Inside the Pressure Cooker

Recent games against the Lakers and Spurs have shown that the Celtics need more help for KG, Pierce and Allen in the fourth quarter.

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The loss to the Lakers, at home, on Thursday was brutal for the Celtics. It was a slap in the face from a team that the Celtics themselves had back-handed in the Finals last season. For a team that has long been labeled as soft, the Lakers sure looked tough in sticking it to the defending champs in the Garden.

The last time the Celtics were embarrassed by the Lakers - on Christmas day, when the Celtics lost in L.A. - the road to recovery was arduous. Following the Christmas Loss, the Celtics became the equivalent of a fallen-off-the-wagon alcoholic. Over the course of their next 9 games the Celtics went 2-7, including losses to the Warriors, Knicks and Bobcats.

In that hellish stretch a lot of flaws were exposed - Boston’s lack of depth being the primary one - and a lot of questions were raised. The stamina of the Big 3 was second-guessed as was Doc Rivers’ coaching style and, of course, the bench.

You don't mess with Pedro Cerrano...or Boston's ubuntu.Even Boston’s ubuntu came under fire. Last season, no one questioned ubuntu. It was forbidden; like drinking Jobu’s rum.  

The Celtics eventually rebounded, but the scars of the Christmas Loss were painfully ripped open again on Thursday night. Once Kevin Garnett fouled out in the fourth quarter, the game was essentially over. Without KG, the Celtics’ post offense stagnates. Big Baby Davis simply can’t carry the offensive load.

Following the loss, I immediately began to wonder if we’d see the Regressed Alcoholic Celtics again. Would they fold again in the face of adversity and rampant negativity?

The immediate answer was no; the Celtics rebounded to beat the Knicks on Friday night at MSG. But that game was child’s play - everyone knows the Knicks don’t play defense. The real test was the Spurs on Sunday.

As expected, the game was a dogfight.

The Spurs won the first half thanks to Matt Bonner - whose red-hot shooting streak was matched only by his flaming red hair - only to get decimated by the Celtics in the third quarter, where Boston outscored San Antonio 24-14.

At that point, I thought Boston had the game well in hand; they were playing with the intensity of a junkyard dog protecting its junkyard. Unfortunately, the Boston bench let them down again. With Paul Pierce acting as the Celtics’ lone offensive weapon to start the fourth quarter, the Spurs went on a 9-2 run.

Eventually Doc Rivers put his starters back in the game and the Celtics caught up, but that shift in momentum was crucial. During that early fourth quarter stretch guys like Bonner and Roger Mason found their stride. That confidence led to a game-tying jumper from Bonner and a lead-taking three from Mason. The Spurs went on to win the game 105-99.

And that’s the main difference between a team like the Spurs and a team like the Celtics.

Doc Rivers has a big problem.The Spurs’ starters entered the final stretch of the game knowing that they could trust guys like Bonner, Mason and George Hill to take big shots. The Celtics? Well, I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but would you trust Tony Allen, Big Baby Davis or Kendrick Perkins to take the big shot?

That’s what I thought.

When the Celtics’ bench puts them in a hole - as they generally do in big games - it puts too much pressure on their starters. The Big 3 + Rondo is a great collection of players, but sometimes it’s just one bridge too many for them.

Against a title contender like the Spurs, that pressure often leads to mistakes. Case in point: Ray Allen’s boneheaded in-bounds pass (sorry, Celtics fan, I know you don’t want to relive that one). With pressure comes tension and the fear of losing. (Believe me on this one; I root for the Kings on a regular basis). Teams like the Spurs can relieve that pressure by dividing it between five or six players, any one of whom can step up and make a big play. Teams like the Celtics can’t. All of the pressure gets consolidated with three guys; the Big 3.

Last season the Celtics were able to divide the pressure better. They had James Posey and PJ Brown, cagey vets who proved time after time that they could be trusted in clutch situations. Posey and Brown never had a problem taking, and making, the big shot.

Now that Posey and Brown are gone, the late-game equation in Boston is different (and not in a good way).

Since the Celtics can only realistically trust three guys with the ball with the game on the line - Pierce, Allen and KG - all of that end-of-the-game tension gets shifted to those three guys. All of that stress, pressure and nervous energy falls onto three sets of shoulders.

I’m not trying to make the Big 3 sound like Sisyphus or anything. They have a relatively good supporting cast that plays very good defense and does okay on offense (outside of clutch situations). It’s just that when the Big 3 need help the most, in the fourth quarter, they can only turn to each other. It’s one of the biggest fatal flaws in recent memory; a flaw that’s more noticeable than Kate Hudson at a Biggest Loser convention.

Considering that the Celtics’ late-game strategy is as predictable as second-grade math, it’s no surprise that they’ve lost so many close games to good opponents.

Without some legitimate bench support, there’s no way the Celtics repeat as champions.

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