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May 17, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
On the Attack

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Boston 107, Philadelphia 91 (Celtics lead 2-1)
Pace: 85.1
Offensive Ratings: Boston 125.2, Philadelphia 106.5

Wednesday's outburst was Boston's third-most efficient offensive display of the season. The performances were similar but of course all offensive explosions have certain things in common. In Boston's case, the Celtics shot a high percentage from three-point land (5 for 11), took care of the ball (nine turnovers in 85 possessions) and posted a high assist percentage (65 percent of made field goals). There are other common threads to the other outbursts to which I want to call attention to.

First, consider the following chart:

Date     RONDO_A  NONRON  NONRON%
04/15/12      16       5    12.8%
04/10/12      15       8    18.6%
03/04/12      20       9    20.0%
04/01/12      14       7    21.2%
12/27/11      12       8    21.6%
04/11/12      20       8    21.6%
04/17/12      13       8    22.2%
05/16/12      17       9    22.5%

These numbers require some explanation. After the date column, you have RONDO_A, or number of assists Rajon Rondo had in the game. NONRON indicates how many assists the Celtics had by a player other than Rondo. The final column (NONRON%) tells you what percentage of made field goals came on NONRON assists. This group represents the nine lowest NONRON assist percentages Boston has posted this season, including the playoffs. Among these nine games are the Celtics' top three offensive performances of the campaign. I'll tell you want I think this means in a second.

The other common thread I want to indicate is simply the environments in which Boston's three top offensive games occurred: at Miami, at New York and at Philadelphia. All of them marquee games, on the road, with a lot of eyes on televisions. While I wouldn't make any definitive statements based on that, to me that says a lot about these Celtics.

When the Celtics won the title in 2008, Rondo posted 21.4 percent of Boston's assists and the Celtics assisted on 61.3 percent of their made field goals. This season, Rondo was responsible for 39.8 percent of Boston's dimes, and the C's assisted on 66.5 percent of their baskets. The title-winning Celtics had a terrific offense built around ball-sharing. Ever since, there has been a growing reliance on Rondo to distribute the ball and create for his veteran teammates. That's the way the offensive system in now structured. And it sure seems like when his teammates become aggressive with the ball, the offense is the better for it. They aren't swinging the ball, they are taking it the hoop.

It's hard to boil down a game that wasn't close for the entire second half to one sequence, but I thought the key to the game was a three-possession stretch in the first quarter. Paul Pierce, who had gotten off to another slow shooting start, attacked the rim three times in a row, getting two dunks and a trip to the foul line. Andre Iguodala seemed as surprised as anyone by that turn of events, and it set the tone for the Celtics' attack the rest of the way.

Kevin Garnett had his second huge game of the series. This time, he was good from the perimeter (7 of 12 from midrange), but augmented that by going 5 for 5 in the paint. Garnett not only worked on the block, using his height advantage to take Elton Brand and Lavoy Allen with that turnaround over his left shoulder, but also actually faced up and drove the ball a couple of times. I don't watch every Celtics game, but I can't remember the last time I saw him go off the dribble. Garnett had 27 points and 13 rebounds (all defensive) and took just 17 shots. On the other end, the Sixers' bigs--Brand, Allen and Spencer Hawes--combined to shoot 5 for 19. It wasn't all KG, but a lot of it was.

Rondo had his best game of the series, joining in on the new-found aggressive approach with 23 points and 14 assists. He got the ball to the basket repeatedly and pushed the ball down the floor for early offense as the Celtics rolled up 21 fastbreak points. That key category is now 3-0 in favor of the Celtics, and it's because of Rondo. The jump-shooting Celtics scored 50 points in the paint and also outrebounded the bigger and more athletic Sixers.

Once the Celtics got their confidence early -- yes, Tom Thibodeauisms have become embedded in my brain -- the game was over for all intents and purposes. And as Boston broke away, the Philly offense disintegrated into its component parts, each player trying to do too much. The Sixers got off to a good start on offense, but were outscored 61-33 in the middle quarters. During that span, the Celtics had 19 assists--10 by Rondo--on 23 field goals while the Sixers shot just 29 percent from the floor and were out-rebounded nearly 2-1. Garnett had 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists combined in those crucial two quarters.

Thaddeus Young had his first productive game in a losing cause, but Evan Turner* was a no-show, shooting just 1 of 10. I had to keep reminded myself to watch him because it seemed like he wasn't even on the floor for long stretches when he actually was. The Sixers hit 8 of 15 from long range in what was a product of desperation. In the categories that actually matter for their attack, they shot 6 of 25 from midrange and just 19 of 41 in the paint. It was a game to forget.

Every time I type Evan Turner's name, I want to call him Elston Turner. As far as I know, they are of no relation. Elston is an NBA assistant coach and former player, who in his early days with the Dallas Mavericks was in a job-sharing arrangement with Rolando Blackman. The combination was dubbed the "Blackman-Turner Overdrive." Now you know.

The Celtics came out angry and played like it. The Sixers couldn't match their energy early and given the collective age on Boston's roster, that's inexcusable from Doug Collins' perspective. The Celtics looked young and more athletic on Wednesday, though that is usually the case when a team catches fire from the floor. Philly can't afford to play passively again in the series. Ever since the series preview, I've been harping on the importance of the Sixers remaining in attack mode. I hadn't once mentioned the same factor for the Celtics. It's not so much that it never occurred to me. I simply figured that Boston was hopelessly reliant on jump shots. I honestly didn't think they were any longer capable of anything else. Not any more.

Collins mentioned the Celtics' penetration during a first-period timeout, saying his team had to "build a wall" and force jump shots. It never happened, at least until the Celtics had already found their offensive rhythm. Boston will be out for blood in Game Four and the Sixers will need to get off to a quick start. It's a surprise that a game in this series turned out so lopsided, but it's not a shock. These things happen. As we say again and again in the postseason, one game doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the one that came before. The Sixers could come out on Friday and do the same thing to Boston. However for that to happen, they've got to be the ones on the attack.

(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)

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