Through three quarters of Monday night’s game against the Bulls, the Celtics played their best basketball of the season. The dominant performance was nearly marred by a Bulls comeback in the fourth quarter. Naturally, I wanted to know how this happened. After re-watching the second half intently, I was able to come up with some educated guesses as to why the C’s almost faltered:
1) Kevin Garnett is old. YEEEOOUCHH! That was harsh, but not entirely unreasonable. Last season, Doc Rivers began employing a strategy for Kevin Garnett’s minutes similar to how Dominoes entices college kids to buy three buffalo chicken pizzas at midnight. KG starts and plays the first five minutes, takes the next five off, and plays the next five. If the team can hold it together with KG on the bench, then Garnett can rest even longer. It almost never happens the other way around. At least it didn’t during last year’s shortened season.
This season, however, there are enough days for players to spend in ice baths, on a trainers table, or in the film room. In other words, there is time built in for mental and physical recuperation. This may have contributed to what happened during the third and fourth quarters of Monday night’s game. Kevin Garnett started the third quarter on the floor and promptly exited four minutes later with the Celtics steadfastly holding on to a 12 point lead. He then didn’t check back into the game until Chris Wilcox kicked the ball and stopped the clock with 30 seconds to play in the quarter. At that point, the Celtics had maintained their 12 point lead (82-70) and everything pointed to them coasting to victory. The bench (Jared Sullinger, Wilcox, Courtney Lee) had done their job and preserved the lead unlike year’s past and a well-rested KG was prepared to put away the Bulls with a ferocious start to the fourth.
So why didn’t that happen? Because Garnett is old, duh! Didn’t you read that above? Okay, so that deserves some fleshing out. To elaborate, Garnett is too old to carry a unit both offensively and defensively. To start the fourth quarter, Rivers trotted out Garnett, Sullinger, Jeff Green, Lee, and Leandro Barbosa. This lineup has exactly 1.5 players capable of creating their own offense and has had almost no time to build any chemistry. Sometimes having a 12 point lead in an actual game is a good time to help a unit build chemistry. The fourth quarter of a game against the Bulls is probably not that time.
Roughly four minutes and many missed jumpers later, the Celtics lead had dwindled to three points (87-84). This is the time Rivers should be thinking about taking KG out of the game for his customary five minute rest. He, of course, couldn’t do this because the of the 9 point swing and at the time Joakim Noah looked like he was about to eat the basketball and use the net to floss pieces of composite leather from his teeth. This resulted in Garnett playing another three minutes before being relieved for a little over two minutes by Wilcox. During the stretch of KG playing tired and resting on the bench, the Celtics were -7.
The rest of the game was a battle of attrition. The Bulls essentially made one substitution in the fourth quarter while the Celtics were able to rotate everyone for at least a couple of minutes here and there. A younger Garnett may not have been as negatively affected by the fourth quarter stretch. A younger Garnett may have been able to assert himself on offense without Rajon Rondo. A younger Garnett is not walking through that door any time soon.
2) Rajon Rondo is VITAL to the Celtics offense. When I say offense, I don’t mean putting the ball in the bucket. When on, guys like Barbosa, Lee, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry can all put the score the basketball without much help. Rondo directs and maintains execution that creates a more sustainable offensive threat. Without Rondo on the floor in the fourth, the Celtics were an overall -7. The Celtics have never found an adequate backup point guard in the Rondo era and this season will most likely prove to be no different. As mentioned above, not having Rondo on the floor with Garnett seems to hurt KG’s offense the most. During the playoffs last season, the Celtics two most utilized units with KG and without Rondo had overall ratings of -21.91 and -35.26*.
3) The bench needs a chemistry tutor. Or just more time together. So far, it appears as though the Celtics bench still doesn’t know what their respective roles are when utilized in different lineups. This isn’t exactly an easy thing to do. The bench players are expected to adjust their games on the fly when a substitution happens. Green needs to be able to play 2-4 at the drop of a hat. Terry, Barbosa, and Lee all need to be able to play the 1 or the 2 and Garnett and Wilcox need to be essentially interchangeable front-court cogs. Like I said, this isn’t easy stuff and it’s clear the C’s aren’t there yet. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen how much the bench’s lack of clarity has to do with Rivers’ interesting lineup decisions or the actual personnel being employed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Garnett can’t play long stretches of time, Rondo can’t be taken off the court, and the bench is useless. I am saying that these were all contributing factors to the Celtics losing a 12 point lead in the fourt quarter of Monday night’s game and are worth keeping in the back of your mind going forward.
*One bit of awesomeness to look forward to: Avery Bradley and Garnett units sans Rondo had great overall ratings during the regular season. He may not be a point guard, but Bradley seems more and more like a panacea as the games tick by.