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Doc Makes Same Mistake Twice

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A Daily Babble Production

With 50.8 seconds left in last night's game between the Celtics and Bulls, Paul Pierce strode to the foul line to try to slice into a five-point Chicago lead.

After he made the first one, Doc Rivers made a decision that seemed odd at the moment and infuriating half a minute later.  The Celtics' coach replaced Kendrick Perkins - only his biggest player and best available rebounder - with Stephon Marbury, a 6-2 guard with no known propensity for playing defense or rebounding.  Bringing Steph into the game for defensive purposes didn't make a lot of sense, and neither did having him on the floor for a potential rebound off a Pierce miss.

Pierce made the foul shot, creating a one-possession game in the final minute.  Vinny Del Negro then did the Celtics a huge favor: He called for time.  This provided Doc a full minute to undo the prior substitution and get his center back on the floor.  At the time, Bulls center Brad Miller had only posted 21 points and 13 rebounds, four of which came at the offensive end.  Pedestrian, I know.  It wasn't like he was killing the Celts or anything.

No dice.  The Celtics rolled back onto the floor with Marbury, Rajon Rondo, Eddie House, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.  That's a 6-foot-7 small forward, a 6-5 off-guard and three other guards 6-2 or shorter.  Miller stands seven feet tall.

You can see where this goes from here.

The Celtics play 16 seconds of good defense, led by Pierce forcing Derrick Rose into a contested jumper from the left elbow, which he misses.  And Miller rebounds.  With 33 seconds to play.

Miller dishes to John Salmons, who will hereafter be known in this space as Unstoppable John Salmons.  Unstoppable John Salmons lays the ball in the basket.  Instead of having the ball with a shot to tie and a chance for two more possessions without fouling, the Celtics trail by five with less than 30 seconds to play.

This would be annoying, agitating even, if it happened once.  But it hasn't.  It would be frustrating if it had happened twice, which it has in the last month alone.  But given that this is at the minimum the third time such a coaching move has come back to bite the Celtics in the final minute of a game during the Doc era, it's downright nauseating.

Due to the combination of my current level of aggravation and the fact that I'm not sure I have a better way to explain it than I did then, here's what I wrote the day after the Celtics lost in Utah on February 19:

  • One major coaching issue for me in this game: the personnel on the floor for Andrei Kirilenko's second free-throw attempt with eight seconds to play.  The Celtics were down three at this point with no timeouts left.  Barring a miracle, a miss followed by a defensive rebound and a three-pointer was going to be this team's only realistic shot to tie the game.  In theory, that makes grabbing the rebound off any potential Kirilenko miss rather important.  With Brian Scalabrine fouled out and Garnett injured, Doc Rivers' three choices for the two low blocks spots appeared to be Large Baby, Leon Powe and Kendrick Perkins.  He went with...drumroll please...Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.  Those two were on the floor along with Rajon Rondo, Eddie House and Gabe Pruitt.  I understand the idea of looking to maximize perimeter shooting, but none of that is relevant if the team can't gain possession of the ball while still trailing by only one possession.  You know the rest by now.  The ball comes off to Allen's side.  He fails to get the rebound.  Ronnie Brewer does and hits two foul shots to douse the Celtics' hopes.

The most infuriating part?  This isn't the first time a Doc team has lost a game in that sort of situation.  It happened against the Magic back on November 13, 2006.  In his most prominent anti-Doc rant of that nightmare season, Bill Simmons described that situation in vivid and painful detail:

Eventually, Orlando regained the lead and clinched the game on one of those "team grabs an offensive rebound off a missed free throw, then gets the backbreaking layup off a bad defensive switch" sequences that have defined the Doc era.  Following the game, Doc blamed Pierce for failing to box out on the missed free throw, which was interesting for two reasons.  First, Pierce DID box out.  I recorded the game on TiVo.  The ball just bounced over his head.  It happens.  And second, instead of putting in two rebounders with Trevor Ariza at the line (a poor free throw shooter), Doc went in the other direction and yanked Kendrick Perkins (our tallest guy) for Ryan Gomes (who's 6-foot-7), leaving two small forwards on the low block to grab a potential Ariza miss with less than 90 seconds to play.  I mentioned that he's a career 60 percent FT shooter, right?  The important thing to remember is that the whole thing was Pierce's fault because he was too short to grab the rebound.  Whatever.

This isn't to say the Celtics win the game last night if Doc substitutes before the free throw.  The team still had just eight seconds and needed a trey just to tie the game.  But at least the Celts would have likely had a shot.

Same deal once again.  Making a three-pointer is far from a cinch in this league, so it seems unfair to allege that Doc cost the team the game.  There were plenty of other concerns that got the Celtics to that point, including their inability to guard Unstoppable John Salmons, the trouble caused by Brad Miller all night before the back-breaking rebound, the fact that they couldn't keep Tyrus Thomas off the foul line early on and the realities of playing shorthanded, to name a few.  There is always a chance that Perk doesn't get the rebound if he is on the floor.  There's no guarantee that the team even ties much less wins the game if it gets the ball back in that spot.  But there's a much higher chance of success in that situation than there is trailing by five in the final half-minute. 

With a timeout left at that point and Miller on the court, having Marbury on the floor for the defensive possession served no purpose.  If Rivers wanted extra outside shooting, he could have made the switch at the stoppage after the Celtics got the ball back.

I understand that three games in three seasons isn't a whole lot.  But it's a mistake that seems easily preventable, if not the first time, then on every subsequent occasion.  Since it has recurred, it's hard not to worry about this sort of thing costing the Celtics in an even bigger spot down the road.

Doc commented after the game (hat tip to my pal Lee) that referee Bill Kennedy goaded him during the timeout, and I've got no reason not to trust Doc's account of events.  So we'll skip the obligatory screed here about how unacceptable it is to pick up a tech and give the other team a free point in that spot under any circumstances that come even close to qualifying as "normal."

But so long as he was going to get thrown out, it might as well have happened 30 seconds earlier.