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Celtics Offense: In Transition

The offense couldn't finish what the defense started.
The offense couldn't finish what the defense started.

The Boston Celtics have prided themselves on defense.  But a funny thing happened on their way to a second NBA title in three years. Their offense let them down.

I’ve been thinking about the Celtics offense for a long time and it is leading me to some conclusions. But first a few unavoidable observations.

No One Talks About Game 6

Game 7 (4th quarter) has been looked at like an accident ‘drive by’. You don’t want to look, but you have to. Painful. Ugly. Somewhat inspirational, but head shaking. But you’ve looked. Don’t tell you me didn’t. Game 6? Almost like it didn’t happen. Or that the Green gets a pass for a golden opportunity…that went poof.

Up 3 games to 2 with NBA Title 18 so close you could touch it, and the Lakers’ back against the wall, the Boston Celtics went out and scored exactly…. 67 points. The team played a stinker, and it turned into the only blow out game in the series.

I would like to say that they learned their lesson, righted the ship, and followed that up with triple digit scoring, game winning effort. Ok, that didn’t happen. How about at least 90 something points in a hard fought win. Hard fought - yes. Win? No again? Okay. Care to try for 80 something points? Wrong again.

They followed that up another point thirsty 79 point game. They fought, they clawed, and they again… had the lead. Then they gave it up. In the lingua franca of the day, it was a point recession and heading into a point depression. I guess you can say that the Celtics offense needs a stimulus package. Jobs and NBA titles are on the line.

It is easy to just say they were so close to winning game 7 that little needs to change. But that is a bit deceiving, I think.

A constant, the Celtic defense, was very good in both games, holding L.A. to under 90 points both times. So let’s propose a few theories.

A) The Laker defense was really that good
B) The team ran out of gas
C) The Celtics have to refigure how they approach their offense
D) Kendrick Perkins is that critical to the offense
E) It was really all Ray Allen’s fault

For Game 7 all theories are in play. You can make a case for just about anything in a 4 point loss. If the guy in the 3rd row didn’t get up for another round of hot dogs, the Cs would have won.  But game 6 is another matter. And combine the two games and there are some bigger questions to answer.  

I am going to add to that a similar series fade the year before against the Magic. Up 3-2 and ahead in game 6 in the conference semi-finals, the air was let out of the tires and the Celtics season screeched to a halt.

I am going to suggest that the answer isn’t one single thing. A. Sherrod Blakely beat me to it regarding questioning how the Celtics approach the game going forward. Until that article, virtually no one has been talking about the Celtic offense.

I am not going to question here whether Blakely is right or wrong about the Cs stressing offense more and defense less with the new group of incoming players. But I do know that for the Green Machine to truly be the Green Machine they need to examine its offense going forward after that performance as well as what they generated over the last season.

Looking back over the last year the Celtic offense has been in decline in relation to the rest the league. In their 3 years this team has been together they have gone from 10th to 6th and then fell off to 15th last season in offensive rating by They were 19th in points scored. I would call that a major drop.

Their regular defensive numbers have fallen off a bit as well, but nowhere near as drastically. We all know that they had a number of issues they were dealing with during the regular season. This article won’t address the defense and possible changes there.

Addressing the theories

1) Lakers defense –yes it was very very good. I was impressed that whole series just how good it was. It was championship caliber. But that alone does not explain the complete shutdown of the Celtics. And there were holes in the Lakers defense that just weren’t taken advantage of. There were too many shots missed that the Celtics usually made, especially around the hoop.
2) The team ran out of gas
– seeing that there is a 2 year trend here (being up 3-2 but unable to close the deal) suggests there is something to that as well.  You can throw all the minutes played numbers at me that you want. This team is tired in the 4th quarter at times. Maybe they used too much energy getting up 3 to 2 against the Magic in ‘09 and again with the Lakers in ’10.

I understand that Bill Russell averaged 42.7 minutes/game for his career and over 44 minutes for 6 straight years and he wanted to play all 48 minutes. In reality, there were times when even he rested a little on the court.

I know that Larry Bird was once asked how many minutes he wanted to play and answered "48, of course. Hell, that ain’t even an hour."

