Did the Celtics Run Too Hard and Peak Too Soon?

Can a coach or the players themselves control when a team peaks? Can the coach modulate pace and development?

Could the Celtics have taken a different road, one that even might have led to a stronger team at the end? Was Garnett experiencing discomfort in his leg much earlier than we might think? Are there lessons learned that can be used this season?

Michigan Coach John Bielin, (from Eric Musselman’s Coaching blog) on the subject when asked if his 10-2 record in December was too much too soon….

"The peaking question has always been interesting with me," he said. "What do you do? Do you tell your team not to go too hard in December because you want to peak later on? I don’t think there’s a key to it. I think you just have to make sure your team has a good combination of not losing their edge and also making sure they have enough rest."

Not losing their edge. Making sure they have enough rest. Check.

The Celtics won 66 games and the NBA Championship in 2008. Then they won a surprising 62 games after losing two key bench players, and sustaining an injury to their star team defender and went deeper into the playoffs than many thought they would. It was a heartbreaking season of staggering genius. Or was it?

 

By any normal standard that two year record should make Doc Rivers pretty much bullet proof. It was quite a run last season by the limping Celtics.

Questioning last season reminds me of a story in Bill Russell’s book, Red and Me….

In Russell’s second season, Russell said that…

"I came out like a wild beast and we ate up every opponent, one after another." (sound familiar?)

At the All Star break, Red chastised Russell for letting up with a 12 game lead….

"You’re coasting! We got the big lead so I can understand why you are letting up…..even you ain’t that good. You can’t turn it on and off in this league. You have to go hard all the time Russ. Christ, you got these guys so terrorized they can’t play against you. But if you let up on them and they start believing they can play against you, then they can play against you."

I totally get that.

But that mostly works against inferior teams. The teams the Celtics would face in later playoff rounds weren’t going to be intimidated by a regular season record.

There have been a few questions rolling around in my mind for a while, even before last season was half over. Most agree that Doc Rivers coached masterfully….at least in the sense of getting the utmost out of his team. In many ways, he did just that.

But a couple of things have been bothering me for a while.

Somewhere along the way….early last season…. Doc Rivers appeared to have changed his mantra. Wins seemed to matter over everything. Eve…ry…thing.

The previous season, Doc would dismiss every attempt to judge the team on the season’s won loss record.

Clearly and often, in year one of the Big Three, we heard Doc Rivers caution about not caring about who wins the most regular season games. Whenever media broached the subject of wins, Coach Rivers response was always to down play it with, "Does anyone remember who won the most games last year?"

For the record, it was the Dallas Mavericks with 67 wins. It was the Year of the Great Don Nelson Belch at Dallas, his former team, with the overachieving Golden State Warriors. But it was San Antonio with a mere 58 wins and only the 3rd best record that won the Championship. Point made.

Doc invoked Gregg Popovichian-like answers like (paraphrase), ‘We’re just trying to play the right way.’ ‘We want to do what we do as a team.’ ‘We’re not worried about the best record.’

Doc didn’t want his team racing all out for the best season record. He wanted them to gel, to learn to play together, play team defense, play team offense, and play the right way. Honestly, he sounded a bit like Gregg Popovich. That is the Popovich way. Get your team playing the right way and be ready in time for the playoffs – when it counts. That is when the wins count the most.

Ironically, the Celtics ended up with the best record, yet desperately needed home court advantage in the first two rounds to advance. They won the title. What is over looked is that they didn’t need home court the rest of the way.

But those early scares seemed to leave a lasting impact on the psyche of the team and maybe Doc, as well. Henceforth, there was no more downplaying of home court advantage. There would be no more references to Dallas.  

The ideas of a) pace and b) peaking are very real but somewhat elusive subjects. They can be quantified statistically sometimes and sometimes stats can be deceiving. It is as much about ‘feel’ as about stats. As the famous saying goes, "I know it when I see it."

It first occurred to me during the 27-2 run. No one, especially myself, thought that the team had that kind of run in them. I was expecting a slightly tempered version of the high adrenaline previous season. It was spectacular….and unexpected.

