I'm still processing just how impressive last night's 99-76 win over the Atlanta Hawks was. The Celtics' defensive effort in the first quarter was wonderful to watch, particularly since it came on the heels of a not-so-inspired defensive effort against the Toronto Raptors the day before. The defensive rotations were really crisp, particularly when Atlanta players drove to the basket. There always seemed to be an extra defender there just waiting to help smother that Atlanta player. Here are some other scattered thoughts on last night's win...
Celtics Dominate Inside
I was personally impressed with how dominant both Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett were last night. Neither Al Horford or Josh Smith could handle these guys defensively. Both of Boston's starting big men notched double-doubles, as Garnett posted 17 points and 11 rebounds to go along with five assists, and Shaq added 13 points and 11 rebounds - his first double-double for the Celtics this season.
Once again, the Celtics went to Shaq early in the paint, and he responded with a six-point, five-rebound first quarter. All three of Shaq's first quarter baskets were dunks. It was great seeing him really battle with Horford on the offensive glass around the 10:19 mark when Ray Allen missed a shot. Shaq had an obvious size advantage, but, at 38 years old, we might not have blamed him if he hadn't secured the rebound against the much quicker and (now) more athletic Horford. But to his credit, Shaq battled, kept the ball alive, secured it, and slammed it home. His personal energy in the first quarter last night had a lot to do with the Celtics' fast start.
The Celtics, as a team, scored 40 points in the paint last night, to the Hawks' 24. If you look at Atlanta's first quarter shot chart, you'll notice only two field goals were attempted in the paint. The majority of the shots the Hawks took in the first frame were longer perimeter jump shots. Both Garnett and Shaq made Smith and Horford look undersized, which is something to keep in mind as the season rolls along. Anytime the Celtics have an advantage down low, whether it be with one or multiple matchups, they need to be sure to exploit it. Garnett's arguably at his best when he's not just settling for his 16-20 foot jump shots, but is instead mixing those in with baskets in the paint.
The Celtics' bench played a pretty significant role in last night's win. They haven't been as in-sync defensively as the starters have been, but hopefully, if Jermaine O'Neal can return healthy within the next few weeks, he'll help to bolster the second unit's front line. Last night, though, every bench player scored (mainly because of the extended garbage time), and more importantly, Atlanta never really climbed back into things against the second unit (although Atlanta did drop 29 points in the second quarter...). On Sunday, the Raptors wiped out an eight-point first quarter lead mere minutes into the second frame against Boston's bench.
I was personally impressed with Delonte West's line of six points, three rebounds, three assists, and two blocks. He can create his own shot much better than I remember, particularly when he dribbles left around screens from his teammates. What I loved most, however, were the two fourth quarter blocks he had, particularly the one against Zaza Pachulia. It looked as if West had already skied up before Pachulia decided he was going to shoot the ball. Either way, West hung in the air long enough and swung his left arm forward, knocking the ball away cleanly. If you watched West during his first stint with the Celtics, you probably remember other blocks that looked similar. I expect those types of plays out of West - those aggressive plays that border on reckless abandonment. His energy and preferred style of play are trademarks of his, and last night was one of the best examples of that.
What do we think about Marquis Daniels right now? He's still lacking consistency, in my opinion. He's been held to four points or fewer since he dropped 13 points and seven points in consecutive games against the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder earlier this month. Does he need to be more aggressive on offense? There are some games when he's making picture perfect cuts to the basket, both with and without the ball, and then there are some games when he's content just hanging out around the perimeter, not really involved with what the Celtics are trying to do offensively. I know the bench needs to sure up defensively, but having some added offense from Daniels wouldn't hurt things when opposing teams are attempting to make runs against it.
Overall, I've been happy with Daniels on the defensive end this season. He was credited with three blocked shots last night, and he's played excellent one-on-one defense against legitimate perimeter players in some games this season (he was effective against Kevin Durant when the Celtics played the Thunder in Oklahoma City). He seems to have good instincts defensively, and he anticipates things well (that game-sealing steal against the Knicks caught our attention). So, are we satisfied with his production thus far? Is him simply being healthy enough?
Robinson Keeps on Rolling
The Celtics' offense hasn't really missed a beat in the two games Rajon Rondo has missed because of a strained left hamstring. Nate Robinson has stepped in and filled the void about as well as we could have hoped for. Granted, the Celtics' offense will undoubtedly run differently under Robinson, as he isn't the pass-first point guard that Rondo is. You'll probably see more isolation plays with certain players while Robinson's running the point. But he's certainly a more accomplished pure scorer than Rondo, as he lit up Toronto for 22 points, with 16 of those coming in a very assertive first quarter.
Sunday, the ball movement wasn't at a premium for the Celtics, although, by game's end, exactly half of Boston's field goals had been assisted on (17 assists, which is a low figure for the Celtics). But things were different last night as the Celtics recorded 26 assists as a team on 40 made field goals. Robinson, who handed out only two assists against the Raptors, dished out 10 against the Hawks, to go along with 16 points. Overall, the Celtics, as an entire team, moved the ball better against the Hawks last night.
It was nice seeing Avery Bradley out there. It's not really fair to make too many judgements, considering he played a mere six minutes of garbage time, but, at least he's healthy enough to play at this point. I liked Doc Rivers staying on him in an encouraging manner after he turned the ball over at one point. "Keep your head up!" he yelled.
How Good Can They Be?
Sometimes the Celtics can serve as their own worst enemy, which begs the question: How good can they actually be? They flat out dismantled a very capable Atlanta team last night, and they made it look easy. Garnett said in a postgame interview that the whole team was mad following the losses on Friday and Sunday. Apparently no one said too much to each other in the locker room before the game. Clearly the team was focused, and their performance was outstanding. Can they bottle that focus and unleash it game after game? Was last night an example of just how good the Celtics can be (especially defensively. Again, those rotations...Awesome.) when they want to be?