This team just loves adversity. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python & The Holy Grail, despite losing an arm and then both arms, they just keep coming at you and never say die. Last night was the epitome of what the Celtics have been all season: a resilient group who turn adversity and misfortune into extra effort and championship form. I'm sure Doc doesn't game plan with addition by subtraction in mind, but every time he loses a soldier, the army steps up.
It started with the game time decision to sit Avery Bradley in a pivotal Game 5. His absence can not be understated and before the game, Doc just put it out there:
"We lose our defensive captain, really," Rivers said of losing Bradley. "It takes away the ability to put Rondo on different guys to give him a rest at times. To ask Rondo to do that and run the team is very difficult."
"Defensive captain." Those are strong words coming from a team with Kevin Garnett. I mentioned it when Avery was absent for shootaround: AB is a tone setter on defense. KG's great at being that middle linebacker, calling out pick-and-rolls and protecting the rim, but the defense starts with AB's ball pressure. He hasn't put together one of those one-man full-court press games that scared Jameer Nelson into submission, but he and Rondo have terrorized what was the Sixers strength going into this series with their talented revolving door of guards in Evan Turner, Lou Williams, and Jrue Holiday.
With Avery out, Ray had to step up. That sounds crazy for a guy that's had four great years in Boston but has been hampered by injury this season. Check out Jay King's excellent piece today at SBNation about how difficult it's been for Ray to cope with his new role. But as he points out, Ray's reputation as a playoff assassin has preceded him. I thought this was a pretty insightful tweet from Flannery before the tip last night:
Before people start burying Ray Allen, they should understand that A) He's hurt and B) Philly's not defending him like he's hurt.— Paul Flannery (@Pflanns) May 21, 2012
The Sixers recognize what Ray means to the Celtics:
"If anything, we want a two-point shot instead of a three-point shot. I do have to stay a lot closer to him, I can't help out as much. When Avery Bradley's out there he's still an offensive threat, but I definitely lean more toward Ray Allen," noted Jrue Holiday, who defended Allen for many of Allen's 33 minutes.
Added Jodie Meeks, "Regardless of how he's shooting the ball, he's one of the greatest shooters of all-time. We know he could get it going at any time, and we don't want to let that happen. We don't want to give him any space to get a clean look at the rim. [The Celtics are] definitely a threat no matter what, but with him, you have to be alert at all times, whether he's on the strong side or weak side."
When Ray hit his first and only three of the game early in the first quarter, it struck the fear of a breakout game in the heart of the Sixers. Philly can't help like they do off Avery. Frankly, I think they're overplaying him a bit. If you watch the second half of the third quarter last night when Rondo and Bass were 1-4 pick-and-rolling the Sixers to death, the weak side guard wouldn't even turn their head to help. They stuck on Ray in the corner to protect themselves from a baseline three. I'm sure Doug Collins has seen a lot of tape on that corner three igniting a Celtics' run, but I'm not sure overplaying him (and Pierce) is the answer because the Celtics bigs and Rondo are capitalizing. As Ray points out:
"Right now this is a Brandon [Bass] and Kevin [Garnett] series. Rondo understands it, me and Paul [Pierce] understand it. We're making whatever plays we need to make in order to get those guys shots."
It certainly has been a Bass/Garnett-dominated series. Garnett dominated the first three games, but Collins and Philly have adjusted and started to pester him by playing more physical and utilizing Lavoy Allen. The playoffs are all about adjustments and we could see this coming. If the Sixers' initial plan was to take Allen and Pierce out of the game, Garnett had to step up and he did. Now, as Collins deploys more pressure onto KG, Doc's had to rely more on his 4th option and that's been Bass the last two games. In respect to Boston's collapse in Game 4, Doc admitted that he should have gone to BB late:
"Honestly, if we made one mistake we should have gone back to"For me it's just hard work. My motto is, 'God, grind, greatness.' And grinding is what got me to this point and that's what I'm going to continue to do." Bass," coach Doc Rivers said. "The first three games our smaller lineup was better than our bigger lineup. Statistically in Game 4, the big lineup was better. The big lineup is what got us the lead. Both times when we went small it actually hurt us. That's something as a staff we have to recognize and it's a tough call. We're going to have to make a call every game it looks like and there's no right or wrong to it. It's going to have to be a gut feeling and I hope when we make it, it's the right one."
Bass is grabbing all the headlines this morning after his 27-point performance last night and rightfully so. In last night's press conference, he echoed Garnett's "grit and balls" comments after Game 2 in Atlanta with his own personal motto of "God, grind, and greatness." Philadelphia is a very good defensive team and they've been very effective at taking away elements of the Celtics' offense, but with Bass becoming a potent scoring option, their job of simply out-defending Boston becomes more difficult.
Lost in Bass' emergence last night was Greg Stiemsma's 14 minutes of inspired play. We're talking about a guy that didn't even see the floor in Game 4. He's lost playing time to injury and Ryan Hollins but despite that, Stiemer was ready to play when his number was called. Call me crazy, but I think Doc knows how much the Boston crowd loves Stiemsma. Basketball-wise, he's more of an offensive threat than Hollins and in the first half, the Celtics needed a little more of an offense push, but I'm betting Doc knew in his gut that it was time to push the Stiemsma button and Greg responded:
"Tonight was another opportunity, its been like that the whole season," Stiemsma said. "For the most part I think I've taken advantage of it and tonight was just another one of those nights where got some looks early, got myself going and I was just happy we won at the end."
"I just kind of went with the flow of the game, how it was going, if I missed my defense couple times early when we got those buckets, a layup and a dunk, it really slows the game down, really makes you feel a lot more comfortable."
Last night was a night for guy's to step up, but the bottom line in this series and hopefully series to come is that the Celtics' calling card is going to be their defense and yet again, it was somebody from the bench that sparked the second half resurgence of the Celtics defense:
"With the same approach we took tonight, with defensive intensity," Bass said of the key to Game 6 Wednesday. "At the half, we were struggling defensively. Doc didn't think we were playing for each other and Reverend Dooling stepped up and gave us a little sermon and let us know that we have to play for each other. In the second half, that's what we decided to do."
The Sixers shot 54.8% in the first half, scoring 24 points in the paint which is the most they've had in their post season. After Keyon's pep talk, Philly went an abysmal 37.1% with only 10 points inside 5 feet. You look at Keyon's stat line and he had more fouls that points, steals, and assists combined but it was his leadership that shined in this game. Watching the Thunder close out the Lakers last night, I wondered how much Los Angeles misses Derek Fisher. The Lakers were clearly outmatched, but they've also played some gutless basketball throughout the playoffs. Outside of Kobe calling out his teammates in the press, they're now a rudderless ship floating in the expanse of the off-season ocean. Regardless of how the Celtics post-season ends, it's really been a privilege to watch this team step up for each other, pick each other up, and motivate each other. #FLEXIN