Last night’s game at the T.D. Garden, the 275th between the NBA’s two most storied franchises, was not a spectacle for the basketball purists. In many ways it had the intensity of a playoff game, with both teams playing ultra-tight on the defensive end and battling hard on every possession. Both teams also struggled on offense, going ice-cold through large stretches of the game. There was a meager 44 points scored in the fourth quarter and overtime period combined.
With six seconds remaining in overtime, and the Celtics trailing by one point, Doc Rivers called a time-out. Rajon Rondo inbounded the ball to Paul Pierce, who recently passed Larry Bird for second place in franchise scoring, behind only the great John Havlicek. Upon receiving the ball Pierce was instantly greeted at close quarters, for the umpteenth time, by Ron Artest (my apologies, I meant Metta World Peace). World Peace stayed tight on Pierce and got a hand up in his face as he shot the ball. The ball bounced agonizingly off the rim and out to Ray Allen, whose follow-up shot was blocked by Pau Gasol as the buzzer sounded. The Lakers edged out an entertaining if not aesthetically pleasing game, 88-87. It was their fourth consecutive win in Boston and snapped the Celtic’s five game winning streak.
The Lakers’ weaknesses have been well documented this season, but there are many ways in which last night’s game can viewed as a microcosm of the Celtics’ season thus far. None of the Celtics’ Big Three had a particularly impressive night. Garnett’s normally reliable mid-range game was out of sync, and Pierce was well contained by a combination of World Peace and Matt Barnes. The over-arcing question for this ageing Celtics team has been the same all season: Is the championship window for Pierce, Allen and Garnett closed, or do they still have the ability to make one last run at the Larry O’Brien trophy?
From the start of the season the odds appeared to be stacked against the Celtics. Not ideal for any team, the lockout and dramatically shortened pre-season was always going to be extremely disruptive for the fourth oldest team in the league. Losing 8 out of the first 12 games, Boston seemed physically unprepared to begin a season where they would be forced at times to play three games in three nights. Pierce himself recently admitted that his team’s poor start to the year was down to rustiness. Coupled with the difficulty of an immensely hectic schedule, the Celtics were also dealt a major blow in losing Jeff Green for the year; a player who was expected to add much needed secondary scoring off the bench.
Scoring has indeed been a problem all season for the Celtics. That fact was perfectly illustrated in last night’s game. The Celtics currently rank near the bottom of the league in points scored per-game and offensive production has been a major headache for Doc Rivers’ team. Last night served to highlight the biggest problem with the Celtic’s offense: they have essentially become a jump-shooting team. Against the Lakers they managed to get to the free-throw line on only five occasions. In Minnesota, and during his first years as a Celtic, Garnett was a dominant low-post threat, getting many of his points in the paint. It was clear from watching last night’s game that Garnett, although still an elite defender, is now limited to the role of a jump-shooter on offense. Pierce, although well defended last night, is also beginning to find himself cast in that role. He failed to drive the lane throughout the game, and was left to settle for highly contested low-percentage jumpers. Age has slowed down the mobility of the Celtics’ stars, curtailing their ability to play in the paint and create easy shots for themselves. When the jump shots are not falling, as was evident last night, they will inevitably struggle to score.
Such inability to score in the paint puts immense pressure on Rajon Rondo, the one Celtic with the speed and dynamism to penetrate at will. In the first half against the Lakers, Rondo drove the lane with a reasonable amount of success, scoring himself at times and kicking the ball out to open shooters. Rondo, probably the best pure point guard in the league not named Chris Paul, is vital to a team that desperately needs to create easier shots for the likes of Allen and Pierce. Rondo has already missed nine games this year and the Celtics cannot afford for him to miss too many more. Unfortunately, given his physically reckless playing style and the congested season, another ‘wear and tear’ type injury is far from inconceivable.
It has not been all negatives for the Celtics this year however. As much as the team has struggled on offense, Boston has excelled on the defensive end. That quality was also on display against the Lakers last night. The Big Three did an excellent job defensively all evening, particularly Ray Allen, who forced Kobe into fade-away jump shot mode. The Celtics rank first overall in points allowed per game and their stars have played a major part in that achievement. Entering last night’s game the Celtics had won 9 out of their previous 10, a streak owing largely to an increased intensity on defense. In one of their two games against Orlando this year, they held the Magic to an incredibly stingy 56 points. Allen and Garnett may not currently have the offensive mobility that they once possessed, but they are still more than competent as defenders.
Perhaps the last thing to leave a fading star is his ability to deny his opponent time and space. Playing good defense is as much about using one’s mental attributes as it is about being physically dominant. Pierce, Allen and Garnett are still three of the most intelligent players in the game in that regard.
Offensively stagnant and defensively outstanding: what are we to make of the Celtics’ chances this year? Firstly it must be said that given the shortened season and potential for injuries and general fatigue, this is as open an NBA season as any in recent memory. The last time games were lost due to a labour dispute, back in 1999, the 8th seed New York Knicks made it all the way to the Finals. Strange things can happen in such circumstances. Winning it all might just come down to who has the healthiest roster entering the playoffs, or who can make an impact trade at the deadline. (A low post scorer would do nicely for the Celtics!)
For Boston, any chance they have to win the championship depends on their ageing stars and Rondo being healthy entering May. Rivers will have to manage his player’s minutes accordingly, and hope that bench players such as Chris Wilcox, Brandon Bass and Mikel Pietrus, can make up for the diminishing production of the Big Three. The Celtics will also have to contend with a slew of young, hungry and physically gifted teams in the East. Getting past the powerhouses of the conference, Miami and Chicago, in a seven game series will take a performance of epic proportions. The Celtics however, should also be concerned about the up-and-coming teams in their conference. Teams such as Philadelphia and Indiana, whose pace and roster depth make them both a matchup nightmare for the Celtics.
In all likelihood this will be last chance for the Big Three to add to their legacy in a Celtics’ jersey. General Manager Danny Ainge has stated publicly, on numerous occasions, that he will not hesitate to trade his ageing stars if a deal is on the table that is beneficial for the team’s future. He has been critical of Red Auerbach’s failure in the late 1980s, to trade the likes of Bird and McHale for younger stars and draft picks, and has vowed to not repeat that perceived mistake. Both Garnett and Allen are free agents in the summer and it is highly debatable as to whether Ainge will re-sign either player.
With all that being said, it has undoubtedly been four years of basketball to savour in Boston. The arrival of Garnett and Allen re-invigorated Paul Pierce and the fan base. The coming together of these three future hall-of-famers brought the NBA’s most successful franchise back to where it belonged after twenty-two years of disappointment. Ultimately all the signs point to the Big Three falling short in their quest to add to their 2008 triumph. Given what we have seen at times this season however, and on numerous occasions since 2007, they will fall short fighting.
Zach Salzmann was born in London, England and is an avid follower of the NBA.
When he is not watching basketball, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, he can be found watching something else sports-related.