I get that Hondo Havlicek was a workhorse and so is Rajon Rondo. Unlimited energy, right? Well, from my perspective ‘unlimited’ energy is viewed with some skepticism. No player can play all out for 48 minutes, regardless of what they would have you believe. Even Doc Rivers know this. Though he pushed things to the limit, he was aware of the need for strategic rests for his players. Even he questioned whether he would be able to give his starters the rest they needed.

Last season, a wisen Jerry Stackhouse singled out that single factor, knowing when to rest and push players, as a specific skill of a good coach…

"…he knows when guys are tired. He knows when they need a blow. He knows when they need to get pushed."

All this is leading me to believe that it is time for the Celtics to give their improved and talented bench a bigger role this season. It will mean good things all around. For the starters. For the bench. Fresh legs for the starters in the 4th quarter are critical. They can’t simply ‘out talent’ or intimidate their way to wins anymore.

3) The Celtics have to refigure their offense a bit.
Again, I think there is some truth to this. And here is where many may disagree with each

Rondo is taking over the offense. There is no question that it runs through him now. But that hasn’t always been a smooth transition for all involved. As Rajon’s game evolves, his shooting and foul shooting should improve and mitigate some obvious problems, like his opponent sagging off him and cheating toward the middle. Rondo’s drives are a thing of beauty. Drive and kick. Drive and attack the rim.

This leads to another question. Should this team continue to be built around Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett? There is no Lenny Bias or Reggie Lewis to hand the offensive baton to. Should there be a rededication of the offense to Pierce, Allen and Garnett? Or should other players be groomed to play a larger role in the offense?

A name that first come to mind is Glen Davis, who Doc Rivers has already said that he expects  bigger things from this season. The team now has Shaq, still a force down low. Nate Robinson is an offensive explosion waiting to happen on any given evening. Jermaine O’Neal has a more polished offensive game than Perkins. Marquis Daniels is a much better scorer than he showed last season.

At one point last season, Ray said that the offense was getting too predictable. Team were able to anticipate and break up plays too effectively.

4) Kendrick Perkins is that critical to the offense.
– Many feel that losing KP was the single biggest factor in losing the last 2 games to the Lakers. No doubt it had an impact. A much bigger impact than I originally thought it would. When Perkins went down in game 6, I thought that there may be a hidden advantage for the Celtics by using Wallace and his style and skills. Though Wallace played a brave and effective game, Perkins was missed. But more so defensively. He just isn’t that critical to the offense – except that he doesn’t require nor demand many touches. Someone has to be that player.

5) It was Really Ray Allen’s Fault
– I love Ray Allen. Cold blooded killer when he is on and often when he isn’t hitting he still manages to find that special silver bullet to kill the opposition. But I was just as frantic about all his misses as any fan in that final game. If you want to blame him, fine. But there were many other contributing factors to that last game loss. It was his frequently good defense on Kobe that helped keep things close in many of the games. I accept that it was the leg injury and the extra effort defending Kobe that affected his slump.

But check Eddie House’s stats after his 31 point explosion against the Magic the year before. He went for 15 points and then was shut down for the final 4 games. Teams act. Teams react. The Celtics must find ways to respond to the defensive reactions.

Still, there is a larger point here to be made. But I am not exactly sure what it is though. My own feeling is that the Celtics have a deeper bench than last year and players like Davis, Robinson, the O’Neals, West, and Daniels can and must contribute more this season.

But how that affects the shot attempts of the starters needs to be worked out. More than a question of balance is at stake. And let me ask a heretical question for team sports - Is there such a thing as too much balance?

If Kevin Garnett returns this season to 90-95% of what he was pre-injury, are these questions irrelevent?

My own opinion is that questions still arise about the offense. The Celtics offense is in transition and continues to redefine itself. And speaking of transition, with 2 new aging centers added to an already deliberate offense, can the younger players invoke a speedier component for parts of the game?

I would love to see it. But either Nate Robinson or Delonte West have to provide solid support when Rondo needs to rest to keep Rajon energized when they need him most.

The team has been built around three major NBA stars. But it is also being built around a rising point guard. Making it all fit correctly and getting better bench support is job one this season. Maybe it is about the MPGs. The miles per gallon are as important as the minutes per game going forward.

Otherwise, another trip the Finals just might peter out again. Is it time for the Celtics to get offensive? It is hard to argue otherwise.

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