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Celtics Improve Weaknesses, Rise to Lakers' Challenge

Celtics-Lakers awaited, but for the time being I patiently watched Eddie House finish off the Oklahoma City Thunder.

House drained a three-pointer after an unselfish pass from Lebron James, and celebrated his make in typical Sam Cassell, "I'm clutch, and I want to let you know it by partaking in a graphic dance which will only serve to highlight my clutchness" fashion. After House's shot, I briefly wondered whether Boston would have been better off keeping House rather than trading him for Nate Robinson. I ultimately decided, "Yeah, probably." But Robinson would have his say later in the day.

It was around the time of House's three-pointer that Celtics-Laker started, but ABC decided not to show us the game's beginning. It made too much sense to hold tip-off for a few minutes until the game in Oklahoma City finished, so by the time we were taken to Los Angeles, the Celtics led 4-2. A Pau Gasol jump hook over Shaq's outstretched arms made the game 4-4, and the most important game the Celtics have played this season was officially underway.

What follows is a collection of my thoughts from the game.

Paul Pierce, The Truth

Quick: Who's the Celtics' MVP? Is it Garnett, who's back to playing Defensive Player of the Year-worthy defense, while killing it on the boards and providing his normal efficient and selfless offense? Rondo, who racks up assists like they're on sale, and normally controls the entire game with his pace and instincts? Or is it Pierce, Mr. Consistency (and also, in the past few years, Mr. Efficiency), who's the C's best at creating his own shot?

I'm not ready to tackle that conversation. Arguments can be made for all of them, but Pierce's level of play this year makes me breathe easy. The Pierce we saw yesterday got whatever he wanted against Ron Artest. He was the Pierce we love, the Pierce who patiently meanders anywhere he wants to on the court. The Pierce who uses his strength, footwork and cunning to get to his wheelhouse, regardless of how he's being defended.

On one play in the first quarter, Pierce showed the difference between last June and now. Artest pressured up on Pierce, trying to body him in classic Artest-ian style.  What did Pierce do? He calmly used Artest's pressure defense to his advantage. He angled his body past Artest, used his strength and got into the lane with ease. The LA defense collapsed, and Pierce kicked out to Rajon Rondo for a wide open jumper. Never mind that a Rajon Rondo wide open jumper isn't always a good thing (and, in fact, Rondo missed the shot). Pierce dictated his own terms yesterday, in a way that he didn't in June. He created separation from Artest whenever he so desired.

Which only began to describe...

The Big Three's improvements. Raise your hand if you honestly, truly, rationally thought Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen would all improve at the respective ages of 33, 34 and 35 years old? At those ages, NBA players are supposed to go downhill. Especially when they've all played at least 34,000 minutes (and Garnett almost 43,000). Especially when they all showed signs of falling off last season. 

But here we are, in 2011, and Kevin Garnett looks like he's ten years younger than he was last year. Pierce can once again get wherever he wants on a basketball court, and Ray Allen's having the best shooting season of his career. I would argue that Pierce and Allen are both having their best seasons of the Big Three Era, and Garnett's not far behind his '08 pace. But why? Why so youthful, all of a sudden?

No, I don't think they're sipping O.J. Mayo juice. If I had to guess -- and, granted, it's just a guess -- I'd say the Game 7 motivation runs deeper than we think. I'd say the Big Three worked out harder this offseason than they have in years, and I'd say the hard work's paying off. Look at what happened in the three offseason months between June and September (when the C's reconvened for training camp):

