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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Celtics Edge Raptors 89-85 in NBA Europe Live Tour Opener

It is a long way from Rome to the NBA title--literally and figuratively--but the revamped Boston Celtics got off to a good start with an 89-85 preseason victory over the Toronto Raptors in the opening game of the NBA Europe Live Tour, played before 11,118 fans in the sold out PalaLottomattica. New Celtic Kevin Garnett scored 19 points and had a game-high 16 rebounds, while Paul Pierce led all scorers with 21 points. Garnett shot 8-16 from the field, while Pierce shot 8-14. The third member of Boston's "Big Three," Ray Allen, had a quiet performance, contributing 10 points on 4-13 shooting. Starting center Kendrick Perkins picked up three quick fouls, finishing with eight points and seven rebounds.

One of the big questions for Boston this year is what kind of production the team will get out of the point guard position. Starter Rajon Rondo had six assists and just one turnover but scored only four points while shooting just 2-7 from the field; expect him to be left open to shoot many jumpers while teams trap and pressure the Celtics' stars. Reserve guard Eddie House scored 14 points on 6-10 shooting in just 22 minutes but, as NBA TV announcers Tim Capstraw and Dave Johnson noted, despite House's diminutive stature he is not a true point guard; House only had one assist. House's outside shooting could be valuable for the Celtics but his limitations as a playmaker and defender mean that he simply cannot be relied on for more than 15-20 mpg. T.J. Ford led Toronto with 15 points and five assists. Andrea Bargnani added 13 points and Chris Bosh, who was not able to play for Team USA due to plantar fasciitis, had 12 points and nine rebounds.

The new Celtics era began with Boston winning the jump ball and Pierce earning two free throws after a strong drive to the hoop. He made them both and Boston soon took an 8-2 lead. By the 7:43 mark Garnett, Pierce and Allen had each scored. The trio displayed very good chemistry--at least on offense. Defensively, the Celtics had several breakdowns early in the game, allowing Toronto uncontested drives and wide open jumpers. Capstraw attributed this to "training camp legs" but this is the end of the court that bears watching for the Celtics. There is no doubt that Boston can be a very potent team offensively but championships are won by controlling the paint defensively. It can take some time for a coach to fully implement a defensive system; it will be interesting to see how long this process takes in Boston and whether or not that timetable meshes with fans' expectations and the amount of mileage that Garnett, Pierce and Allen have already put on their bodies. Toronto led 27-20 at the end of the first quarter.

The Raptors extended their lead to 34-22 before House hit a couple jumpers to pull the Celtics to within 34-28. Toronto threatened to push the margin into double digits again, going up 40-31, before Boston closed the half with a 12-0 run. Garnett scored the final points with an offensive rebound that he converted into a three point play. He already had a double double (10 points, 11 rebounds) by halftime. During the halftime show, NBA TV ran a feature story about how Garnett, Pierce and Allen are getting used to each other while at the same time enjoying themselves in Italy. The three stars are grateful to be on the same team, have high expectations but also realize that their legacies will be defined by how well they perform in the playoffs. Pierce noted that it turned out to be a blessing in disguise that the Celtics did not get the number one pick in the draft because if they had then Garnett and Allen would not likely be on the team now. Allen said, "We can each go out and score 20 points apiece but if we don't make our teammates better then we'll be home early--very early--and none of us wants that." Garnett, with a serious look on his face, added, "We've done nothing," before lightening the mood by saying that the trio is not the "Big Three" but rather the "C-tles" (as in the Beatles), concluding with a big smile, "I'm Paul (McCartney)."

Pierce showed off his whole offensive repertoire in the third quarter, scoring on drives, fadeaways and postups but Boston still had some defensive issues and the Raptors outscored the Celtics 28-27 to trail 70-68 going into the final period. Since this is just the first preseason game, the starters sat out the fourth quarter, so we did not get a chance to see what Boston's execution will be like down the stretch of a close game.

Obviously, no sweeping conclusions can be drawn after one preseason game. The Raptors got off to a good start in the first quarter and looked very much like they did last year when they won the Atlantic Division title. They struggled to make shots in the second quarter, scoring just 13 points in what turned out to be the decisive 12 minutes of the game. Barring injuries to key players, it is reasonable to expect that they will be at least as good as they were last year. The Celtics showcased some terrific ball movement, keyed by the unselfishness of their stars; their assist totals (four for Allen, three for Pierce, two for Garnett) do not really reflect how often and how willingly they shared the ball not only with each other but also with their other teammates. If anything, they were almost guilty at times of overpassing, which is not a bad problem to have in the early going with three All-Stars who are getting used to each other. Garnett spent a lot of time down low on offense, particularly on the left block, and it will be great for Boston if he stays there and does not drift outside. The last thing that the Celtics need is to have him shooting jumpers when they already have Pierce and Allen to do that. When Garnett was on the block either Allen or Pierce was on the same side wing to make the entry pass, while the other star was stationed on the opposite wing. Perkins manned the weakside block and Rondo was at the top of the key. That is a pretty basic set, obviously, and one can expect wrinkles to be added by the time the regular season rolls around. Still, that basic set is a pretty good one to operate out of for the majority of the half court possessions. Depending on matchups, the Celtics also moved Pierce to the block at times and on other occasions Pierce utilized an isolation play to attack his defender one on one from the wing. Whoever plays point guard is going to be presented with a lot of open shots and whoever plays center will have many offensive rebounding opportunities. The unanswered question offensively is what will Boston's bread and butter play be down the stretch in close games. Garnett has rarely shined as a featured player in such situations, while Pierce and Allen are used to taking those kind of shots.

The other thing to consider is that in order to be in close games against the best teams the Celtics will have to play good defense. It is usually easy for even a casual fan to notice which players are playing selfishly on offense but when there is a defensive breakdown it is not always obvious who is really at fault. The great teams work together very unselfishly on defense and their players are always quick to help each other. After the game, Boston Coach Doc Rivers said that overall he was pleased with his team's defensive "effort," which is not the same as saying that he was satisfied with his team's defensive execution. The Celtics certainly seemed to put forth effort and in his post game comments Pierce acknowledged that it is very important for Boston to become a good defensive team.

Sharing the ball on offense does not look like it will be a problem for Boston--but that is only part of the challenge for championship level teams. Will Garnett, Pierce, Allen and the other "C-tles" work just as hard and share the load as smoothly on defense?

posted by David Friedman @ 11:48 PM

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