Celtics 106, Pistons 102
Can the Celtics stand prosperity?
When you win 66 games and post a season-long point differential of plus 10.2 per game, expectations are going to be high. Still, lost in all the talk about the Celtics’ shortcomings in the playoffs has been discussion about just how well they’ve done. After clinging in a death grip to their lead against the hard-charging Pistons in Wednesday’s Game Five, Boston is one win away from its first trip to the NBA Finals since 1987.
Sure, the Celtics have won only one road game in the postseason. Yes, Ray Allen has struggled and, no, Kevin Garnett does not have Kobe Bryant or LeBron James’ ability to take over games offensively in crunch time. No, I didn’t expect the Celtics to need, at minimum, 20 games just to get to the finals. Nevertheless, the Celtics have been the best team in the East in the postseason. (They haven’t been as good as the Lakers in the playoffs, but let’s save that discussion for the Finals preview.) Their point differential (plus 4.1) is significantly better than Detroit’s (plus 2.9). Their defensive efficiency is second only to Cleveland’s of all postseason entrants. The Celtics haven’t been as dominant as they were during the regular season but they’ve still been pretty darned good.
There have been a number of times in these playoffs when I thought the Celtics let up on the accelerator, as if they wanted to slow down and bask in their postseason glory. They start to make ridiculous gambles on defense. Their passes on offense become absurdly stylized. At those moments, Boston’s players become the NBA equivalents of adrenaline freaks--keeping the buzz on is more important than the banalities of executing an offense or defense. Rajon Rondo, he of the slim build and the innocent face, is particularly susceptible to this syndrome. When he gets frisky, he plays like his head is swimming in what Kurt Vonnegut would call “bad chemicals” and he starts whipping blind passes over his head like it was a Tuesday afternoon pickup game at the YMCA.
The glory-hog tendencies of the Celtics were on display Wednesday as Boston nearly squandered a big third-quarter lead. After a back-and-forth first half in which Boston’s dominance on the boards was pretty much offset by Rasheed Wallace’s three-point shooting, the Celtics came out of the locker room after halftime with guns blazin’. The Celtics’ defensive pressure was outstanding--Detroit committed six turnovers in the period, which upped the tempo and allowed Boston to get many clean looks in transition.
The pace of the game--89 possessions for each team, by far the most of the series--was a real factor for the first time in the five games. The transition game allowed Ray Allen to get into the flow and rhythm of the contest. He was always moving vertically down the floor, instead of circling around the halfcourt with Rip Hamilton on his hip like a broken windup toy. Allen scored 29 points on 15 field-goal attempts and was 5-of-6 from beyond the arc in the game.
Allen teamed with Kendrick Perkins to fuel the Celtics’ on the offensive end, giving a breather to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in that capacity. Garnett did plenty of damage, too. KG needed just 17 shots to get his 33 points. Still, Allen’s hot hand and the unbelievable performance of Big Perk were the catalysts in Boston’s win. Perkins had 18 points and 16 rebounds, blocked two shots and had two steals and dominated his matchup with Antonio McDyess. That was a 180 degree turnaround from Game Four when McDyess was the star for the Pistons. Perkins played 39 minutes--three more than in any game during the regular season.
The Celtics built their lead to as many as 17 points. When they did, Boston had two straight possessions when Allen and Pierce, respectively, fired up contested three-pointers early in the shot clock, trying to land a knockout blow to the Pistons’ proverbial chin. These are what Doc Rivers calls “hero shots” and they are also indicative of the tendency I referred to of Boston letting teams back into games. Boston led by 13 going into the final quarter but it felt like the Celtics should have led by a lot more. (Though it could have been closer had Garnett not banked in a three-pointer from the top of the arc to beat the shot-clock buzzer on one possession.)
