Defense had to be the Celtics' priority heading into last night's game against the Phoenix Suns, but unfortunately Steve Nash and co. broke through Boston's defensive barriers early and often. It didn't take long for the game to become a display of offensive wills, which was a battle the banged-up Celtics were bound to lose to the explosive Suns.
Keeping up with the Suns on the offensive side of the ball was really the only hope the Celtics had last night, seeing as they just didn't have the manpower to hold down the Suns for very long. Not only didn't they have enough bodies, but they didn't have the ideal bodies that help sure up the overall team defense.
Unfortunately, there were a few glaring holes in the Celtics' offense last night - some which were exclusive to last night's loss in Phoenix and some which have sprung up throughout this three-game losing streak and could remain until we see guys like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett return to the lineup.
First, with two of the Big Three inactive for the time being, the onus falls on Ray Allen to put the ball in the basket more often. Once it was confirmed Garnett wasn't going to play last night, I was curious as to whether Doc Rivers might gear the team's offense towards Ray Allen and run play after play for him. I wouldn't have been totally surprised if by the end of the night Ray had at least 25-30 shot attempts. We might have felt like we had taken a trip back to his Milwaukee and Seattle days, but the Celtics needed a big night from Ray and they simply didn't get that.
Ray finished last night's game with 15 points, which is nothing to snuff that, but it was a very quiet 15-point outing. His points weren't necessarily making a huge impact on the overall game. His shots and his points weren't changing the overall flow and tone of the game in the Celtics' favor. Never did Phoenix's defense really need to react to Ray's offense last night. This is even more unfortunate considering Jason Richardson was shadowing Ray for most of the evening.
Ray shot just 4-13 in last night's game, and of the 14 games the Celtics have played so far in December, Ray has shot less than 50 percent from the field in 12 of them. There was some speculation coming into the season as to whether or not this was the year we'd start to see Ray decline and while I'm not overly concerned with that question right now, I'm slowly being convinced that Ray isn't completely capable of taking over a game and carrying a team all by himself anymore - not for a continuous stretch, at least. Teams in the NBA with just one stud scorer were never meant to find success, so Ray going off for 30+ doesn't even guarantee a win, but the C's certainly needed more production from him last night.
In the end, the Celtics employed an offensive strategy that incorporated all the players on the floor, with an emphasis on punching the ball down low. I feel like I'm beating a dead horse in regards to writing about Rasheed Wallace playing down low, but it was especially painful last night because the Celtics needed him to do it and the Suns are an ideal team to play in the paint against. The Celtics dropped 60 points in the paint when these two teams first met back on November 6 and last night the Suns were over rotating on almost every Boston possession, which helped account for many of the points Kendrick Perkins scored down low. Rasheed could have had a full-on field day down low last night, and while he found success at times, I can't help but feel like his overall production in the paint could have been much better.
Rajon Rondo did appear limited at times last night, particularly when it came time to explode past Steve Nash to the basket. He was visibly grimacing multiple times and he almost came out for good at the 5:44 mark of the third quarter before re-entering with 4:21 to go in that same period.
But with Pierce out of the lineup and Tony Allen replacing him, two of the Celtics' five starters cannot shoot jump shots. This is a problem. Sure, both will occasionally hit a jumper, but with both players' offensive games being fairly one-dimensional from a straight scoring standpoint, it's much easier for opposing defenses to sag off and help on other Celtics who find themselves in scoring position.
Danny Ainge alluded to the fact that Rondo's lack of a jump shot hindered the Celtics against the Magic in last season's playoffs because the Magic basically ignored Rondo when the Celtics had the ball and chose to double the likes of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Well, having just one player create that effect for your team is bad enough, but now we have to worry about two players potentially creating this effect? And they'll both be on the court together most of the time until Pierce returns? Ugh.
If you look at the top tier points guards in the NBA right now, your list will probably include Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Derron Williams and Rajon Rondo. What's the one glaring difference between Rondo and those other three players? A jump shot. Rajon can defend as well as, if not better than those other three, he can rebound better than all three of them and he can arguably pass as well as any of them. But for those other three, their ability to hit a jump shot takes them to a level slightly above Rondo at this juncture in all of their respective careers. Not only can Steve Nash knife through the lane and find Amare Stoudemire for an easy lay up, but he can hide behind a pick and bury a devastating jump shot or three-pointer. The same can be said for Paul and Williams, but not Rondo. Not yet.
Despite the issues, the Celtics still found ways to score last night. They posted 98 points and six guys scored in double figures, but after Phoenix built its double digit lead, all Boston managed to do was trade baskets for the rest of the game. Eddie House had one of his best games of the season (19 points, 5-7 from the nation), but it seemed like whenever he hit a three-pointer, the Celtics' deficit would only drop to somewhere between 10 and 14 points and then Phoenix would respond with a three-pointer of its own just seconds later. Boston was never really in a position last night to have Eddie's shots matter for a whole lot. His shots kept the C's in the "hanging around" stage, rather than the "seriously threatening" stage that the C's would have needed to make last night's game even remotely interesting in the final few minutes.
Unfortunately, this is the reality for the Celtics until they can get their heavy hitters back. The offense will just have to find ways to score, even if it means resorting to unconventional ways. Not to put more of a damper on anyone, but the Suns allow just over 106 points per game, so the C's scoring in garbage time last night fails to allude to the issues the offense is facing right now. The C's simply need to get through this difficult stretch, get their guys healthy and find their stride later on in the season. Until everyone gets back both the offense and defense could be pretty sketchy at times, but we're just going to have to suck it up and make do with what we've got.