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Where the Celtics are not the Spurs (yet)

On Sunday, the Celtics had a chance to look in the mirror and see just how much of a reflection they are of the Spurs. And while they remained competitive for the better part of three quarters, what they saw in the end was a team with a lot of growing still to do.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Even after getting beat down by San Antonio, Brad Stevens is still in love with the Spurs:

"They just crush you," Stevens said after the loss. "And that's what happened [Sunday]. And I think that's what the Spurs do. I told them, I thought it was really the greatest example of the Spurs, is the dunk [by Aron Baynes] at the end of the game, because the Spurs play the right way all the time. They never change. They do it for 48 minutes, they do it for 82 games. There is no circumstance that affects how they approach the game. And I think that's hopefully something that we can learn from."

And there seems to be a mutual admiration by the Spurs' architect, Gregg Popovich.  After beating Stevens twice last season, Pop spoke glowingly of the rookie coach and reaffirmed his feelings on Sunday.  I'm sure that's little solace to Stevens who has been very candid with his plans of molding Boston into San Antonio East, but after a brutal 4-10 start to his sophomore season, knows there's still a lot of work to do.

Maybe it's too soon to expect this relatively young squad to be gelling so early in the season.  After all, they did just wrap up the NBA's third most difficult November against 11 playoff teams from last year and 2 games against the upstart Suns and the Super Friends Cavs.  Outside of losses in Houston and Memphis, they were in every game at the start of the fourth quarter, but we're past moral victories.  That was last season.  Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger are healthy.  Avery Bradley isn't playing for a contract.  Jeff Green has found a level of scoring consistency and aggressiveness.  And yet, they have trouble putting together four solid quarters together and seem years away from getting to the championship level that the Spurs have been at for nearly two decades.

After only fourteen games, Stevens is already talking about tinkering with lineups more, having already swapped the slumping Kelly Olynyk for Tyler Zeller.  And there are rumors that teams might already start trying to pick off players from Boston's roster (Marcus Thornton and Green have been mentioned as possible Hornets).  Some fans are already panicking, hitting the Trade Machine for viable and not so viable Rondo trades, and revving up the tank engines, but let's pump the breaks a little bit.

When Stevens talks about the Spurs, he waxes poetic with words like "trust," "building bonds," and "understanding roles."  All that is a product of time.  I begrudgingly watched Sunday's game again just to see specifically where the Spurs are better.  I said it in my recap and I'll say it again: I don't see a big talent gap between our roster and the Spurs.  However, what they have on their side is time whereas over half our team is still on their rookie contract.  After rewatching the game, you can see that most of the Celtics problems are rooted in what makes the Spurs so strong: trust, building bonds, and understanding roles.

Whenever I think about the Spurs offense, it reminds me of Bruce Lee's line about being like water.   It's free flowing, unpredictable, and in constant motion.  This is a little bit of a busted play with players scrambling after Matt Bonner pulls down an offensive rebound, but just watch how the Spurs react to ever adjustment of the defense.  When Olynyk rushes out to cover Bonner beyond the arc, Bonner dribbles in to shoot a free throw line jumper.  As Avery Bradley hustles to the corner to contest Cory Joseph, Joseph drives passed him and finds Danny Green.

over rotate

Here's another great example with Green again:

bad rotation


ball rotation three

You can also see it in San Antonio's use of multiple screens.  AB is one of the best on ball defenders in the league, but all that's negated when he's run off a series of screens and switches.

multiple screens

Jeff Green is also a very good one-on-one defender, but put him through a revolving door of picks and he's toast:

leonard double screen

They're also murder with pin downs and dribble hand offs:

duncan parker pnr

For the most part, most of those Spurs' highlights can be simultaneously viewed as the failings of poor Boston D; San Antonio is good, but the Celtics inability to make the next defensive rotation and trust that their teammate is glaring.  Coupled with their issues with defending the pick and roll, they've been a sieve on that side of the ball all year.  They made up for their defensive deficiencies with being just as good as San Antonio on offense, but there are times--particularly under pressure in the fourth quarter--where the Celtics have faltered.

This play ends in JG missing a lay-up, Zeller grabbing an offensive rebound, and Green following it up with a dunk, but sometimes when I watch the Celtics motion offense, I wish that the screen setting was a little more deliberate.  There are multiple picks in this set, but a majority of them don't create space or a clear advantage to the ball handler.  Now, I understand that there's value in motion for motion's sake, but I'd love to see guys actually get freed up coming off a pin down and go against the grain of the defensive recovery.

indecisive moment

Many have commented on Rondo's propensity to dribble too much or try and make the perfect pass.  Evan Turner can often be guilty of that, too.  It was his unfortunate calling card coming out of Philly and because he's used as a de facto point guard under Stevens, there are times when that ugliness comes out in Boston.

turner pounding

I hate to pick on ET (because he had an effective second quarter on Sunday and really pushed the second unit), but his aggressiveness can lead to a lot of hero ball.  It's nitpicking and it's impossible for him to be perfect 100% of the time, but being perfect in the Spursian sense is not about making every shot and every right pass.  It's about playing for each other, especially when faced with adversity.

turner rushed jumper

It's why you're seeing Brandon Bass getting quality playing time over Kelly Olynyk of late.  Sure, he's the best defensive big on the roster, but he's also one of the most Spurs-like players on the team.  Above, after an ill-advised mid-range jumper in transition from Turner, BB fights for the offensive rebound which allows Turner to redeem himself at the line.  Bass takes his shot when it's available and racks up Tommy points with all his dirty work.

So, here we are.  We're six games away from Jeff's 20-game rule of fair evaluation with a handful of winnable games with Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Charlotte, and a home-and-home with Paul Pierce (/single tear) and the Wizards on the horizon.  Getting to .500 with a 6-game winning streak might be a tall order, but getting their heads above water by the new year isn't.  After November's murders' row, Nine out of the next 14 games in December are against teams under-.500.

While I don't think this team can be at San Antonio's contending level this season, I disagree with our friends over at that we're in evaluation mode.  There's no doubt that Stevens and Ainge have an eye towards the future at all times, but if we've learned anything from the Spurs over the years is that winning is about habit building.  Take your GM hat off for just a second and stop looking for a new home for Jeff Green.  This is a guy sick of losing who loves this team and wants to win here.  Getting Dwight Powell and James Young some PT would be useful in their development, but even this early in the rebuild, W's are more important because I'm sure Green's attitude is shared by all his teammates.  The record may not reflect it, but Stevens' system is working and more importantly, players are buying in.

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