A Daily Babble Production
A fourteenth straight victory. Just 82 points allowed to a team that scores nearly 98 per game and is fourth in basketball in offensive efficiency. A stifling 35.4 percent shooting allowed from the field. A double-digit victory.
Yet throughout last night's 94-82 Celts victory over the Hornets at the TD Banknorth Garden, it felt as though the green's defense left plenty to be desired.
Despite all of the good parts of the defensive performance mentioned above, what stuck out to me all of Friday night was what appeared to be going on under the Hornets' basket throughout the contest: People in teal shirts receiving the ball and putting it in the hoop with no white jerseys in sight. By my count, the Hornets had no less than 18 dunks and lay-ups last night. The vast majority of those came either on the fast break or completely uncontested off of a pass from the perimeter to a player standing alone on the block. David West and Hilton Armstrong each had driving dunks in traffic, but beyond that it seemed that Hornets were camping out under the basket and letting Celtics drift away from them.
On a similar note, when the Celtics were nearby, it seemed that their overly physical brand of defense caused them a bit more trouble than usual. Despite the fact that the Hornets are just 25th in the league at getting to the line at 22.7 free throw attempts per game, the Celtics sent New Orleans to the charity stripe 33 times. That the Hornets only converted on 24 occasions (72.7 percent) was an abnormal fortune for the Celts as New Orleans sits third in the league as a team at 81.5 percent shooting from the line.
But when all is said and done, it is this sort of reaction to last night's defensive performance that demonstrates just how far this team has come and, as a result, how much the attitude of its fans has been able to change. Because the defense our Celtics play these days is really that good. They swarm the basketball. They crash the glass. They don't give up 13 offensive rebounds or 30-plus free throw attempts in a game or easy buckets by the boatload these days, and we don't expect them to do so.
They went up last night against the best point guard this league has to offer, and they held Chris Paul to a miserable 5-of-16 shooting performance from the field. It is a testament to what a wonderful creator CP3 is that he still managed to leave Celtics fans such as yours truly as frustrated as I was at times last night. It was largely because of his presence and what a threat he is to get in the lane and wreak havoc that the Celtics kept coming away from Hornets around the basket. There isn't much anyone in this league is doing about the type of play Paul made late in the third quarter. That would be when he brought the ball up the floor just offset to the right side of the top of the three-point line, looked hard to his right and then without shifting his glance whipped a laser to a wide-open Devin Brown on the left block for a lay-in. Paul made plays like that all night, freeing the likes of Brown, Melvin Ely, Sean Marks and Hilton Armstrong for easy looks while also putting in a couple of fast-break lay-ups and getting himself to the stripe 10 times.
Most teams and their fans in this league would be thrilled to be able to offset a 20-point, 14-assist game for Chris Paul by holding his squad below 40 percent field-goal shooting and inside of 85 points for the night. Two seasons ago, I would have taken any performance like that in a heartbeat with no questions asked. Last night, even as the Celtics did all those things and held Peja Stojakovic to 1-of-6 shooting to boot, I found myself thinking, "This is good, but I know our boys can play better at this end of the floor."
Don't get me wrong: It wasn't the angry reaction of a spoiled child who has had everything his way for too long (really, it has only been a year and change in this analogy). As I've written with regularity over the past 15 months and will likely be doing so again soon, I'm having too much fun with this team to ever really get mad about any of it. I'm too grateful for the chance to watch this team and fall in love with it all over again every night to let expectations get too high that I can't enjoy it.
This shouldn't for a second come off as though it was anything but a pleasure to watch last night's victory over the Hornets, to watch Paul Pierce take over in the second half, to see Eddie House drain a couple more treys, to see more signs of Kendrick Perkins' continued growth as a player. But on a night shown by many statistical indicators to be a great defensive performance - one most teams would take any night - there came a wonderful realization after the fact that, yes, this team has become that dominant on defense that it is reasonable to expect more. Because these fellas in green have shown that, more often than not, they can and will meet those expectations.