Predictable. Stale. Stagnant. Hopeless. These are all words you can use to describe the Celtics’ offense in this series. Three days after setting a franchise postseason low water mark with just 25 points in a half, the Celtics decided to rewrite the record book yet again.
Things couldn’t get worse after Game 1, right? Wrong. The Celtics scored 23 points in the second half last night. Unlike Game 1, turnovers weren’t the issue last night. Instead, the Celtics shot just 7-for-36 from the field, a putrid 19.4 percent from the field. That’s the lowest shooting percentage in a postseason half by an NBA team in more than 15 years, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Boston’s been bad here, historically bad, against an average defensive team.
As we expected, the C’s miss Rajon Rondo. He’s not around though, and hasn’t been for months, so there is no need to talk about that now. Instead, the Celtics have been lulled into a false sense of security, focusing almost exclusively on a mismatch that really doesn’t exist in their halfcourt offense.
Paul Pierce vs. Raymond Felton.
Ever since the Celtics made the late-season switch to a big starting lineup, that is the matchup that had Doc Rivers salivating once the Knicks were lined up at a first round foe.
“We’re going to attack anyone Paul has on him,” Rivers said last night before Game 2.
Unfortunately, this philosophy has led to the demise of the Celtics’ half court offense for the better part of these first two games.
In theory, Pierce vs. Felton should be a mismatch. The Captain has the size and bulk advantage. However, a few things have kept Pierce from dominating this matchup.
1) Felton is defending better than the Celtics anticipated, forcing Pierce into some contested shots.
2) Pierce is 36 years old, and doesn’t have the same post game and body control he did during his prime, while playing in the post.
3) The Knicks are being smart with their double teams, forcing Pierce to take the ball into a crowd in the middle of the floor when he tries to make a move to the hoop, leading to countless turnovers (Pierce has 11 this series)
4) Perhaps most importantly, despite all of this, the Celtics are going to Pierce nearly EVERY DAMN TIME down the floor in the halfcourt offense.
Let’s get one thing straight here. The Knicks do not have a bad defense. They don’t have a great one either. No team should be posting franchise records for lowest points in a half in back-to-back games against this roster. Against the Bulls and Pacers defense, that would be almost expected. Against this one? Inexcusable.
With that said, the Knicks have a bunch of seasoned veterans on this squad that have been around the block a few times in the NBA. They may not all be great defenders, but they are smart and pick their spots well defensively. You know what helps any team’s defense though? Knowing exactly what and where your opponent’s play will be going every time down the floor.
Boston’s play calling in the halfcourt has led to this predictability, giving the Knicks the flexibility to tighten up their defense, since they don’t have to think about what is going to happen next. Why? Roughly 80 percent of the time, they know exactly what’s coming.
What happens? Off of a pick-and-roll or some other form of non-threatening ball movement (handoff, etc.) Pierce waits for the ball at the elbow, roughly with about 12 seconds on the clock.
From there, Pierce has been forced into one of 3 options as the shot clock winds down:
a) Taking a contested jumper
b) Making a move into traffic, where multiple Knicks defenders are waiting for him in the lane, leading to missed layups or turnovers
c) Passing out of double teams, to a poorly spaced Boston offense that is unable to move the ball quickly, giving the Knicks time to recover.
A couple examples of this, in video:
That’s literally been the Celtics’ half court offense through the first two games of this series. They’ll mix in a KG post up here and there, as well as a Jeff Green isolation and/or drive off a pick from the wing off a pick or cut, but Pierce has generally been option 1, 2, and 3 most times down the floor.
The results have been incredibly underwhelming. It’s no concidence that last night the Celtics had their best offensive sequence in the second quarter without Pierce on the floor, (who finished with a plus/minus of -28 last night).
The fivesome of Garnett, Bass, Crawford, Terry, and Bradley outscored the Knicks 16-4 on an offense predicated on drive and dish, optimistic transition offense, and a couple KG postups.
Back to Pierce though. His usage in the offense is disturbing on a variety of levels. Not only is it predictable for the Knicks’ defense, but it’s also ton of work for Pierce. If you are involved in the offense every time down the floor, you will get tired. Pierce is not LeBron James. He doesn’t have the stamina or separation skills to make something happen for 36 minutes on offense, especially against a pesky defender like Felton.
Want some disturbing numbers that back this up? Check out Pierce’s usage for the first two games, along with his season rate:
Game 1: 32.7
Game 2: 35.7
Those numbers would put Pierce in top 2 of the NBA for usage rate over the course of the regular season, alongside players like Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, and Kobe Bryant. Even LeBron’s usage isn’t close to this high.
Doc Rivers is asking Pierce to be those guys though in this series, and the veteran is simply not capable of doing that in this stage of his career. This isn’t 2008. He can’t play like those guys anymore, especially for big minutes
Doc has to take a lot of the blame for this. He’s running Pierce into the ground, and it’s led to historically bad offense for the last two games. Mike Woodson knows what’s coming, his team knows what’s coming and they’ve been prepared for it. Unfortunately, Rivers has been unable to adjust his gameplan on the fly.
For those wondering about an alternative, there’s no easy solution and that’s part of the problem. The Celtics are without their main creator in Rondo, but there are other players that can contribute.
1) Remember Brandon Bass? The guy who was playing so well for the past two months? He’s been an afterthought in the offense for the past two games, attempting just eight shots. His usage rate last night was 10 percent, seven points below his season average. I covered how the C’s could use him with more depth in a post from yesterday
2) The Knicks have also showed an inability to slow down Jeff Green most of the game when he takes the ball to the basket. He’s struggled after the first half in both of the first two games, but that’s largely because the team stopped getting him the ball in good offensive positions. He’s a better bet than Pierce right now to be useful in the halfcourt, as long as he isn’t settling for jumpers.
3) Jason Terry from the midrange. He’s taken only blown layups and 3-pointers in this series. He’s one of the C’s most dangerous ballhandlers and creators, but he’s been resigned to a spotup shooter most possessions. That’s playing away from his strengths.
All in all, the biggest issue here is stubborn playcalling and that falls on Doc.. It bogs the C’s down, limits ball movement for a group that has not played together much, and leads to turnovers, tough shots, and inefficient offense.
When the Celtics’ offense thrived this year for a period after Rondo went down, it was because they were spontaneous. Other teams didn’t know where the ball was going each time down the floor. Pierce alternated between being a distributor and scorer. Defenses didn’t know who would be bringing it up, who would be attacking, and when you don’t know what’s coming, it’s hard to defend the basket.
If the Celtics want to win this series, it’s on the head coach to mix things up. He needs to let Pierce be a distributor, instead of just a scorer and creator. He needs to get away from Pierce in the post (as much). He needs to find simple but effective ways to get the ball moving again in the halfcourt, to create opportunties for the entire offense, not just Pierce.
If he can do that, the Celtics will have a chance to make it a series.