When teams get this deep into a series, you don't expect a lot of surprises by Game 6. You figure that both sides have been slugging it out for almost two weeks and they've shown all their cards, but that just hasn't been the case with Boston and Atlanta. In a span of five games, the landscape of this series has changed drastically. There was the Game 2 suspension of Rondo, the Game 3 return of Ray Allen and absence of Josh Smith, the Game 4 return of Al Horford, and the Game 5 knee injury to Paul Pierce. We've seen everything from an overtime win to a blowout to PP's 36 points to Rondo's triple double. There hasn't been any consistency whatsoever.
And yet, the teams are so evenly matched. Through three regular season games and five playoff games, Boston has scored 690 points to Atlanta's 672. Two games were decided in overtime and six games were decided by 7 points or less. Both teams rely on jump shooting big men, scoring wings, and lightning quick point guards. Both teams hang their hat on top-10 defenses, both teams have handled adversity with injuries this season, and both teams are coached by battle-tested former players.
But there can only be one Highlander. If Game 6 proves to be a clincher, here are three things that might tip the scale in Boston's favor:
Dynamic players We're quick to praise Ryan Hollins' energy last night because it manifested itself in a pair of momentum-shifting alley-oops and a blocked shot, but his presence on the floor goes beyond that. Hollins knows that his playing time is going to be limited, so he goes full bore whenever he gets off the bench. More impressive than his dunks were simply his wind sprints down the court to gain position. In less than 90 seconds at the beginning of the second quarter, he drew three fouls on Atlanta bigs simply by running the floor. It's these types of dynamic players that need to come up big in tonight.
(This point is a little tangential but I thought it was worth noting since we're talking about Hollins. I have a theory that one of the reasons that his rebounding numbers are so low is because he plays at such a frenetic speed. Rebounding is not about athleticism or strength. A good rebounder is patient and understands the subtleties of positioning.)
If the game's close, expect to see Pietrus on Johnson to close out the game again. He's been pretty one-dimensional so far with Doc pretty much relying on Mickael only on the defensive end. Twelve of his 13 shots in the post-season have been three pointers and he's only made two (both in Game 3). Whether it's due to his nagging knee injury or lasting effects from his concussion, Pietrus hasn't been taking it to the hole as much as he did in the regular season. There were some stretches pre-concussion when he was attacking the rim and throwing it down. I'd love to see Rondo find him on the break early in the game because I think Pietrus is not unlike a lot of players: watching the ball go through the rim breeds confidence and gets you into a rhythm. If they can find a way to have MP contribute on both sides of the ball, that could be the tipping point.
You can't mention dynamic players without talking about Avery Bradley. There's just something about these guys who you don't have to run a play for but just find ways to contribute. I love Ray Allen. Love love love Ray Allen. I really hope he re-signs and retires a Celtic. But I feel the same way about Avery Bradley. Check out Josh's piece about how much of a game changer the kid is. This is probably the biggest decision Doc faces when he game plans against Atlanta (and fingers crossed, the rest of the playoffs). Does he go with Avery or Ray? What situation dictates which player to play? Here's a little nugget from Ben Rohrbach at WEEI:
In 18 minutes, Bradley and Pierce respectively held Johnson and Williams to six points on 2-for-14 shooting (0-5 3P) and forced them into four turnovers. In the remaining 30 minutes - largely with Pierce on Johnson and Allen on Williams - that Hawks duo scored 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting (4-6 3P) and committed just two turnovers.
Williams shot 3-of-3 from beyond the arc with Allen on the floor and 0-for-3 with Bradley playing. Coincidence?
And that's just on the defensive end and as a fan, this is where the catch-22 lies with me. In my opinion, the Celtics do more off the ball with screens and misdirection than any other team in the league. It's just beautiful to watch how Doc draws up a series of screens for Ray to come off of, catch the ball in space, and hit a 3. I could watch this video all day, but the rub is what happens when that jumper isn't there. Ray just isn't explosive off the dribble anymore and when Doc calls a for a "set" specifically for him, the ball can easily stick.
