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A Dark Fourth Quarter Feeling

A Daily Babble Production

We're now closing in on two o'clock on Tuesday morning.  I've gone through all possible avenues.  An hour on the phone with The Guru's calm fatherly voice taking me through the right and largely wrong of last night's events.  Forty-five minutes of screaming back and forth with a long-time best friend and antagonist afterwards.  Much of the last hour spent doing some mutual therapy chatting with our very own CelticBalla32.  The most angering loss of the year is sticking with me for now.

Well, that's not entirely fair.  The loss happened.  It's over.  The Celtics lost Game 4 in Atlanta as well and came back strong in Game 5 for a big victory.  This team has given us every reason all year to put our faith in it, and even if it hadn't, that's what we would have done, because we are fans as in fanatics -- keepers of the faith.  Over the next 48 hours, the sting of this loss will go away as the nervous energy flow for Game 5 gains strength (it has already begun).

But what isn't subsiding is the feeling of terror in the fourth quarter.  In a lot of ways, the strength of this terror is a tribute to how wonderful a season it has been for this Celts team.  That's because the terror came from a problem that we knew about subconciously at the very least from day one, but it took 82 regular season games and 11 playoff games before it reared its ugly head enough to be this disconcerting.  That says something wonderful about how well this team cruised through most of the year.

But the terror itself says something else: That as of right now, these Celtics do not have an option to go to for a bucket going to the rim when they need it the most.

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This was the feeling that held me in a death grip throughout last night's 12-point fourth quarter: They have a guy to go to every time, and we don't have a way to get a big basket.

This is really a lot less about "their guy" than it is about the make-up of this Celtics team.  I'm not asking anybody on this team to be LeBron James.  LeBron is a special breed of player on par with just one other swingman in this league right now and few others for all time.  That isn't the point.  Further, the Celtics ultimately did another fairly decent of limiting him prior to the dunk that blew the roof off the building to build the Cavs' lead to nine with 1:45 to play.

What this is about is that this Celtics team is for the most part a team of shooters.   Ray Allen has made a career of being a shooter.  In fact, he is one of the best this league has ever seen.  Kevin Garnett is a fantastic mid-range jump shooter.  It's the bread and butter of his offensive game (along with his unselfishness), and he does quite a job from 15 to 18 feet.  James Posey and Sam Cassell are perimeter shooters as well.  Rajon Rondo hasn't seen the floor at the end of too many close games as of late, and he has been having a rough go of it when he has been involved.  When he has been around, the Cavs have forced him into taking shots from the corners and wings, which isn't his game.

The problem here is that for the most part, shooters are going to have hot nights and cold nights.  When shooters are cold, there isn't much to do but wait for them to heat up again.  Some nights, that never happens.  On a team on which nearly everything is done from mid-range and beyond, that makes it very difficult to get baskets -- and thus to win -- down the stretch in close games.

The difference between a shooter and a slasher is that a slasher has a greater capacity to make himself hot.  Going to the rim means taking a shot from closer to the basket, which even if contested is often going to be a higher percentage shot.  When a player can beat the defense, an open lay-up is generally more of a guarantee than an open trey or jumper, no matter how cold the slasher may be.  Further, going to the basket means that there is a greater chance of contact and a foul.  Scorers can get going by getting themselves to the foul line and getting easy points with the clock stopped.  And, of course, the best ones also create easier looks for everybody else by getting into the lane and wreaking havoc.  Those looks can be kick-outs for less contested perimeter jumpers, or they can be dishes to teammates cutting to the basket for dunks and lay-ins.

