For the first 41 games of the 2007-08 NBA season, the Boston Celtics were playing a defensive-minded, possession style basketball that led them to a 34-7 start. Through those first 41 games, they had allowed only 88 ppg, best in the NBA. While the offense was wavering in the teens as far as NBA ranking with a 99 ppg clip, it didn’t matter because opponents couldn’t score in a peach basket the size of a hot tub.
But that was all with “The Big Ticket” in the house, cluttering up the paint alongside Kendrick Perkins and forcing teams to find creative ways to score. It was a system that was working for Doc Rivers and company. Focus on defense first, protect the basketball on offense and spread it around the floor, creating opportunities off double teams on Garnett, Pierce and Allen. The result? The Celtics have the largest division lead over the second place team and last place team today.
However, since Garnett went down in that emotional home win over Minnesota a couple weeks ago, the Celtics have had to adjust to life without The Big Ticket. Thus far, the likes of Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe have stepped up to contribute meaningful minutes and solid stat lines. The entire offense has benefited from a new, up-tempo style that has seen the Celtics utilize the fast break more, playing like a team that belongs in the Western Conference.
In turn, the teams ppg has risen seven points over the last five games, averaging 106 per night. And it’s been exciting to watch, as Rondo has arguably gotten even better with Garnett out. His ability to drive the lane, create shots and finish has raised the collective eyebrows of opposing defenses. This has given him the opportunity to dish it underneath to Perkins and Powe or kick it out to Allen and Pierce for some wide-eyed, Reche Caldwell type looks.
Although the offense has been drastically better in the last five games, it should be somewhat alarming that they are only 3-2 since KG went down in spite of this. Sure they’ve played some tough opposition and the two losses were by a combined four points. What’s so startling is that the defense has been like a slice of Swiss; teams could drive Noah’s Ark through that lane it’s so wide open. The defense has been terrible, at times non-existent.
As mentioned earlier, it was allowing a league-low 88 ppg in the first 41 games. In the last five? Try 97.4 a night. Ouch. Before the injury, the C’s had held opponents to under 90 points in 22 of 41 games. They have done it once in the last five, that being to a Miami Heat team that might be one of the last four out in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology.
Let’s face it, defense wins in the Eastern Conference. And defense wins NBA Championships, plain and simple. The Detroit Pistons, who have won over 50 games the last six seasons and are well on their way to a seventh, have allowed only 89.2 ppg since 2001-02 (excluding this season). Since the Lakers 3-peat ended in ’01-’02, four of the last five NBA champions have allowed fewer than 90.5 ppg. The lone exception was the Miami Heat in ’05-’06, shocking the Mavericks in six games.
Don’t get me wrong here. It’s been encouraging to see the Celtics actually score more with Garnett out. And since the team got off to such a torrid start, I actually believe they should continue to sit out Garnett until he is as close to healed as possible. There’s no reason to put a guy out there who is as physically and emotionally dedicated night in and night out as KG is when he’s not ready. Professional athletes are never 100% over the course of an entire season, but with such a sizeable lead, why rush it?
My only concern, however, is if the Celtics can once again adjust back to the style of play with KG in the lineup when he returns. They didn’t start out 34-7 playing like the Suns, that’s for sure. When he returns, he’ll bring that same defensive minded, possession style dynamic back to the court that at one point made people wonder if the ’95-‘96 Bulls’ season was in danger.
Barring a complete meltdown, the chances of the C’s missing the playoffs are as good as the Heat, Clippers, Knicks, Timberwolves, SuperSonics and Grizzlies actually making the second season. But if Rondo and the backcourt continue to play this new, offensive style game, everything the C’s developed as far as team chemistry and dynamic early on will go right out the window. It will be important for Doc Rivers to make sure his team slows the game back down and emphasizes ball movement. And once again, the offensive numbers of Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Perkins and Powe will inevitably take a slight dive. Not just because KG will score his 20 points every night, but because they won’t be taking as many opportunities every night. The focal point and strength of this team is it’s ability to shut teams down and move the ball around until someone has a high percentage shot. If Mike D’Antonio preaches “7 seconds or less” to his Suns team, Doc Rivers should preach that, too…getting across half court.