More often than not, with a team like the Celtics that are talented yet old (in the sense that their energy is not the type to support them for playing 40+ mpg), much of the game plan and the results from actually playing games rest on the shoulders of a few particular things.
One, of course, is execution – how do the Celtics execute their offensive and defensive game? They are a team that does not have the luxury of running at every possession (see: Nuggets and Sixers, James and Wade) so the game becomes a little bit more difficult. They do not have a Dwight Howard like center to just funnel everything into the paint and watch the other team get swatted multiple times. More often than not, the sets require perfect execution, so as to maximize results and energy expended by the players. Also, this is the reason why Rondo is the motor of this team: by creating easy looks in transition, less energy and execution are needed.
Another thing, that we have come to notice in this team, however, is the effect of intangibles. That is to say, who are the Celtics matched up with? What was the result of their last game? How is the team in general? And usually, this leads to a direct/indirect result on their execution. Does the team play lax? Does the team keep pounding the opponent at every opportunity? How do they start and end the games? It would seem that this is actually a big part of the Celtics, seeing as they just don’t rely on having outstanding talent (see: Thunder, Lakers) to win games easily. Each win must be grinded out. But then the question becomes – when do they grind, and when do they coast?
I am often interested in how the C’s play is affected by the intangibles. However, I am making it known already that it is nothing SURE, and it is no SCIENCE. This is a practice and exercise in guesswork, mostly. So none of this should be taken 100% seriously. What I am exploring here, however, is a possible understanding. This will not lead to any satisfying predictions regarding the team’s performance, but it does provide a venue for us to discuss on how it might possibly affect their play. This also means that I am open to everyone’s comments as well, regarding the team’s morale. (Here, you can already tell that I’m not really a stats-oriented guy, but I do take note of it)
By this, we can start formulating a few ideas like this:
1. In game 1 of the series, everyone was predicting that the Celtics would easily beat the Hawks regardless of home court advantage and a better record. By prediction, I mean winning the series, not the game. The C’s, of course, knew that they were better than the Hawks (see: regular season). The Hawks, on the other hand, were regarded as underdogs. They were even slighted with the comments that HCA was not a priority for the Celtics even though I’m sure Doc did not mean it that way.
So what happened?
By the 7:45 mark of the 1st quarter (if my memory serves me right), the Celtics were down 20-4. Wow. The C’s probably came into the game thinking they were the “bully Celtics” as Doc mentioned in the huddle, and the Hawks would easily roll over. However, that was not the case. The Hawks were obviously hyped for the matchup, while the C’s were obviously overconfident in their chances of winning the game and the series. It’s the type of mentality that goes “we don’t even have to give 110% cause we’re going to win anyway.”
During the course of the game, the Celtics kept trying to play catch-up and after the Marc Davis debacle, lost despite making it a game. They turned it on sometime in the third or fourth, and started to really play only then. The Hawks on the other hand had become the confident group, thinking they can easily outscore and outrun the C’s as soon as they wanted to. So the game was lost, and Rondo was suspended. And Ray was still out. Yet the C’s still made it a game.
2. By game 2, the tables had turned. Here was a Hawks team that won Game 1 (despite everyone predicting it would be the other way around), and a depleted Celtics team. Everyone knew the Celtics had their backs against the wall, and the Hawks confidence was only rising even more. Or, to be more accurate (in a guesswork manner, however), the Hawks confidence rose into overconfidence. Come on, who wouldn’t have been? They were facing a team without Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen. They knew Pierce could take over the game, but it was hardly going to be enough, as long as they played okay.
Except the Hawks didn’t play OK after getting that big lead in the third quarter. They played an amazing stretch of basketball, and by then were confident that they could easily blow out the Celtics had they honestly wanted to. Which led to Paul Pierce’s heroics, and the team’s defense destroying an otherwise disinterested and disorganized Hawks offense. By the time Josh Smith sustained the injury, the Hawks had lost all chance of winning the game. They knew they didn’t seal the game when they had the chance, and now their emotional leader was out. He didn’t even talk with the bench, he just went straight to the locker room. That was destructive. And so, they lost.
