Miserable Ball Movement Forces Another Game 7

A Daily Babble Production

In the process of jumping out to their biggest lead of Game 6 against the Magic, the Celtics sowed the seeds for the late-game demise that would give this series one more day of life.

When Stan Van Gundy called timeout four minutes into the second half of what would eventually be an 83-75 Orlando victory, the Celtics had extended a one-point recess lead to eight, and they would make it 10 shortly thereafter.  This sounds good.

But it happened primarily because the Magic clanged their first four free throws of the quarter, and Rashard Lewis and J.J. Redick missed on reasonable looks at the basket (a three and a lay-up attempt respectively) as the cold hosts went the first five minutes of the third quarter without a point.

What went on while the Celtics were extending the lead wasn't as promising as the scoreboard indicated.  Let's review the first six offensive possessions of the second half:

  1. Rajon Rondo throws an ill-advised lob straight into traffic in the paint.  Stolen by Rashard Lewis.
  2. Ball movement stagnates.  Paul Pierce steps into a rushed three-pointer from a step beyond the line after the shot clock drops inside three seconds.  Awkward-looking shot.  No good.
  3. Pierce controls on the right wing and finds Rondo cutting underneath, who draws the help and flips the ball to Kendrick Perkins for a nice one-hand banker from just outside the left block.  Excellent ball movement, textbook possession.
  4. The Infuriated Infant dribbles for a bit, takes and misses a contested jumper.
  5. One Celtic pounds the ball at a time while the others stand and watch.  After a pass gets deflected out of bounds, the Celts inbound with a second left on the shot clock (more on this later).  Ray Allen's catch-and-fling from several steps behind the line on the left side fails to draw iron.  Shot clock violation.
  6. Again, the Celtics pound away, while movement away from the ball stops entirely.  The ball comes out to Rajon Rondo with the shot clock dying, and he nails a three.  Good result, bad possession.

During this time, the Celts pushed a 46-45 lead to 51-45, and Perk and the Infant hit jumpers after the timeout to make the lead 10.  But I reiterate that the stretching of the lead came primarily due to the Magic's outright refusal to convert offensive opportunities. 

Meanwhile, those six possessions set the tone for what we would see throughout the rest of the game around the Celtics' basket: stagnation with the basketball, lack of movement away from the basketball and commendable defensive intensity from the Magic (they were after all the league's top defensive unit over the course of the season, and they do deserve some credit here).

We routinely saw primarily Paul Pierce and occasionally Rajon Rondo control the ball at the top of the circles while the Celtics ran one off-the-ball cut for Ray Allen, and nobody else moved after setting a screen.  If Allen didn't get a good look, the pounding continued up top, Pierce took a shot from mid-range (this worked beautifully for a three-possession stretch in the fourth quarter, not so much the rest of the way) or the Celts dumped into a big man who went into what The Guru angrily refers to as "operator mode."

The sluggish ball movement led to several deflected passes, and it felt like the Celtics were inbounding the ball with less than two seconds on the shot clock all night.  I can't remember how many times ESPN's MIke Tirico reminded us that without tenths-of-a-second displayed, one never knows if there are nine-tenths of a second or one-tenth to shoot in that situation.  Either way, it didn't make for a lot of high-percentage looks at the rim.

When the bigs started operating, the trouble continued.  Glen Davis ended a couple of possessions with multiple dribbles followed by tough jumpers, including one off-balance turnaround.  He also hammered the ball into the ground until it was stolen on another play.  Kendrick Perkins, who played a superb first two and a half quarters, traveled twice and later committed an offensive foul.

The lack of hard cutting and effective screening led to over-dribbling and bad passes, and the over-dribbling and bad passes led to turnovers.  No one was exempt from the misery.  Pierce tried to force the ball to Rondo from too close a proximity on a cut at the left elbow, and Rafer Alston took it away.  Rondo committed his second left-arm push-off offensive foul of the game on a shot attempt and later flung an inbounds pass to nobody in particular in the game's final two minutes. 

Allen had the ball stripped from behind in transition and couldn't seem to buy a bucket on the shots he did take.  Eddie House found himself largely blanketed again by Courtney Lee.  The Magic effectively doubled away from Rondo and were happy to watch the Celtics throw the ball out to him for outside-the-paint attempts late in the shot clock.  That he managed to bury two three-pointers is nice, but it doesn't change the fact shots the Celtics want to be relying on with any regularity at this point.

Again, the guys with the ball in their hands didn't do a great job, but they didn't get any help from the other four on the court, who seemed to be doing little but standing around through most of the second half.  Which meant that even when the Celtics did get shots off, they weren't good ones.  This was a team effort.

While there were other issues, it was above all the Celtics' lack of offensive togetherness and poor ball movement that cost them a chance to punch a ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals last night at Amway Arena.

***

We saw plenty of good things from the Celts at the offensive end in the first half and on defense at various points in Game 6.  Perk, Pierce and Rondo in particular are all deserving of a good deal of praise for certain aspects of their performance.  We also saw a boxing-out disaster for the green and a monster night on the offensive glass for Dwight Howard as well as some rare clutch play from Rafer Alston.  With two days off to stew about this loss, we'll be addressing all that and more in tomorrow's bullet points once I've had some more time to cool down.

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