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June 10, 2010
When the Big Four Isn't

by Kevin Pelton


As compared to the NCAA superconferences apparently on the verge of being foisted upon us (the Big 16! The Pac-16!), the Boston Celtics' "Big Four" now looks downright quaint. Still, the Celtics' three Hall of Fame-bound veterans (Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) and a talented youngster who might just have developed into the team's best player (Rajon Rondo) have given the team enough production to the advance to the NBA Finals.

The beauty of Boston's foursome of stars is that they can pick each other up when one has a bad matchup (as with Pierce in the series against Cleveland or Garnett in the Eastern Conference Finals) or simply a bad night. At least, that was the case before Tuesday's Game Three of the NBA Finals, when only Garnett (25 points on 11-of-15 shooting) had a good offensive night. As measured by combined Game Score--John Hollinger's single-game rating--it was the worst effort for the Big Four of the postseason at 31.2. Only twice in Boston's previous 19 playoff games had the Big Four failed to reach a total Game Score of at least 40.

Here are the ratings for every postseason game, ranked by Game Score per 48 minutes (so as not to overcredit the overtime game in the Eastern Conference Finals or undercredit blowouts where Doc Rivers pulled his starters early).

Date    Opp  Res  GS48    GS     P    R    A    TS%   #
4/20    MIA   W   21.5   44.4   46   16   17   .732   1
5/11   @CLE   W   20.9   65.3   80   22   19   .617   2
4/27    MIA   W   20.2   70.3   75   26   24   .630   4
4/23   @MIA   W   19.9   66.7   90   22   18   .575   3
5/28    ORL   W   19.3   60.5   75   25   14   .623   2
5/22    ORL   W   18.7   51.1   50   24   21   .502   3
5/9     CLE   W   17.5   54.3   74   28   18   .511   2
6/6    @LAL   W   17.4   54.1   67   23   22   .553   2
5/16   @ORL   W   16.6   55.9   63   31   21   .568   2
5/13    CLE   W   16.6   50.6   64   23   23   .527   2

Date    Opp  Res  GS48    GS     P    R    A    TS%   #
4/25   @MIA   L   15.8   50.2   72   20   18   .598   2
5/1    @CLE   L   15.8   53.9   72   20   19   .529   2
5/24    ORL   L   15.8   57.9   77   31   13   .547   2
5/3    @CLE   W   15.3   47.7   67   25   26   .539   2
5/18   @ORL   W   14.3   47.4   67   21   17   .526   2
6/3    @LAL   L   14.3   43.8   65   19   13   .524   1
4/17    MIA   W   13.9   41.2   49   23   17   .491   1
5/7     CLE   L   13.5   38.5   55   16   15   .484   1
5/26   @ORL   L   11.8   36.9   56   15   19   .478   1
6/8     LAL   L   10.0   31.2   53   15   15   .467   1

The contrast between the above-average games and the below-average ones is obvious. The Celtics are a perfect 10-0 when the Big Four combines for a Game Score per 48 minutes of 16 or better. When failing to reach that mark, they are a less impressive 3-7.

But you probably already suspected that. That the Big Four is important hardly qualifies as insightful. What interests me more is the last column on the right--the number of Big Four players who had above-average efforts (by their playoff standard) in the game in question. As the theory goes, most of the time Boston should get good games from at least two of the four players. Indeed, that's been the case. In 14 of the team's 20 playoff games, two or more members of the Big Four have been above average. In those games, the Celtics have been tough to beat, going 11-3.

Boston has shown the ability to occasionally win games with just one member of the Big Four having a good night (2-4), but both of those wins came in the opening round against the overmatched Miami Heat and Game Two of that series is a bit of an outlier since Kevin Garnett sat out because of a league suspension. The other three members of the Big Four actually came up with their best per-minute Game Score in that game, thanks largely to Allen's efficient effort (25 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including seven threes in nine attempts).

It is worth noting that having even three members of the Big Four going well at the same time has been a rarity in the playoffs, taking place just three times in total and only once (the lopsided Game Three win in the Eastern Conference Finals over Orlando) since the Celtics dispatched of the Heat.

The more pressing issue right now is those games where the Big Four is reduced to the Big One. That's been the case twice in the first three games of the NBA Finals, with only Pierce having an above-average Game One. (Rondo was pretty decent in that game, but he's set a high standard for himself in these playoffs.)

While the Lakers' defense has shut down different players in each game--all four players have been above average at least once in the Finals, but none more than once--the matchups have been pretty good for them. What has given teams fits in the playoffs is that the Celtics present few opportunities to hide anyone on defense. We've seen lots of teams do this by pairing two talented wing players (you could put the 2007-08 Boston team in this category, with the advantage that Pierce is a quality defender and Allen has becoming an average one since joining the Celtics), but having three All-Star-caliber perimeter players is a definite rarity and makes Boston difficult to defend.

With Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest on the wing, the Lakers can match up better than any team the Celtics have faced in this postseason. Even Derek Fisher, despite his liability in one-on-one situations that expose his fading quickness, does a good job against bigger players because of his strength and guile (and, Rivers interjects, his ability to convincingly flop).

In Game Two, Allen's hot shooting got the Lakers away from what they wanted to do defensively. Phil Jackson reacted by putting Bryant on Allen, creating two less favorable matchups. In the other two games, though, the Lakers have been able to contain the Big Four. Boston's stars are talented enough that it's unlikely all of them are going to be shut down, but the Celtics will need to find a way to make sure at least two players have good offensive outings to be competitive in this series.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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