Now, what happened?
3. Game 3, the Celtics are back at home court, they have Rondo and Ray back, and the team’s confidence is overflowing because of getting at least a split in Atlanta. The Hawks, however, were without three of their best bigs: Horford, Pachulia, and now Smith. There’s a reason why game 3 was looked at as a trap game. The Hawks will probably play desperate, and the C’s will probably play overconfident. And so they did. What could have been major factors?
a) Rondo’s return was a big boost. I’m probably thinking that Rajon even knew he was going to get a triple double in the game if he wanted it, and so he did. There’s no better way than making all the talk about his suspension shut up if not for getting a good game.
b) Ray’s return was a big boost. Even though I doubt the team has really had time to get him involved in practice, the emotional relief was enough to make them feel that they could win especially with Ray back. His performance was also something to note of, especially hitting that short baseline jumper with not more than a minute since playing again.
c) The Hawks played desperate. TMac was going nuts in the 2nd, Dampier was producing, and Joe Johnson was getting his shots to fall. From the get-go, you knew this was going to be a close game if you looked at the body language of the Hawks and the Celtics and compared them. By the 4th quarter, some of the ISO Joe shots went in, and that was enough to cause overtime.
d) The fourth quarter was a tale of two games. At the end of the third quarter, the lead was only 2. The Celtics knew that they could not afford to let the game remain too close, and immediately stepped on the gas pedal. There was no chance they were going to let the Hawks remain close enough to snatch the victory, especially in a game 3 back-in-home-court situation. And so they played out of their minds.
All the way to that 11-point lead. Beantown was on fire, the Hawks were rolling over because of the Celtics play, and it looked primed to be a blowout. Of course, this is where the other half sets in.
By playing that brief stretch of dominating basketball, the Celtics knew they can blow out the Hawks if they wanted to. But what was the use? They were already ahead by 11, the Hawks looked they were going nowhere fast, so what urgency could they possibly need? The Hawks, as if on cue (again with my guesswork), probably knew this, and so they stepped on their gas pedal. Couple that with a few lucky shots by ISO Joe, and before we knew it, the score was tied 80-80 in the last two minutes, with the desperate Hawks playing against a disinterested Celtics team.
After that last shot by Pierce failed to bail them out, the pressure was back on the Celtics. The whole of Boston would be TERRIBLY DISAPPOINTED if they lost home court right after a rousing game 2 victory. The Hawks would have a huge mental advantage if they won (knowing they were shorthanded). And so the C’s played well in overtime. And the Hawks were unable to match them again. It just goes to show how effort here was similar in the first half of the fourth quarter. The moment the C’s felt like they needed to win, they pounded on the Hawks. Yet when they knew they were going to win (see: game 1, end of regulation game 4), they immediately let off. Interesting.
4. So how does Game 4 look like?
Personally, I doubt the C’s confidence will have wavered. They were forced into overtime, yes, but when they played like we always want them to play (dominant D, efficient O), they probably they can “turn it on.” I wish this wasn’t the case, and that is why I’m relieved that this is only an exercise in guesswork. The Hawks, however, need a jolt of confidence. Realistically speaking, if they play with the same layup as they did today, it’s going to need a miracle to help them win. (I doubt that’s their mentality, however. Their mentality will probably be “we were shorthanded yet we almost won”) But if they get even one of their key bigs back, the confidence will return seeing as “they didn’t beat us with this lineup last game, so we have a good chance.”
So do I have a prediction? I see game 4 as a similar game to game 3, seeing that the C’s aren’t going to run away with the game. However, seeing as they’re fresh off overtime because of a lack of intensity and effort, I don’t think they’ll repeat the same mistake in the second half of the fourth quarter of game 3. I doubt the Hawks would change much because they almost won despite being shorthanded and all. For individual players, I see Rondo not being as aggressive, I see Pierce shooting more and hitting more, and I see Teague being Teague and (hopefully not) demanding more shots from Joe Johnson.
In all honesty, and I’ve kept saying it, it’s guesswork. But it’s a possibility for understanding. What do you guys think? What do you pick up from the C’s morale and mentality?