This was a game the Celtics needed to lose. Had they won, maybe the bad taste of their first half doesn't last the plane ride home or until Wednesday's game against the Atlantic Division favorite Toronto Raptors, a team that beat them twice in the preseason. No, this loss needs to hurt a little bit. Let's not mince words. Brad Stevens was pissed after the game. Jeff Green didn't want to hear about moral victories. He said:
"You know it's like getting punched in the mouth," forward Jeff Green said of the first half. "Once you get punched in the mouth you tend to wake up a little bit and start to play a little harder. Houston and Dallas both came out and punched us in the mouth and you know we woke up in the second half. We have to be the aggressor; we can't allow teams to jump on us like that."
Forsberg mentioned it in his recap and Scalabrine talked about it and how it pertained to Avery Bradley, but the defense must fuel the offense for this team. Statistically, it's quantifiable. In the first half, the Celtics forced 8 Mavericks' turnovers for 8 points. When they turned up the heat--especially with that Rondo-Bradley-Smart lineup--in the second half, 10 turnovers became 14 points. Boston also only shot five free throws in the first two quarters and more than doubled it in the third and fourth with 11. Those seem like only marginal differences on the scoreboard, but it has an affect on the players' psyche too and that's what Brad Stevens wants to hammer home with his guys.
We've seen the highlights on D: Bradley hounding point guards full court, Smart facing up Dirk Nowitzki in the match zone, and Jared Sullinger cleaning the defensive glass and protecting the paint with two blocks. But how does that aggression on defense translate on the other side of the ball?
First of all, let's qualify: the following is not a criticism on Rondo at all. He's been straight ridiculous in these first three games. However, he's our best player and the driving force of our offense and when he's aggressive, the rest of the team is aggressive. He handed out five ho-hum assists in the first half and if you're only looking at the numbers, that's fine; that's nearly half way to his season average, but they came in the passive variety, with Rondo was just sitting back behind the free throw line and finding guys on the perimeter and cutting to the basket.
Some of Rondo's assists will be a product of the motion offense and he'll just be the distributor, but when the team decided to flip the switch to 11 on defense in the second half, that's when Rondo pushed the pace on offense. Under more dire circumstances of a 26-point deficit, Rondo red-lined the engine. He ran the ball on the secondary break after a made basket, penetrated and found open shooters, and ran more pick-and-roll/pop. He and the Celtics basically did to the Mavs what the Mavs did to the Celtics in the first half. Boston doesn't run nearly as many PnR's as Dallas' offense, but Rick Carlisle stresses the need to put pressure on defenses so that they're always forced to make a decision. Should a pick and roll be hedged or iced? On ball rotation, what shooter is deadly behind the arc and who might drive the ball to the basket?
Even two of his three turnovers after halftime came with aggression: the blown charge call on Monta Ellis that
could should have been a three-point play and his patented behind-the-back fake with a rolling Sullinger.
But still, it's still the defense that's going to fuel the offense's fire and it doesn't always materialize in the numbers where turnovers put points on the board. Sometimes, it's a mindset. It's grit and balls. Lost in Smart's breakout performance of athletic plays and Bird-esque passing is his hard-nosed defense that changed the tone of the game. You know that scene in Rocky III when Rocky is taking a beating from Clubber Lang and continues to repeat "you ain't so bad" after every vicious hook? That reminded me of Marcus last night.
After his behind-the-back pass found Sully for a lay-up in a scrum of players and cut the lead down to 4, Smart switched on a pick-and-roll and went straight up against a 7'0 Dirk in the high post. Rondo called for Avery to double but before he could trap him, Nowitzki lowered his shoulder, bowled right into Smart, and got the superstar call and two free throws. Even though the play resulted in points for Dallas, aggressive defensive plays like that, even failed ones, poured gasoline on already blazing flames.
On the ensuing possession, good Jeff Green drove the paint and found Marcus open in front of the Celtics sideline. Now, I don't know what was going through Smart's head. Maybe it was the fact that it was a homecoming for the Dallas native and he had friends and family in the crowd. Maybe it's Evan Turner rising from the bench and calling for Smart to take the shot. Or maybe just maybe it was how Marcus Smart went head-to-head with the future Hall-of-Famer on the previous play and didn't flinch. I don't know. All I know is that Smart jab steps Nowitzki a la Nowitzki and hits the three in Nowitzki's face.
That's defense feeding the offense. That will be and should be Celtics basketball going forward.