But I don’t think it was driven by Doc. I believe that it was largely driven by the intense and unrelenting Kevin Garnett.

An article titled Fueled By Emotion, Running on Empty by Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski on January 10th developed the ‘KG driven’ pace in a full and ‘no holds barred’ way. While you may disagree with some of Adrian’s conclusions and opinions, I thought he brought up some valid ideas to ruminate on.

"As much as anyone, KG’s voice rules these Celtics. They play at his speed, his fever pitch and ultimately rise and fall with the tone of his talent. When the Celtics were the most destructive there was a grudging acceptance of Garnett’s relentless ramblings on the floor, his penchant for starting small skirmishes. His greatest gift can be his greatest burden. Sometimes, these Celtics can be exhausting to everyone else. Sometimes, they’re just exhausting to themselves."

While we were all giddy over the 27-2 start, there were a very, very few on the message boards that worried about the effort the Celtics were putting forth in that streak that could result in premature burn out. People say that the NBA season is a marathon. I’ll add that it is a marathon of sprints.

Re-read the whole Wojarowski article if you have the time. It is worth the read. Part of it is that the Celtics were emotionally exhausted after that run and went into a tailspin. True enough. Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer had this to say soon after....

It's not normal for a team like Boston to win as many games as they did over the first two months of the season against competition that stiff.

ESPN's Daily Dime made the counterpoint that all NBA teams that make extended runs like that go into a funk shortly after. Also true.  

Was that run necessary? What were the Celtics trying to prove? Were they trying to carve out a special regular season niche in NBA history? When did the regular season victory total become so important?

Or were they just pummeling straight ahead at breakneck speed because that is how the new KG led Celtics do it?

Add to that, the team was beginning to woof at the refs and even Doc was getting into the act as far as technical fouls go.  Doc used to constantly calm down the players about the refereeing. Now he was engaging them often, as well.

By December 15th, Doc was tied with Larry Brown for the most techs by a coach with four. Perkins led the league with 9 and KG and Paul Pierce had three each. Odds Bodkins, Sam Cassell had 2 techs and an ejection and hadn’t played a single minute. What was going on? Did the Celtics think they could intimidate the refs because they were the NBA champs?

Wojnarowski again….

"If you keep punching your gas pedal as hard as you can, all the time, eventually you’re going to run out of gas," one rival NBA general manager said. "You can only do that hype and talking for so long. You have to maintain a pace and a certain emotional level to stay up there for a long time. You can’t scream non-stop forever."

Some may recall that right after that article appeared, Garnett did calm down a bit. There was a moment when Ray Allen and Paul Pierce even playfully came up to KG when he was surrounded by media, asking him mock questions after a game, as if they were reporters. It was a first. It was well timed. It was much needed.
 
When jockey Kevin Borel switched horses for the Preakness, after winning the Kentucky Derby with a 50-1 shot (Mine That Bird) to 8-5 favorite Rachel Alexandra, Doc Rivers joked about NBA coaches being able to do the same thing with NBA teams.

But in so doing, he made a good analogy. Coaches ‘ride’ their teams through each season’s race. They help set the tone and the pace. The question of peaking arises and it can be elusive.    

Did the Celtics peak too soon? What if they explored an early fix on KG’s leg? From the very start of the season,  a few observers noted that Garnett was playing outside more than the year before. He was rebounding less, as well. Is it possible that was intentional to reduce the need to bang, leap, and rebound as much?

 And did they run too hard at the expense of working in a few more players, like say Bill Walker, and then later Stephon Marbury? Just like popping a soap bubble, popping those bubbles in that packing material, or squeezing that Play Dough, I have to ask that question.

So the question is: Can a coach affect when a team peaks? How about the players themselves?

Did Doc not cause, but allow them to run too hard? A digression here....

It really all starts during the first year of the Big Three.

Somewhere between the season of 2007-8 and this last season, 2008-9, Doc Rivers’ mantra subtly changed.

After down playing having the best record in 2007-8, the Celtics ended up with the best record anyway.

Then the Great Playoff Road Drought of 2008 occurred.