Sure enough, a Wallace three and a couple of Hamilton jump shots put Detroit right back in the game. The Pistons chiseled away at the Celtics’ lead for the rest of the game. After the non-existent three-point shooting of Game Four, the teams combined to shoot 19-of-36 from downtown on Wednesday. These were the league’s two-best teams at defending the three-point line during the season but you wouldn’t have known it in this game. Detroit had open looks, inside and outside, throughout the fourth quarter as Boston repeatedly blew defensive assignments. Meanwhile, on the other end, the Celtics went five minutes without a field goal during a 10-1 Pistons run that cut the lead to four.
From there, it was strap on your chinstrap time--the best finish of what is shaping up to be a classic series. Boston did everything it could to hand the game to Detroit. Rondo fouled Chauncey Billups on a three-point shot. Perkins picked up a technical foul. Rondo, who had 13 assists in the game, had successfully initiated the Celtic offense for three and a half quarters. Down the stretch, however, Rivers went to the pick-and-roll attack with Pierce and Garnett over and over again. The Pistons were running a trap at Pierce before the pick was set and the other Detroit defenders were rotating to cut off the passing lanes. The pick-and-roll simply wasn’t working but Rivers was going to sink or swim with it at all costs.
The Pistons cut the lead to one, 100-99, after unfazed rookie Rodney Stuckey nailed a three with 1:17 left. Detroit had been playing with a small lineup--Hamilton at the three and Tayshaun Prince at the four--and that configuration was very effective. Ray Allen bailed out a possession with a shot from the corner to put Boston back up by three. From there, Billups missed on a couple of drives and the Celtics put the game away at the foul line. Even so, the drama extended into the last 10 seconds, when Rondo fouled Stuckey before he could get a three off. I thought that with 8.2 seconds remaining, it was too early to make that play. Stuckey hit the free throws but Allen answered with a pair of his own. Boston fouled Stuckey again (a smart foul that time). Stuckey missed the first free throw. With only four seconds left, Stuckey needed to miss the second one and hope for an offensive board. Instead, Stuckey made the shot--it didn’t look like he was trying to miss--and Garnett iced the game with two more free throws.
So the Celtics weren’t able to glory in their victory because they were too busy actually winning the game. Again, there seems to be plenty to criticize the Celtics for but if they win on Friday, they’re going to the NBA Finals. That’s the bottom line. In Game Six, the Pistons may have to play without Rip Hamilton, who hurt his shoulder late in Wednesday’s game. This would seem to be a crippling blow but the Pistons are pretty resilient.
Billups looked the best he had all series in Game Five but he has yet to have two straight games in the series when he looked healthy. They’ll need him to be 100 percent even if Hamilton plays because for a shooter like Hamilton, the right shoulder is not the one you want to hurt. The twin backcourt injuries reminds me of the Pistons’ first title back in 1989, when Detroit took advantage of a Lakers team crippled by injuries to starting guards Magic Johnson and Byron Scott.
Hamilton has been the one Piston that has been able to consistently create shots in this series. Still, he’s one of those players what when he whines to officials, you want to reach through the television screen and slap him in the face. (Pau Gasol is another one.) Hamilton is a fine player and there is much to admire in his game. His ability to come off of screens and be a deadeye midrange shooter reminds me of the same types from the NBA’s salad days of the 1980s like Alex English. At the same time, he has a tendency to just hurl himself into defenders and then flail away like a woman getting mugged, waiting for the authorities to bail him out. It works, too. Hamilton gets bailed out of bad offensive plays more than just about any player in the NBA. So when he whines to an official, it just seems like he should keep his mouth shut. Plus the mask he wears reminds me of a nemesis of mine from junior high ball who were those old school specs with the wide headband. But I digress....
To complete the opening thought, I again ask: Can the Celtics stand prosperity? They barely could on Wednesday and were lucky to escape with the win. With the Pistons ailing and their backs against the wall, the time is right for Boston to display some killer instinct. They’ll need one if they are to eventually finish off the championship run for which they once seemed almost preordained to complete.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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