the effort needed to sustain their defense? It was a problem in the second round last year when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett struggled to put together consecutive strong games in a row.

All those ridiculous jumpshots the C’s nailed down the stretch in Miami last night? Those happen one night in a row. But probably not two. Once the intensity gets amped up in the playoffs, and the minutes get longer for Boston’s older stars, recovery becomes more and more difficult and soon the Celtics are front-rimming jumpshots instead of attacking the rim. And they’re too tired to finish out possessions on defense and they’re surrendering second chance opportunities. Which further drains them.

Too much effort expended on one side of the ball limits what’s available for the other. It’s that same circle of basketball life. Except it sucks.

We’re going to have to watch the playoff schedule carefully because at a certain age, bodies pushed to their max can only recover so fast. And the dispersal of games and rest between them may have as much impact on how far the Celtics advance as anything that happens on the court.

Still, if that’s the major concern with all that’s come before now, I can’t imagine anyone is complaining.

  • dtlala

    Chicago is a threat because they also play Celtics defense. Other than them, I think it's Cs in the Finals.

    Other notes:

    Continuing to start Bradley is a coaching masterstroke. Clearly the only thing that Bradley lacked was confidence, and starting him in front of a Hall of Famer has given him it, and in spades. It's a joy watching him play on both sides of the ball.

    Brandon Bass is bad at defense.

    Dwayne Wade plays dirty and whines a lot, to the detriment of his team. It took him out of the defensive transition more than once tonight.

    Chalmers flops like crazy.

    The Cs are thin on the bench and tiny. They need Pietrus or, like, a Vujacic really, really badly.

  • CG12

    I'm going to pretend you did not actually suggest the Cs get Vujacic. Sacrilege.

    And you are right, Dwyane Wade is a wuss – one of my least favorite players in the NBA.

  • CG12

    I have thought all year long that this team had the potential to be a real defensive monster. The Stiemer announced his presence with authority right out of the gate. Avery had shown himself to be a plus defender in the little we had previously seen of him. Pavlovic's defense has been extremely solid the last two years (his offense, less so). And KG is playing with incredible energy right now.

    Rondo's lack of discipline on D still bugs me a lot, but I think that he gambles less when everyone is locked in like they are now and the team is better able to handle Rondo-induced breakdowns.

  • Webster

    I agree–I like Boston in the first against anyone and in the second against Miami. With Bradley and Garnett as a fallback we can play Rose better than anyone, but I do not see us keeping Noah off the offensive glass in the second or third round–I think that our best hope is to try to take third and hope that the Pacers either beat Chicago or tire them far more than the Heat tire us.

  • tbunny

    I've repeatedly read so-called experts saying they would take Bosh over Garnett at this point and I have to laugh. I'd take Garnett every day of the week and twice on Sundays.

    I'm sick of the "are they or are they not a contender" talk. No one knows and it doesn't matter. I've been behind this team all season but it doesn't matter what people think right now. All I know is that the Celtics look much better right now than they did at the end of last season. And they are going to be very hard to beat.

  • IBleedGreen

    Ryan, can you also do a similar breakdown with the offensive numbers? Celtics have played great defense all year long, but I think recently the team has been playing much better offense, which may have as much to do with the recent success as the defense. The defense will always be there with this team, when we play good offense (Miami, Philly), we win. When our offense struggles (San Antonio, Chicago) we lose.
    I don't worry about defense in the playoffs because I know they're going to bring it no matter what. It is always the offensive struggles and rebounding that worry me.

    • Anthony

      Even without a breakdown, I can imagine the offensive numbers being much better as well. It's clear they don't rely on a Pierce ISO whenever the team struggles with offense. They have many more options… pick and pop with KG/ Bass, Ray off the curl, AB baseline cut, KG post, etc. That's reflected with Rondo's and KG's assist numbers after the all-star break. KG has been more assertive offensively, taking more shots, forcing opponents to double-team, resulting in more KG assists.

      • tbunny

        The team is rumbling. Individual plays on offense seem simple but when Rondo/Bradley are clicking it becomes difficult for teams to match personnel with the great variety of scoring options they deploy. They are playing great team ball and you can see the confidence everyone has with their shots. They won't shoot this well every night but if they move the ball that well they won't have to.

        I'm tired of the Lebron hating. Yes he no shows sometimes but the standard is unfair. He played hard and kept the Heat in this game. There was a sequence where he drove the lane three straight times and got foul shots every time. He went to work but they still lost.

      • IBleedGreen

        The point I am trying to make is that defense alone is not going to cut it. The Celtics have always been one of the best defensive teams in the league in the Big3 era, so the defensive end does not concern me at all. It is often the offense that costs us games. If the Celtics can be a more consistent offensive team, watch out.

  • W2.

    Chicago has our number. But maybe they get bounced by someone else. I hope everybody plays tonight. i missed Ronda the last time down. Roll on Celts.

  • phreesh

    How's that Kool-Aid tasting Ryan? Any team with size up front will manhandle the Cs over 7 games – Orlando, Chicago, even Atlanta. They just happen to match up well against Miami.

