One of the biggest differences between the regular season and the playoffs is that in the regular season teams tend to be able to play to their strengths, and in a pinch one team can often beat most others simply by outworking them. The playoffs, on the other hand, are all about each team game-planning to take away what the other wants to do...and everyone plays hard in the playoffs, so that advantage is gone as well. For this reason, one of the most important outputs from the regular season is determining the team's core strengths, the things that will be their primary weapons even against the best competition when so much is taken away.
For this generation of Celtics, one of their core strengths has always been their defense. They have finished either first or second in the NBA in team defense every year except the 2010 season when Kevin Garnett was hobbling, and even in 2010 they got healthy enough to turn in a top defensive effort in the postseason. No matter what, this level of team defense gives them a shot against anyone.
But defense alone isn't enough. The team has to be able to do more in order to beat the best. In 2008 Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen each had untapped depths that they could reach for in emergencies to put the team over the top. In 2010 (due to health) Garnett had stepped back offensively and on the boards, but Rajon Rondo's emergence helped bridge that gap all the way up until 5 minutes left in game 7. In 2011 they tried a new angle, where the O'Neal brothers were supposed to join Garnett up front and make them just too-big for most teams...and it worked, until the O'Neals both went down with injury and Perk got traded which made us limp into the postseason.
Fast forward to this year. What is our team identity this year? The defense is a given (once again the #1 defense in the NBA, by the way). But what else do we have up our sleeves to handle the best of the best?
I pointed out last week that we suddenly have an athletic advantage that we never really had before. With Garnett at center and Bradley starting at shooting guard, our first unit is suddenly as athletic as (if not more athletic than) any of the other contenders. That is huge, and something that will pay dividends in the postseason when physical ability starts to tell more at the higher effort levels. But the last week has illustrated a second strength: our "second" unit.
The "trick" that teams like Chicago and Oklahoma City have been exploiting all season is that they play starting caliber players in their second unit. In Chicago the talent is all defensive, so it's not quite as obvious, but their stifling 2nd unit is actually the key to their highly rated team defense. Last season the Celtics' starting 5 had a better defensive rating than the Bulls' starters...but the Bulls' bench CRUSHED their opponents on defense, which allowed the Bulls' overall team D to edge out the Celtics in the D rankings. Similarly, OKC is playing their 3rd best player, James Harden, in a 6th man slot that lets them control the late late 1st/3rd and early 2nd/4th quarters. And of course this isn't a new strategy, as the champion Mavericks (led by Jason Terry) and the multi-champion spurs of the mid-2000s (led by Manu Ginobili) used this trick often as well to help lead to titles. And that's not even mentioning the great Celtics' 6th men of the past, who helped pioneer this trend.
But now, this generation of Celtics can do the same.
The Rondo/Bradley/Pierce/Bass/Garnett unit lets us punch teams in the mouth early. The Bradley/Allen/Sasha/Garnett/Steamer unit lets us put a foot on their throats in the middle of each half. And funny enough, this isn't really a new thing...minus Allen, variations of that unit have come in and shut down the opposition all season. The difference is, with both Allen and Garnett in the 2nd unit, not only is the defense ridiculous but now the offense is as well. Let's take a look at the last 2 games. It's a small sample size, but there are already some things that I feel like I can take away from those two outings:
1) Any defensive 2nd unit featuring Garnett, Bradley and Steamer is going to shut down opposing units to at least Bulls level, if not more. And once Mickael Pietrus returns (his dancing yesterday was a wonderful sign), that unit just gets that much more ridiculous. In the first 6 minutes of the last two 2nd quarters, the Pacers and 76ers have been absolutely stymied with Indiana shooting 0-for-11 from the field and Philly shooting 1-for-13. For those scoring at home, that's a combined 1-for-24 from the field over 12 minutes from two playoff-caliber opponents.
2) Ray and Garnett can play well off of each other to lead the offense for the unit. There has been a sentiment over the last couple of years that, because they were getting older, the Big 3 needed Rondo to set them up with easier shots. I don't really think that's true, though. I think that in order for Rondo's talents to be maximized, the Big Three needed to move to more finisher roles, which they were each able to do at a high level. But when featured on their own, they are still more than capable of being lead options. Especially together. The Pierce/Garnett 2-man offense is still the best offensive weapon this team has, in my opinion. But what I'm seeing is that the Ray/Garnett 2-man game is very potent as well. The offense runs through Garnett in the low/mid-post, with Bradley as the one to bring the ball up and cut, Sasha (eventually MP) as the shooter on the weak side, and Steamer as the Garbage man in the paint. KG and Ray, then, are the main decision-maker/scoring options and both of them have to play aggressively...and early returns are very promising that it works.
With our #1 team defense, out athletic starting unit, and now our megatron 2nd unit, this team is suddenly building up some very important post-season weapons. I've been a conductor on the "this team is a contender, really they are!" bandwagon for a long time now...but there's plenty of seats still available on board. Barring another terrible injury (which we all have to accept as a possibility), this Celtics' team isn't the plucky, no-one-wants-to-play-us squad that might make the 2nd/3rd round that some are starting to believe us to be...this Celtics team is a straight up, if-I-were-in-Vegas-I'd-put-money-on-them-to-win-the-title contender. And though the recognition is still slow in coming, by the postseason I think that will start getting very clear to a lot of people. Starting with the competition.