You want to know what play summed up last night's game against the Knicks? There was 4:22 left in the fourth quarter, one of the Knicks (I honestly forget who) shot it, the ball clanged off the side of the rim, and headed straight for the corner sideline by the fans in the front row. When the ball hit the rim both Rasheed Wallace (2 rebounds last night) and Earl Barron (18 rebounds last night) were in practically the same position inside the paint. The difference? Rasheed stood there and stared at it, while Barron sprinted after it, gobbled it up, and managed to stay in bounds, saving a possession for the Knicks in the process. It's rare for a single play to sum up an entire game, but that one basically did. If "hustle" was a stat, last night's deficiency on the Celtics' part would have been even more glaring than their 44-34 deficit on the glass.
At the 4:22 mark, I also came to another conclusion: I knew from that point that it was going to be a one-possession game the rest of the way. The score was 96-94 Boston at that point, the Celtics were in the midst of a 6-0 run, but neither team was going to legitimately pull away in the final minutes. Of course, when you see "New York Knicks" on the schedule these days (yes, even THESE days) you honestly can't help but think "win". I mean, all the Celtics have to do is play thismuch defense and drive the ball through New York's porous interior defensive alignments and they're virtually guaranteed a win. Unfortunately, that didn't happen - particularly the defense part.
So, when a game you're supposed to win by double figures is going south fast, you do the best you can to search for positives. I came up with the following: If nothing else, hopefully we'll see some late game execution from the Celtics. I mean, we might as well take what we can get, right? I mean, no matter the scenario, it never hurts to execute your stuff late in a ball game, right? Right? Especially with the playoffs just six games away. Right?
Two things that have haunted this team at times all season actually played a significant role in last night's last-minute collapse.
Problem #1: Free throws in late game situations.
The C's haven't exactly been brisk from the free throw line late in games lately. Against Houston last Friday the C's missed four freebies over the final 46.5 seconds of regulation and overtime. Then, against Cleveland on Sunday, Paul Pierce and Kendrick Perkins combined to miss three free throws in the game's final 15 seconds.
So, with 1:02 left last night, Chris Duhon fouled Pierce, and Pierce only converted...wait for it...wait for it...ONE of two free throws, giving Boston a 101-100 lead.
Problem #2: Rebounding. In general.
The Knicks out-rebounded the Celtics 44-34 last night. In the Celtics' defense, the two teams were even on the defensive boards at 29 apiece. Which means that the 10-rebound differential must have come on the offensive glass, right? You betcha. 15-5 in favor of the Knicks, with none being more important than David Lee's offensive rebound with 45 ticks left, off of a missed Bill Walker three-point field goal attempt. The real devastation came just nine seconds later when Danilo Gallinari hoisted that jumper and miraculously banked in his 30th and 31st points of the evening. 102-101, Knicks.
So, in the ensuing Celtics timeout, Doc calls for a two-for-one, given there are 36 seconds left. Pierce gets the ball at the top of the key, drives towards the hoop, apparently thinks Kendrick Perkins has carved out some space in the paint, and looks to dish it. I mean, would you want Perkins being the guy taking the potential game-winning shot? Me neither. I guess I can't blame Perk for rotating up, because why would he expect the ball that late in the game? He looked like he was either trying to set a screen or get in position for a potential rebound. The two were clearly not on the same page, and Pierce's wrap-around pass sailed through the lane and into Chris Duhon's hands on the opposite side of the court. At this point, there are about 27 or 28 seconds left, so the C's choose not to foul.
21 seconds later, the Celtics' defense fails yet again as Duhon and Lee work a pick-and-roll twice in a span of five seconds, culminating in Duhon dishing it to Lee for a layup inside, giving the Knicks a 104-101 advantage with 7.3 seconds left.
Clearly, at this point, the Celtics need a three. Doc draws up a play for Ray Allen, who at this point has hit three of his six three-point field goal attempts and has registered 17 points. So, Rondo has the ball on the right side with Lee guarding him. Ray flairs out from the right side towards the top of the key, taking Duhon with him. Both Garnett and Rasheed Wallace converge at the top of the three-point line, potentially giving Ray an option to go around either screen. He decides to cut back right, around Garnett, towards Rondo. Unfortunately for the Celtics, Gallinari actually played this perfectly. He was guarding Garnett, but the second KG went over to screen for Ray, Galinari stayed home, just below the three-point arch, closer to Rondo, and when Duhon got picked off by KG, Gallinari jumped out and denied Ray the ball. Here's where the real trouble starts. Rondo's picked up his dribble, assuming Ray's going to get open. If he had kept the dribble alive, he might have been able to slash right real quick around Lee, cut along the baseline and kick the ball out to either Pierce on the left wing or 'Sheed at the top of the key. But without his dribble, he's forced to lob it over to Wallace, who shoots after time has already expired. Game over.
Let's be honest. Rondo was a little too flashy at times last night, trying to make the spectacular play instead of the right one. So in that regard, it was actually a fitting ending to his night.
Obviously, execution in the postseason is pivotal. And whether or not last night's game "meant anything" is irrelevant. The Celtics found themselves in a late game scenario where they needed to execute both their offensive and defensive sets in order to win the game, and they failed to do both. Regardless of the "value" or lack of "value" the Celtics themselves might have put in last night's contest, a team with championship aspirations never shies away from an opportunity to work on its late game execution. Practice can only get so authentic, and for a team to actually find itself in a situation like the Celtics found themselves in last night, is really a blessing in disguise. Unfortunately for these Celtics, the execution itself couldn't have been much worse.
Speaking of execution, let's all collectively execute a proper memory wipe and forget last night's outcome. Bring on Toronto.