Often NBA coaches talk about getting their team to play a "complete" game -- to execute well and put forth full effort on both ends of the court for the full 48 minutes. It's more or less held aloft as an ideal to strive for, since realistically it almost never happens. Players get tired, opponents make adjustments, refs create foul trouble or swing momentum with bad calls, shots just stop falling, rhythm is lost as five man units get switched around -- it's all part of the normal ups and downs of an NBA game.
Yet tonight, in Game 4 of the Celtics' first round series against the Atlanta Hawks, the boys in green had the closest thing to a complete game as you could ask them to -- discounting the last 7 or 8 minutes of the 4th quarter, which was effectively a competition to see which team's 12th (and even 13th) man could look most like an actual NBA player.
As usual, the Celtics were brilliant on the defensive end, disrupting the Hawks' ball movement (which usually isn't that great to begin with) and forcing turnovers. Doc Rivers, hinting at some of the non-conventional stat-keeping he and his assistants do, noted that the Cs had 27 deflections at half time, which is usually as many as they could hope for in a full game. But the defense is no surprise; it's what we've come to expect.
The Celtics can be a very inconsistent team in some respects, there's no doubt. They are prone to bouts of carelessness with the ball; high turnover rates have been a fixture of this group since the Big 3 got together in '07. They often fail to box out, causing them to get killed on the glass and give up tons of second chance points. Their slow-by-design half-court offense at times gets bogged down to the point that it has all the speed, elegance, and unpredictability of spilled oatmeal.
The one way in which they are not inconsistent, however, is their defense. In the four games of this series alone, the Celtics are holding their opponent to 81.5 points per game on 38.6% shooting. During the regular season, they were second in the league in opponent points per game at 89.3, first in opponent field goal percentage and three-point percentage (41.9%, 30.8%), and fifth in opponent turnovers. As KG has said, this team "hangs their hat" on their defense. They know they are a defensive team, and as long as they play elite defense in each game, they know they will always have a chance to win. The pattern we've seen emerge with this team over the course of the season is that more often than not, if they score 90 points before their opponent, they are probably going to win.
At least for tonight, however, the Cs were elite on both ends. From the beginning of the game until the start of the fourth, when the game was well beyond being in doubt, it seemed like the basket was just three times bigger than normal for the home team. Paul Pierce, even on a bum knee, was throwing in threes and heavily contested mid-range jumpers like they were free throws, even in transition with a defender in his face. His night ended early after only playing 17 minutes, but in that time he scored 24 points and was a ridiculous +33. The Celtics only shot 51.% percent for the game, but that number is skewed by the aforementioned garbage period (the Celtics scored 11 points in the fourth quarter after scoring 32 in both the 1st and 2nd quarters). For much of the game they were shooting over 60%, not falling below that point until around the beginning of the fourth quarter. This team, that did not hit a single of their first 18 attempts from beyond the arc in the first game and a half of this series, shot 11-26 from deep in this laugher.
So what do you say about a game like this one? An offensively challenged team that nonetheless has a bunch of good jumpshooters with an offensive game plan overly focused on shooting jumpers is going to have a game once in a while where seemingly everything goes in, perhaps. The law of averages and all that. But a dominant performance like this, with really no low points in terms of intensity, execution, and focus until the starters had already logged their last minutes, against a talented opponent, maybe suggests something more.
It seems to me that elite teams, teams that have a legitimate shot at going deep in the playoffs, have another gear that they can go to. They get "the look," and on nights like that, they simply can't be beaten. The Thunder had it the other night closing out the Mavericks, just as the Mavericks had it for much of last year's post-season.
Tonight's game wasn't exactly something we haven't seen before from this year's Celtics; they pounded the Miami Heat in similar fashion about a month or so ago. Yet this meant more because it happened in the playoffs against a team that really needed to win this game. The Hawks played Josh Smith heavy minutes despite his balky knee, and even brought back Al Horford, who came on the floor in an actual game for the first time since January. The Celtics stepped on the Hawks' throats in this one, and twisted their heel for good measure.
If the Celtics are to advance far in this post-season, they're going to need more than a couple more performances like the one they put on tonight. They still need to get past the Hawks, despite the fact that they beat them badly enough tonight for two games instead of just one. This game didn't change anything, exactly, but it is very reassuring to know without a doubt that this team has it in them to come out and absolutely blow the doors off the other team; not just hitting a bunch of improbable shots at an unsustainably high percentage (as the flukey Knicks did against the Celtics late in the regular season), but really playing great on both ends for as long as it takes to put the game out of reach. The 2010 squad first really showed that ability in the pivotal games 4 and 5 of the second round series against the Cavs. The '08 squad most memorably had a game like this to close out the Finals in epic fashion, though of course they had shown it many times before that.
Although on most nights we can expect that any game with the Celtics in it is going to be a rough and tumble, grind-it-out, ugly, defensive slog, it's nice to know that every once in a while, when everything comes together, they can reach a level at which any opponent they might face, regardless of the stars on their roster, will find it almost impossible to keep up.
It's important to keep in mind that we have absolutely no guarantee that it will come at the right times, or at all. Doc was asked tonight if he could sense when one of his players is going to have a big game, and he admitted that he didn't sense it before this game, and though he sometimes does sense it, he's usually wrong. I'd venture a guess that even the team doesn't really know before they step out on the court whether or not they're going to have a game like this, although I hope that they approach each and every game as if they can and they will.
One thing is for certain over these next few days, and, hopefully, weeks: it's going to be very exciting -- and terribly excruciating -- watching and waiting to see what happens.