Disaster In Salt Lake City

A Daily Babble Production

The team that misses nearly 35 percent of their free throws in a game doesn't deserve to win.  The team that turns the ball over makes it harder for itself to win (the fact that the Celtics have managed to turn the ball over quite a bit while still winning regularly through most of the year notwithstanding).  The team that doesn't execute at the end of the game doesn't deserve to win.  Same for the squad whose coach makes an enormous gaffe in the waning seconds with the game still hanging in the balance (more on that later).

Along with those three issues, the Celtics were without their best defensive player in the second half, the Jazz had the refs (more later) and the crowd, and Utah moved the ball fluidly and got open shots at the end of the game. All that in mind, it's not exactly a shock that Utah pulled out a 90-85 victory last night.  Boogah.

Most pressing issue first: Best wishes to Kevin Garnett for a speedy recovery.  Hope you're all right, Big Ticket.

Beyond that, a smattering of post-loss thoughts:

  • Can't say enough good things about Kendrick Perkins.  Not only did he limit Paul Millsap to a miserable 3-for-10 shooting night (one of which was the insane 15-foot off-the-glass wing-jumper with the continuation), but he contributed offensively and came up big on the glass.  At this point, I'm not looking for the guy to get too comfortable shooting outside-the-paint jumpers, because, as The Guru says, we'll end up paying for that down the road if he gets trigger-happy.  But it was nice to see him bank one in and then swish a second, and he made a couple of good moves for a dunk, a hook shot and an and-one inside.  A 6-for-6 night from the field complete with 11 rebounds is hardly cause for complaint.  Down the stretch, Perk blocked Millsap underneath (one of his three swats for the game) in a tie game, came up with a critical defensive rebound with less than two minutes to play and the game still tied and then gave the Celts an extra possession at the other end by hustling his way to a key offensive rebound.  He was tenacious on the glass, and his defense was excellent all night.  My only complaint would be the foul trouble, but for the most part, it was a fine night for the big man in the middle.
  • Let's get this out of the way now: A look at the Babble archives will indicate that I don't make a habit of complaining about officials, particularly with regard to Celtics games.  A look at the introduction to this piece will make it clear that I don't think they deserve primary blame for the way this one turned out, especially when one considers that Utah only shot two more free throws than the C's by night's end.  But I am going out of my way to note that they were horrendous last night.  Maybe my Tommy-green glasses were cranked up to too high a prescription, but it certainly looked as though Utah was being allowed to do what it wanted physically on defense while the Celts weren't getting the benefit of the doubt, and the offensive fouls weren't being called consistently both ways.  The second-quarter sequence in which Gabe Pruitt got whacked on a lay-up and then slapped with a touch foul for putting his hand on Deron Williams' hip coming up court was more than enough for me.  That was criminal.  Without question, the Celtics got their chances at the line late and failed to convert on several, and they also committed a few of the bad fouls that some of the bigs on this team are prone to doing.  But I can't remember watching a game and being annoyed to quite that extent with the officials in a while, so it seemed worth noting.
  • Matt Harpring deserves all kinds of credit.  That dude is tough.  He did a fine job bodying up Paul Pierce all night.  Jerry Sloan even left Andrei Kirilenko on the bench at key spots late in the game because the stronger Harpring was causing Pierce so much trouble.  PP shot just 7-for-19 from the field and was forced into some high degree-of-difficulty shots down the stretch.  The power Pierce plays with as a small forward remains one of his biggest advantages on most nights, and a defender who matches that physical intensity and force with some degree of success earns plenty of respect here. 
  • Strong game for Rajon Rondo in terms of his shots going to the basket.  He committed to attacking hard and looking to finish at the rim rather than pulling up for floaters.  It resulted in a nice 5-for-7 shooting night that included an emphatic driving dunk in the second half.
  • The Jazz might not have played great basketball for the game as a whole, but they did execute their offensive sets down the stretch.  The Mehmet Okur three that tied the game came as a result of Deron Williams doing a fine job drawing Brian Scalabrine too far down toward the baseline and then kicking back to an open Memo.  The next play, the Jazz crossed the Celts up by having Okur cut to the rim for an easy lay-in off a Millsap feed.  The jumper that put the Jazz ahead to stay was a wide-open foul-line look for Harpring, created once more by Williams drawing additional defensive attention.  Of course, Deron also hit the big bucket from the top of the key that put the Jazz up four with 20 seconds left.  Well done, Utah.
  • One major coaching issue for me in this game: the personnel on the floor for Andrei Kirilenko's second free-throw attempt with eight seconds to play.  The Celtics were down three at this point with no timeouts left.  Barring a miracle, a miss followed by a defensive rebound and a three-pointer was going to be this team's only realistic shot to tie the game.  In theory, that makes grabbing the rebound off any potential Kirilenko miss rather important.  With Brian Scalabrine fouled out and Garnett injured, Doc Rivers' three choices for the two low blocks spots appeared to be Large Baby, Leon Powe and Kendrick Perkins.  He went with...drumroll please...Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.  Those two were on the floor along with Rajon Rondo, Eddie House and Gabe Pruitt.  I understand the idea of looking to maximize perimeter shooting, but none of that is relevant if the team can't gain possession of the ball while still trailing by only one possession.  You know the rest by now.  The ball comes off to Allen's side.  He fails to get the rebound.  Ronnie Brewer does and hits two foul shots to douse the Celtics' hopes.