Just another tangential point here: several readers have been bagging on Brandon Bass' performance in this series, particularly in Game 5 where he was a -22. Unlike Hollins and Bradley, Bass isn't that dynamic, but he doesn't deserve all the criticism he's been getting since the playoffs started. I think that's a little shortsighted because his value is not so much what he produces, but what he allows others to produce, specifically Rondo. There's been a lot of talk in the national media about how the Celtics run an inverted offense with their guards playing in the paint and their bigs spotting up for perimeter jump shots. With Bass on the floor, it spaces the court for Rondo to probe and control the pace. In that respect, he's allowing Rondo to be dynamic.
The Captain & His FTA's I don't think a lot of what I write next is going to be dependent on Pierce's balky knee. Like he says, "I'm not a high-riser anyway." We've heard it all before. Paul plays at his own pace. Paul is crafty. Paul can get his shot off whenever he wants. But I don't think it's a question of getting up shots. Anybody can get up shots. What the Celtics need Thursday night is aggression from their captain. I have no doubt that Game 6 is going to get ugly. With Atlanta's bigger lineup, they're daring the Celtics to settle for jump shots and with Pierce's knee not at 100%, he might take that bait. Let's hope not.
In Games 2 and 3, Pierce was 25-27 from the stripe. He forced the issue on several occasions against bigger defenders in transition and in the half court. This is where another one of those catch-22's comes up again because I think PP will have to give up his body to get some rest. My hunch is that Chicago figured something out on Tuesday and they're going to pull out another win in Philly and force a Game 7. If Boston can close Atlanta out and Chicago wins, the semis won't start until early next week. Pierce has never shied away from a challenge and I think he's still seething from watching a lot of Game 5 from the bench and airballing that shot that could have given them the lead late. I expect to see a lot of 1-3 PNR's with Rondo and Pierce operating with the smaller Teague on his hip. With the game in Boston, the Celtics can not settle on allowing the game to be a make-or-miss affair. They wrestled away home court advantage and if push comes to shove (and it will), we could definitely use a double-digit number from The Truth at the line.
Rondo The spotlight has never shown brighter on Rondo. Whether it's because of his brilliance and triple-double-threat every night or his caginess with the media and BumpGate, all eyes are on Rajon. I wanted it so bad for him at the end of Game 5. As soon as he stole that ball, all I could hear in my head was Johnny Most's "...and there's a steal by Bird." Too bad he didn't have DJ cutting underneath. There really isn't much to say that hasn't been said. Every superlative has been tempered with a "Trade Rondo" thread in the forums. Every sports cliche about this being his team now has been said ad nauseum. And with all this attention, he buckled at times. His absence in Game 2 could have cost the Celtics the series and his unapologetic attitude with the media regarding his suspension (and his latest dust up with a TNT cameraman) only fuel the fire that maybe he's not ready to take on the mantle just yet.
I think there's some truth to that, but it's arguable whether any of it is deserved. However, what isn't under debate is what he does on a basketball court. The attention he gets in the locker room and at a post game press conference is mirrored by how much opposing teams have to watch out for him on the floor and he uses that expertly to his advantage. I've said it once and I'll say it again, I've never seen a point guard play like Rondo. It's ironic because he's not a student of the game. He talks about picking up the game late in life and not really being a fan of the NBA. That seems strange to me because watching him play, you would think that he's somehow catalogued every move of every player in the history of the game--not to copy and improve on them--but to do the exact opposite. I played a little high school basketball and every convention that I was ever taught, Rondo turns on its head.
In his article, Wojnarowski said, "LeBron James is the best player in these Eastern Conference playoffs, but Rondo controls a basketball game like no one but else but James." That's pretty accurate. Lebron is very good at doing all things basketball. He's a very good offensive player and a very good defensive player, but he doesn't "control" the game like Rondo does. By comparison, Lebron is closer to guys like Kobe and Jordan, but Rondo is in a more exclusive class with Bird and Magic, guys who were playing chess, not checkers. For the Celtics to win Game 6 and contend for a championship, Rondo will have to be that type of grandmaster consistently game-to-game for all four quarters.