Last night, it was painfully clear that the Celtics didn't have that at all, at least for the evening.  It isn't Doc's fault.  It -- with one exception, which we'll address shortly -- isn't even necessarily about what the players should be doing.  It's simply about who they are, particularly the stars.  Ray Allen has been a shooter for more than a decade in this league and an excellent one at that -- even if he has been cold over the past few games, there should be no need to play the "What have you done for me lately?" game with Ray.  Kevin Garnett brings an unbelievable total package to the table.  He is a great defender, a tremendously unselfish teammate, a deft passer and a tenacious rebounder.  He is also reliant on his mid-range shooting for an enormous portion of of his scoring.  That's part of the package, and it's a package that we Celtics fans have come to love, and it seems safe to say that most of us (self certainly included) wouldn't give it up for the world.  Whether it is fair to ask players like Allen and Garnett to change is another issue, but it looks clear that there is no evidence that would support the idea of expecting them to change at this point.  They are who they are.

This brings us, of course, to the elephant quietly sitting in the corner of the room, the man who has been left conspicuously unmentioned thus far in this discussion: Paul Pierce.

Pierce's situation is the most confusing of those of the three stars because this is the guy who does seem to have changed, at least as of late.  If there is anyone on this team expected to be the man when it comes to the crunch-time slashing, this is the guy.  This is the man who used to be a routine top-five finisher in free throws made and attempted in this league.  This is the man who once seemed to long for the fourth quarter.  For his time.  For the time when he stepped it up in a way that few others in the league could.

Certainly, there isn't an expectation here that the free throw totals or the scoring numbers will be as high as they once were.  Pierce has done a great job becoming more deferential in a season that required it on his part.  He needed to cede some of the offensive burden to his new co-workers, and he has done an admirable job of it.  The confusion here isn't about the total numbers.  It's about how Pierce has been reaching those numbers.  Particularly as of late, he seems to be doing more settling than ever before.   The Celtics and we fans would have to live with it if this guy was working to get to the rim on a play-to-play basis and simply having trouble finishing or getting calls.  But that isn't the case.  Pierce has been routinely settling for perimeter jump shots, sometimes semi-reasonable mid-range looks and sometimes clearly forced threes, on which he really hasn't looked particularly effective throughout this series. 

Through the first four games against Cleveland, Pierce has taken 16 threes compared to just 14 foul shots.  That isn't a formula for success, and it isn't about the officiating.  It's about Pierce's decision-making and his choice to settle with far too much regularity.  In fairness to PP, The Guru offers up the possibility that it may be an issue of energy conservation for Pierce.  He has spent much of his time on the floor this series guarding and being guarded by one of the best players in the league, a player who happens to be bigger, stronger and faster than Pierce is.  There is no shame for Pierce in not being LeBron James, and the truth remains that The Truth has done a fantastic job on LBJ on the defensive end thus far this series.  It's hard to ask any more of him on than what he has given on that end.

But if conserving energy because of all that is being expended on the defensive end is the issue at hand, it brings up a different concern.  Pierce doesn't have a shot quota.  He isn't contractually obligated to pull the trigger a certain number of times each night.  So while the not getting to the rim as much as he might be expected to normally might make sense, what doesn't add up is his apparent compulsion to force outside shots seemingly just for the sake of heaving.   If Paul isn't getting to the bucket, it would seem far more reasonable for him to move the ball and make LeBron work on the defensive end by generating as much off-the-ball movement for himself as possible.  The pressing treys do this team no good.

Whether there is something Doc should be doing to make the situation easier for Pierce, I'm not sure. Same goes for just how related this change is to Pierce's defense on LeBron, an effort for which he deserves plenty of praise.  Ditto for whether or not there is something the coach can do with this roster overall in order to manufacture that crunch-time scorer.

But one way or the other, the fact remains that at present, this is now virtually an exclusively jump-shooting Celtics team.  The boys in green don't have a go-to scorer at crunch time, and they don't have a way to generate easy buckets when the game hangs in the balance.

When nearly every other team around the league -- especially the ones competing at the level that the Celtics are striving to reach -- has one such scorer, that's a discomforting thought.

When the opponent at hand has the freak of nature that is LeBron James, it's a purely terrifying one. 

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