There’s an oft-debated notion in the world of basketball that says great teams that are aware of their eminence don’t believe it necessary to play “hard” in every second of every minute in a seven game series. They believe that when it counts, they can turn it on and pull away with a win. It’s called “The Switch”, and for the last three years, a case can be made that the Boston Celtics have fallen victim to its seductive power.
Personally, I don’t believe a team can truly be maniacal, taking possessions off here and there, then showing their worth when it matters. That isn’t how basketball works. The whole “on and off switch” philosophy disregards and disrespects an opponent that wants to win the basketball game just as bad as the group perceived to be superior.
The Philadelphia 76ers never trailed in the first half of last night’s game. As the Celtics missed jumper after jumper, the Sixers kept swallowing up rebounds and rushing the other way. There was no answer for Evan Turner’s versatility, or the onslaught of a hot Andre Iguodala. Midway through the second quarter, after a Brandon Bass dunk cut the deficit to five, Turner responded with six quick points that helped push his team’s lead to a game-high 13 points. It was early, but things looked bleak.
Off and on throughout the first half, each and every Celtic (except Kevin Garnett, who continues to splatter his heart on the court for every possession) wasn’t at their best, taking first options on offense, allowing offensive rebounds and second chance points with hardly a box out, barely pushing the ball in transition, and letting deep penetration regularly slice through the stomach of their supposedly bullet proof defense. If you rely on a mystical switch to get you out of trouble, there’s always the possibility of falling too far and not allowing yourself enough time to fight back. It’s dangerous game of chicken.
Throughout the second half, three things happened that allowed Boston to win the basketball game. The first wasn’t a strategic move or a tactical decision, it was Rajon Rondo deciding he was going to take over the basketball game. Rondo finished the second half with 11 points (on 5-10 shooting, the second most shot attempts in the half behind Garnett’s 11), eight rebounds, and nine assists. In other words, he finished the game with a triple double, but his real work took place in the third and fourth quarters. He dominated every aspect of the game, knocking down HUGE jump shots, showing just how flawless and imperfect he can be at the same time in a single night.
The next factor was a basic lineup change that sparked the Celtics to victory. With 8:30 left in the fourth quarter, Rivers chose to ride Avery Bradley, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Rondo, and Garnett the rest of the way. Instead of forcing Doc to go with Bass, Greg Stiemsma, or Ryan Hollins by matching up Elton Brand with Spencer Hawes (who had a field day against our small lineup), Doug Collins chose to leave Brand on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, allowing the Celtics to keep their most potent five-man unit on the court for crunch time. They outscored Philly’s own small lineup by five points in that final 8:30, and it was just enough.
The third and final ingredient that influenced Boston’s second half comeback was Rivers’ decision to turn Evan Turner into Avery Bradley’s dinner. In the first half, Bradley spent most of his time making Holiday (four points on 2-4 shooting) comatose, while Turner was the team defense’s biggest problem, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds. The second half was a different story. In 20 minutes, Turner made two shots, failed to attempt a single free-throw, and grabbed just two rebounds.
In the fourth quarter, Bradley was a sharpened ice pick stabbing at Philly’s swelling balloon. He was everywhere on defense, doing everything, blurring up and down the court. His most notable play helped spur the biggest sequence of the game: a transition block leading to a Garnett three-point play the other way. It gave Boston the lead for good. Bradley’s on-ball defense is what’s given him a name in this league, but his entire play on that side of the ball has quickly become a work of fine art, and plays like this one show it.
I expected the Celtics to come out flat in this game because of the emotional contest that took place Thursday night. They battled a Hawks team that was so evenly matched, and barely escaped with their lives. That doesn’t mean they would take last night’s game any less serious than Philadelphia, but if you wanted to compare the two team’s collective excitement there’s no question that the Sixers are on a cloud of disbelief, thrilled to be playing for a shot to become this lockout-shortened season’s version of 1999′s New York Knicks. On the other hand, the Celtics are supposed to win the series, giving their narrative less flavor (for the time being).
Doc Rivers recognized in time what had to be done. He made adjustments, they executed their offense, and everyone played hard on every dribble throughout the fourth quarter. Philadelphia gave Boston their best last night, but the Celtics stole it with just two quarters of their own.