NOT A Daily Babble Production
Earlier this season, I got into a discussion with loyal CB member BrickJames regarding my semi-serious mention of Ray Allen in the runners-up section of the Daily Babble's voting (done by a committee of one) for Most Improved Player in our midseason awards piece. Long story short, Allen isn't going to win that award or even come close. However, he is playing at a noticeably higher level this season than he did a season ago, and that merited a note. But one of the three best players on this beloved 47-14 Celtics team of ours deserves more than a passing mention.
Make no mistake: The Ray Allen the Celtics acquired last season was an excellent player. He arrived in Boston with eight straight seasons of 20-plus points per game and seven prior All-Star appearances on his record. In his first year with the Celts, Allen did a fine job, shooting nearly 40 percent from the three-point line and putting up a very impressive 58.4 percent true shooting mark to go with his 17.4 points per game. He came through with several timely shots in the clutch throughout the year. Despite a rough start to the playoffs, he found his stroke in the last two rounds. Allen made the All-Star team once more and played an integral role on the Celtics' first championship team in 22 years.
But the season wasn't without its hurdles, some created through no fault of Ray's. He had to deal with lingering ankle problems throughout the year, and he also had to adapt to a new environment. On a team that was all about individual sacrifice, Allen's coach and his teammates have pointed out from time to time that he may have had to adjust the most. Accustomed to being the featured offensive player and taking upwards of 19 shots per game, Allen's field-goal attempts per game dropped from 21 in his last year in Seattle to 13.5 in his first season in Beantown. He battled injuries and working in a new offense to find his rhythm moving off the ball with a new set of screeners and ball-handlers around him. As Rip Hamilton's saga in Detroit has reminded many this season, timing is integral for shooters playing off the ball, and it wasn't always there in 2007-08 for Allen. He shot 42.6 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from three-point land before the All-Star break prior to heating up to 48.7 and 44.4 percent respectively in the latter portion of the year.
Despite all those trials and tribulations, there is no doubt that Allen still gave the Celtics quite a year. He scored efficiently and played better defense than he had been reputed to do during the pre-Garnett, pre-Thibodeau phase of his career.
This year's Ray Allen is even better.
It makes sense. He is healthier and playing in the same system with the same starting lineup and a similar core of players for the second straight season, and it shows. As I mentioned in my chat with BrickJames, Allen looks so much smoother all over the floor than he did a year go. The Celtics are running screens to get him free right at the spots he likes, especially fading to the corners and curling around the elbows. The main ball-control guys (namely Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) are getting him the ball at the right time. Allen is stepping into his shots just the way he likes and often shooting with a bit of extra space.
The added accuracy from deep is forcing opponents to work even harder to stay with one of the game's all-time shooting greats, and he is taking advantage of that as well. So many times this season, we've seen Allen pass up a contested look outside to take a dribble or two toward the lane and then fluidly pull up to swish an elbow jumper. He has also excelled going to the basket, finishing an array of baby jumpers off the glass, traditional lay-ups and circus shots where he drives baseline, elevates as he goes under the basket, switches hands and finishes.
The numbers reflect what the eyes observe about Ray's increased comfort: He is shooting a career best 49.0 percent from the field, 40.8 percent from three-point land and 94.9 percent from the foul line, also a career high. All of those factors combine to give Allen a 63.3 percent true shooting mark. That's insane. A season ago, the team was eight points better per 100 possessions offensively with him on the court than off. This year, that figure has ballooned to 11.2. While that is partly a reflection on the bench, it's also another indicator of Allen's increased productivity and how much of a threat he has been. He is taking 13 shots per game, his fewest since his rookie season, and he is still putting up 17.9 points per game.
At the other end of the floor, Allen wasn't known as any stud before he came to Boston. He improved last season as the Celtics committed to playing the physical defense that helped them to the championship. His commitment at that end only seems to have risen this year. Allen is doing a better job staying with opposing off-guards, contesting shots and forcing his man to stagnate opponent ball movement (his rough time with Rip Hamilton on Sunday notwithstanding). A season ago, the Celts were still 4.3 points worse per 100 possessions defensively with Allen on the floor than off it. This year, that number is a plus-1.9. As mentioned above, the extra intensity has been evident to the naked eye as well.
It was a pleasure to have Ray Allen in Boston last season. This year, that feeling is on a whole new level. His long-reputed classy and professional nature has been evident since day one. Watching a now-nine-time All-Star somehow continue to progress on the court is a true sight to behold.