Before Saturday night's game against the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics captain Rajon Rondo was asked if he knew how to slow down Houston's super-powered offense.
"You put them against the Celtics," Rondo confidently told reporters.
Hours later, the Celtics got pummeled, 104-90, and the score really wasn't even that close. After reviewing the film, here are three takeaways from Boston's loss to Houston in Sunday's edition of 3 in the Key.
The Good: A Touch of Grit and Balls
"Touch" being the operative word, as the Celtics failed to close out on perimeter shooters a number of times over the second half. Yet, collectively, they were able to recover from the first quarter blitz cringe and take advantage of a Rockets squad that decided the game was over after 12 minutes.
The team shook off the initial haze and began to get into the primary ball handler much more effectively as well as reading help rotations and making aggressive efforts to challenge shots and dig at exposed dribbles.
Highlighting this effort was Tyler Zeller. Though his biomechanical movement may not have caught up to his newfound bulk offensively, his added heft proved quite effective defensively.
Zeller played Dwight Howard man-to-man for the most part, using a wide base and well-timed chest bumps to counter D12's relentless pounding. Though Zeller may have gambled with a number of swipes at the basket, he was able to hold his ground and force Howard to his left hand deep in the mid-paint area as well as seal off the baseline.
Zeller was doing something the rest of the team struggled at, by keeping his man away from the "middle." 65 percent of Houston's shot attempts came from the middle of the floor, which is an area that forces the defense to collapse, freeing perimeter shooters, but Zeller's defense prevented them from doing so.
The Bad: Offensively Offensive
The Celtics played scared, overthinking and telegraphing every intended pass with no dynamic player movement to help free up good looks. Their three-point shots were often flat footed and contested looks that came far too early in the possession or as afterthoughts when nothing shook free.
Houston had an easy time defensively as they overplayed the perimeter while Boston refused to run any off-ball action to counter the perimeter pursuit. The Celtics had tunnel vision, playing ping-pong with the ball in the middle of the court while standing around.
"They just bullied us tonight. They played harder. They took us out of our spots offensively," Rondo said after the game. "We started our offense 27 feet away from the basket."
It seemed as if the Celtics were paralyzed by the road atmosphere.
The play above is the perfect example of Boston's offensively offensive night. Point guard Rajon Rondo tiptoes the ball up the floor like it's Doc Rivers' offense all over again, with no actions running until there were only 14 seconds left on the shot clock.
Rondo actually makes a quality pass to an open Kelly Olynyk, but he gets cold feet, passes up the corner three, and dribbles into no man's land. With the possession all but wasted, Rondo and Bass run a side pick-and-roll to attempt to create something, but the shot clock runs out as Thornton drives to the rim after the kick out pass.
Boston had far too many possessions like the one above, where they did nothing to get Houston moving their feet with the shot typically coming from whoever was holding the ball last. The game digressed into a litany of "hero plays" or one-on-one, low percentage bids that showed little ability to come together under duress and solve their problems collectively.
The Ugly: Psychological Warfare
When a game breaks down fundamentally to this level, it is typically a well-seasoned team that is able to stem the tide and reconstitute their mental fortitude. Boston doesn't possess the experience as a unit to be expected to bounce back when hit with a buzz saw effort from a hot team.
However, if Boston is going to build up their compete level, they'll need better efforts from two of their more talented players; Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk were not able to shake off their initial struggles and regain their competitive swagger. Both players showed a limited ability to double-down and regain their confidence after a slow start.
Bradley seemed particularly bothered by James Harden -- a notoriously obnoxious jaw-jacker who was visibly piling on every time something didn't break Avery's way. Some early fouls and a couple of hard luck makes by Harden seemed to sap Bradley of his aggression, as his shots were uncertain and his defensive intensity was unmetered.
Olynyk is only a second-year player, but as a starter, he can't allow a few missed shots to dictate his level of assertiveness. Boston is relying on Olynyk to be a proactive and cerebral player for this offense to run smoothly. Good players have bad shooting nights, but they still keep shooting.
If Boston is going to effectively draw opposing defenders out of the paint, Olynyk can't perform like a deer in the headlights like he did at the beginning of his rookie year, by hesitating to make aggressive decisions when the ball heads his way. Tonight, he allowed the Texas heat to holster his side arm and he quickly found himself being a spectator.
With upcoming games featuring marquee match-ups against Dallas, Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland, and Phoenix, the Boston Celtics will need to establish a headstrong mentality that can withstand the trials and tribulations that will undoubtedly occur within a season, a game, and even a single possession.
Perhaps, Houston's throttling can be used as a learning tool for this young roster; but for that to happen, the Boston Celtics are going to need to cash this reality check.