The most infuriating part?  This isn't the first time a Doc team has lost a game in that sort of situation.  It happened against the Magic back on November 13, 2006.  In his most prominent anti-Doc rant of that nightmare season, Bill Simmons described that situation in vivid and painful detail:

Eventually, Orlando regained the lead and clinched the game on one of those "team grabs an offensive rebound off a missed free throw, then gets the backbreaking layup off a bad defensive switch" sequences that have defined the Doc era.  Following the game, Doc blamed Pierce for failing to box out on the missed free throw, which was interesting for two reasons.  First, Pierce DID box out.  I recorded the game on TiVo.  The ball just bounced over his head.  It happens.  And second, instead of putting in two rebounders with Trevor Ariza at the line (a poor free throw shooter), Doc went in the other direction and yanked Kendrick Perkins (our tallest guy) for Ryan Gomes (who's 6-foot-7), leaving two small forwards on the low block to grab a potential Ariza miss with less than 90 seconds to play.  I mentioned that he's a career 60 percent FT shooter, right?  The important thing to remember is that the whole thing was Pierce's fault because he was too short to grab the rebound.  Whatever.

This isn't to say the Celtics win the game last night if Doc substitutes before the free throw.  The team still had just eight seconds and needed a trey just to tie the game.  But at least the Celts would have likely had a shot.

  • On the flip side regarding Doc, I refuse to complain about the reliance on the Paul Pierce isolation late in the game.  When it worked a week ago as Pierce spent the fourth quarter obliterating the Mavs, I loved every second of it and didn't spend any word space talking about any need for more ball movement in those spots and less "Give the ball to Paul and get out of his way."  It feels disingenuous to turn around and second-guess now on a night when it didn't play out as well.  Pierce is still this team's top go-to guy in the clutch, and those iso sets and 3-1 screen rolls have played an integral role in several Celtics victories this year.  Some nights, the shots don't fall (and Pierce's man does a better job than most).  Not saying Doc shouldn't have adjusted, just that I can live with what happened.  We'll survive.
  • Loved the defense in the first quarter.  The Celts contested every Utah shot and held the Jazz to 4-of-21 from the field and 13 points for the period.  I wasn't as enamored the rest of the way, but it tends to be difficult to match 4-of-21 every quarter and even more so when the team loses its best defender for the entirety of the second half.
  • Silver lining: The late start for those on the East Coast meant that there was a reasonable chance The Guru wasn't going to hang in all the way through, so we held our customary postgame chat through halftime and a good portion of the second half.  There's reason to believe the overall mood of the conversation was more positive than it might have been had we held it at 1:30 in the morning after that particular ending.  That said, chatting hoops and life with my dad is the ultimate highlight of every Celtics game experience for me, and it is always a pleasure no matter the result of the contest.  Last night was no exception.  Thanks, Dad.

Get well soon, KG.

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