  • Garnett's limp went away, and he stopped dragging his leg. He started soaring for alley oops again, and, far more importantly, his defensive quickness returned. In three months, he went from looking like a washed-up caricature of himself to looking like his former self. Three months, that's all it took.
  • Pierce lost between ten and fifteen pounds, and returned to camp in his best shape in years. He looked svelte, and the bounce in his step -- absent through the playoffs last season -- had returned. Granted, Pierce's recovery from a nagging knee injury (according to Jackie McMullan, "Sometimes, Pierce said, the knee would 'pop open,' squirting foul liquid across the locker room") helped matters. But you don't lose all that weight, and look so much better physically, if you don't hit the gym hard.
  • Ray Allen returned to camp and forgot how to miss jumpers. I exaggerate, but Allen's prolonged hot-shooting stretch has been magnificent. His 45.4% three-point shooting would top his career best (43.4%), and it would be the best three-point shooting of his Celtics career by a few nautical miles (his previous best - 40.9%). His current field goal percentage (50.5%) would also top his career-best (48.0%). Of course, Allen's offseason work ethic has always been the stuff of lore. But 35-year old shooting guards still aren't supposed to improve.

If one of the Big Three magically got younger while growing a year older, it might be coincidence, or it might be attributed solely to getting healthy. But all of them have improved, and remarkably so. The difference between Garnett in June and Garnett now is night and day. Same goes for Pierce. Same goes for Allen. NBA players simply aren't supposed to age this well, and I imagine it was the pain of Game 7 which made the Big Three so intent on drowning Father Time.

Shaq, role player

Zero points, six rebounds. If you look solely at the box score, Shaq's presence affected the game only slightly more than Jeff Van Gundy's presence did. Mark Heisler from the LA Times even wrote, "Shaq played as badly as he ever has." But look a little closer. Shaq actually played well, it's just weird to see him contribute in "role player" ways. On one play, Ron Artest drove baseline, except Shaq was there to send his shot away. Earlier in the game, Shaq picked up an offensive rebound, keeping a possession alive, then drew a foul on Artest. A few seconds later, Kevin Garnett hit Ray Allen for an open layup. 

Shaq's not Superman anymore. He's not Shaq Attaq, the player who once threatened the safety of rims in every NBA arena he walked into. He's just a 38-year old behemoth who knows how to play basketball, and can affect games even when he doesn't score a single point. The Green Mile wasn't phenomenal, don't get me wrong. He didn't single-handedly change the complexion of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. But he played thirteen good minutes. Thirteen helpful minutes. And that's all the Celtics needed.

Nate Robinson, impressor

Raise your hand if you've ever wanted to shake Robinson by his shoulders this season? Just shake some sense into him, I mean. (*Every hand in the CelticsBlog community jets into the air.*) So have I. He has certainly been frustrating at times, especially when launching certain shots that -- how do I say this nicely? -- even Pistol Pete Maravich probably would have turned down. 

But Robinson yesterday was everything the Celtics hoped he would be, back when they traded him for Eddie House. He let the offense come to him, rather than forcing the issue. He made open shots, limited the bad ones (only one Robinson shot left me shaking my head, which is actually an improvement), and generally played solid basketball. 

Entering yesterday's game, Rivers actually contemplated giving Robinson a DNP-CD. And nobody could have blamed Rivers for that. But Robinson's minutes showed why Doc is hesitant to yank his miniature backup guard entirely out of the lineup -- on any given night, Robinson can completely change a game.

Speaking of game-changers off the bench...

Jeff already handled Glen Davis' contributions, so I'll just point out one Davis sequence that effectively put yesterday's contest out of reach. On one end, Davis powered his way around, and ultimately past, Andrew Bynum for an and-one. His three-point play put the Celtics ahead 96-87 with 4:28 remaining; the play would have been perfect if Davis had only finished it with a gallon of drool, rather than an understated fist pump. 

The Lakers came back, and -- you guessed it -- Kobe Bryant decided to take a shot. He drove past Ray Allen like Allen wasn't even there, and had an easy look. That is, he would have had an easy look, if Davis hadn't come from the other side of the lane to meet him outside the paint. The perfect rotation led to a Kobe miss, a Celtics rebound, and a Rondo-to-Garnett alley oop that put the Celtics ahead 98-87. Game, set, match, with a big thanks to Glen Davis.