After winning their first two games at home, players started telling Rajon Rondo, in particular, that the playoffs don’t really start until you win a playoff game on the road. By that measure, the playoffs didn’t start until round three, game three in Detroit.

I remember the locker room silence in even the home pre-games that the Celtic players exhibited. By round two, they were out of answers themselves. It was the elephant in the room. The best team in the regular season, and the best road team, was being staggered by inferior opponents away from home. They found their mojo in Detroit and the rest was a crushing rollick through L.A for Banner 17.

Cut to the next season.

The Celtics bolted from the gate to a 27-2 NBA best start. Another thing happened. Ubuntu seemed to lose its luster. Like James Posey, Harry Potter and George Bush’s daughters, the cry of ‘Ubuntu’ seemed so ‘last year’.

Is it simply that a new motivational concept was needed? Rally slogans like ‘We Are Family’ (1979 Pirates)  ‘Ya Gotta Believe!’ (1973 Mets), ‘Reverse the Curse’(2004 Red Sox) each had a one year shelf life. Did Ubuntu quietly run its course?

It appeared as if the Cs were pulling out all stops to get as high up the standings for as much home court advantage as they could possibly obtain. Belching smoke and fire, near to ripping at the seams, the Celtic train click-clacked down the tracks at a speed that belied its condition. Rivers was stoking the Celtic engine with all the coal he could shovel in. Players, especially the remaining stars, were playing heavy minutes in an effort to keep speeding well above the posted limits in an effort to gain home court.

No doubt the KG injury was huge. Bench support was inconsistent. But the goal remained ‘win at all costs’, it seemed.

When starting to fall away from catching the Magic, Rivers properly downplayed the significance, yet did not down play the importance of home court. It remained a goal, come heck or high water. One can only think that the 2007-8 post season experience may have changed Rivers mindset. The best record possible became the goal. When a Celtic team, under duress, caught and passed the Magic for home court advantage, there was great pride. Looking back, was it done at the expense of bench development?

Ironically, Garnett’s injury may have exacerbated the perceived need to press harder. The Cavaliers’ incredible home record may have driven some of the Celtic determination. Orlando’s success certainly warranted concern.  

Seeing things as Doc saw them, I think that Doc Rivers did a tremendous job. But I’m wondering how different things might have been if Doc moderated the Celtics’ mindset as he did in the first season, when regular season wins and home court advantage weren’t the big goal. Getting players worked in and getting a team to play together a certain way was the objective.

Doc had a choice to make. Continue to develop a bench that was experiencing difficulties or go with who brung you. Regarding Garnett’s injury, there are questions of, what did they know, and when did they know it? Could he have been shut down early for surgery and recovered for the playoffs?

What if Doc tried to develop Bill Walker, Stephon Marbury, and even a bewildered Mikki Moore a bit more during the season?

This season

This coming season might be the better case to run for the top record. The bench is stronger and more set. If you believe that Cleveland and Orlando have both gotten better, the top seed will only have to face only one of those two teams in the playoffs, assuming Boston, Cleveland and Orlando are the top three teams.

The only unanswered questions are if Bill Walker or JR Giddens can help this team. Can Walker back up Pierce? Can Giddens offer something special? Who guards the top small forwards when Pierce is out?

Kevin Garnett

Should Doc reign in Kevin Garnett just a bit? Garnett is not getting any younger and doesn’t seem to be able to pull back by himself. He will want to prove how healthy he is. There is a dance that Doc plays with this team and he often gives them a lot of latitude. How do you deal with the ambiguities of playing hard, but conserving enough for the long run?

This Celtic team has the talent and the toughness of mind to win games on opposing teams’ courts in the playoffs. Should they be the ‘Home Wreckers’ or fight for home court at all costs?

In the last ten years, three times the NBA title was won by teams with the best regular season record. Four NBA Championships were won by the team with the second best record. Three titles were won by teams below first or second. Obviously, each year offers its own specific challenges.

This year there will be 3-4 other ‘superteams’. Because of that, would you pull out all stops to gain home court this season? Or are you confident enough in this strengthened Celtic team to steal away home court from anyone, therefore the key is tuning the team to play their best ball as the season ends?

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