    They've played well of late, but I can't see any playoff run deeper than two rounds.

    Now, the Knicks on the other hand… ugh, even I can't see much hope with Lin and Amare out.

    • onecowboytoo

      We pretty much own Orlando, and they have too much drama to make a push.

    • phreesh

      Cs own Orlanda one game at a time. Give Howard, Anderson, etc 7 games to grind down the front line and call me from the golf course.

  • ElRoz

    Back-to-back are rolling, even a 3-game back to back: Doc has to play Dooling and even Hollins (yes, I said that – give him 4 minutes even when the game is close) in order to manage the minutes of the 6-7 guys that are playing substantial time.
    I hope the team can wrap up the division in the next 3-4 games and just rest Rondo-Ray-Pierce-KG tha last 2-3 games. A few more Phily lossess would be helpful.

  • High Rollers

    You failed to highlight two undeniable things: the otherwise grumpy old men are being propelled by the team’s mini youth movement. Having guys they can trust who are 26 (Rondo and Stiemsma), 27 (Bass) and 22 (Bradley) probably blows their minds, especially the very old school KG. The Big Three has had to do a lot baby-sitting in the past, but this year guys are simply mature and ready. Less work on and off the court, more time for getting the job done. The other point: the Big Three hasn’t been this ready to snatch a ring since ’08. With all the upheaval driving home the sense of this being potentially the last rodeo, these guys are ready to play out of their minds, out of their comfort zones, using everything in their arsenal, and letting it all hanging all hang out to go after 18. That combination of spirit and aforementioned youth can rip those otherwise normal, dismal expectations to threads.

    • High Rollers

      Sorry about the typo.

      • High Rollers

        And I think I meant to say shreds, not threads. If the C's can get it right, so can I.

  • -jp

    I have lost a TON of respect for wade over the past 2 seasons, so much whining and dirty play. The benefit of having Bradley start is that he is young and can recover fast. Also, we are only playing 8 guys right now which is basicaly a playoff rotation. That is good news. Doc should keep the rotations the same for the first round at least so that we can still win a series and keep the older guys fresh. Most important is KG, if we tire him out we have no chance. Doc doesnt seem afraid to go with unconventional line ups even in the playoffs, going small without KG to keep him fresh.

    • yeah

      I feel much the same about Howard, who often complains whenever Orlando doesn't do something well. He is not a player I would want on the Celtics anymore.

  • dtlala

    For the record, that shit that Wade pulled that ended up hurting RR's elbow last year was a totally dangerous play. Pulling someone down that hard when they're in the air is the equivalent of the NFL's horse collar, and he did it intentionally and with malice. Go watch the videotape.

    If you're a replay nut, find the play late in the second half of this last game where Paul takes a 3 from the elbow and Wade runs in, not to contest the shot, but just to get his feet in so Pierce might roll an ankle on landing. Classy.

  • emg

    I don't think we can count on the celtics to shoot that well. they're good but not as good as last night. on the other hand the heat played well too.

  • Jon Mullen

    The most impressive and reassuring thing about last night might have been the beginning of the 4th qtr. We put the second unit in (Stiems, Bass, Pav, Ray, and AB) and they took a 8-0 beating from Lebron and Chalmers. But this 5 was relentless in its come back. After James scored to bring it within one Ray took the ball from AB and brought it up to calm everyone down. The three possessions that followed were Bass and Stiems hitting wide open jumpers from the corner and a buried three by ray. I think that rondo cam into the game inbetween these possessions but the fact that our second unit can take a run from a top tier playoff team and respond to it is a good sign. We can say that this team is small but I don't think it's fair to say they aren't deep. The extended minutes guys like AB, Stiems and Sasha have received due to injuries have given them opportunities to play with KG Rondo and Pierce and have given them the confidence to respond to adversity. Despite the fact that they're young this season has given them valuable experience on the floor against good teams.

  • http://clarkwalkerstudio.com Luke Walker

    Great blog post – you guys nailed it. This reflects my feelings perfectly. Without sounding like a pessimist I thought this team was just good enough to maybe sneak by in the first round and then get outted in 5 games in the 2nd round. They've showed a whooooole new gear lately that I didn't think they had. It's exciting to watch and why we're all glued to this team. I just hope they aren't peaking at the wrong time.

  • KOR

    As I've watched the Celtics this year, it would behoove Doc to find minutes, at least in the first half of games for Dooling. The recent success has less to do with the rotation and more to do with the playing KG at the C spot. Playing Dooling with Allen for a 4-5 mins stretch CANNOT hurt the team. Now when Pietrus comes back, he can get extended minutes and Sasha will be the loser there. What we're seeing here is a FRESH Boston team due to folks being hurt/out at one time or another. Pierce to start the season, Rondo, Ray, coupled with KG de Leon as well as the fact that this team can SHOOT the basketball. The playoffs are gonna be good. Nobody knows what's going to happen and under that scenario, always favor the veteran teams to find a way to steal games.

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