Kobe goes solo

A lot of folks will blame Kobe for what transpired in yesterday's fourth quarter. They'll discuss his unwillingness to pass, and the ten isolation plays Kobe used in the fourth quarter alone (on only 24 Lakers possessions). Gunner!, people will scream. Selfish! Ball hog! Pass to Pau every once in a while, you bum!

But blaming Kobe's taking the easy way out. He actually shot a decent percentage (5-11 in the fourth, 16-29 for the game), even when he was in "one-on-one" mode (aka Kobe mode). In short, he shot well enough to help LA win the game. Where the Lakers really lost the game was on the defensive end of the court.

Boston shot 69.4% during the second half. Rajon Rondo alone contributed 15 assists post-halftime. The Celtics racked up 32 fourth-quarter points, making 14 out of 20 shots in the period. During the stretch when you could say Kobe's gunning got a little out of hand, here's what the Celtics did:

  • Kevin Garnett makes 18-foot shot (Pierce assists)
  • Glen Davis makes layup (and-one)
  • Kevin Garnett makes layup (Rondo assists)
  • Pierce turnover
  • Ray Allen makes 24-foot three-pointer (Rondo assists)
  • Ray Allen makes 18-foot shot (Rondo assists)

Kobe's offense, as selfish as it may have been, actually was enough to win the Lakers the game. You know, if they could have gotten any stops whatsoever.

Referee bias

Did anyone else hear Jeff Van Gundy say one of yesterday's referees had been one of St. John's student managers... when Ron Artest played there? I didn't notice anything too fishy about yesterday's officiating crew (no, Joey Crawford's love of the spotlight doesn't count), but still: if a ref has that type of relationship with a player, he should not be allowed to officiate that player's games. There's too much opportunity for bias.

Rondo: Off, then on

In the first half, I actually wondered if Rajon Rondo was hurt and we just didn't know about it. His first-half offense consisted of the following: dribble the ball upcourt, make a pass to initiate offense, stand around the perimeter until a teammate takes a shot, and finally jog back on defense. Rondo wasn't making anything happen, not at all. He was just a spectator, except he was actually on the court.

Thankfully, Rondo turned things around. What began with doubts about Rondo's health ended with 15 second-half assists. Rondo began pushing the pace, and LA couldn't keep up. (Boston Herald)

"We shot up the tempo," Rondo said. "I got more opportunities on the break, and our bigs can out-run their bigs. I made a little adjustment as far as getting the ball, because Kobe and (Derek) Fisher were jamming the outlets, so I tried to come and meet the ball a little bit more. I wasn’t happy with what I did in the first half.

"It’s a little different, but we can outrun LA," he said. "Phoenix is a running team, so you can’t really do that, but with LA, given the personnel we have, we can outrun them."

With Rondo on his game, everything's easier for the Celtics. Note that 69.4% second-half shooting.

Rebounds, rebounds, rebounds

According to KG, Doc Rivers harped on one thing during the last few days: rebounding. (Boston Globe)

"When you look at the wins, whoever’s won out of this series, it’s been the one that’s controlled the boards,’’ Garnett added. "Doc, for about two days now, has been talking about rebounding, rebounding, rebounding. Having Shaq [O’Neal] back helps, having Perk back helps, having Paul and Ray in there on the boards helping the bigs out helps a lot.’’

The Celtics held a 43-30 advantage on the boards, a drastic difference between June, when the Lakers pushed Boston around like the C's were little boys. Garnett's improved gait changes everything, as does Perk's healthy return, as does Shaq's presence, as does the Celtics' entire mentality -- they know why they lost Game 7, and Rivers wouldn't let them forget. Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding.

Yesterday was everything Celtics fans could have asked for. We wanted the C's to rebound, and they did. We wanted them to execute and find easy shots, and they did. We wanted the Big Three and Rondo to control the game, and they did. We wanted people to question Gasol's toughness again, and they did. We wanted the Celtics to assert their dominance, and leave no doubt that they -- right now -- are the better team. They did.

It was only one game. But from the Celtics' standpoint, it was one game that went almost perfectly according to plan.

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