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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pierce Pounces Early, Allen Attacks Late as Celtics Beat Pacers, 101-86

Paul Pierce scored 17 of his season-high 31 points in the second quarter and Ray Allen had 15 of his 17 points in the third quarter of a 101-86 Boston victory at Indiana. Pierce shot 8-17 from the field and 14-14 from the free throw line as the Celtics improved to 6-0 and remained the only unbeaten NBA team; Pierce also had 11 rebounds and tied his season-high with six assists. Kevin Garnett added 18 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, three steals and two blocked shots. Brian Scalabrine provided a lift off of the bench with nine points in 13 minutes. Allen (+16), Garnett (+15), Pierce (+10) and Scalabrine (+12) were the only four players who posted double digit positive numbers in plus/minus in this game. Danny Granger led the Pacers with 24 points on 8-10 shooting. Granger tied his career-high with five three point field goals made and was just one three pointer short of matching Indiana's franchise record for most three pointers made in a game without a miss. Jamaal Tinsley added 14 points, eight assists and four rebounds. Jermaine O'Neal had a team-high nine rebounds but scored only 10 points on 4-13 shooting. Considering that Indiana has a new coach, Jim O'Brien, who employs a wide open offensive system and that Boston added two All-Stars in the offseason--Allen and Garnett--one would have expected this game to easily be a sellout but there were only 12,143 fans in attendance, well short of the 18,345 capacity at Conseco Fieldhouse.

Indiana quickly jumped out to a 10-4 lead and stayed in front for most of the first quarter until a Scalabrine three pointer with :15 remaining put the Celtics up 26-24. The score stayed close for most of the second quarter but a turning point seemed to happen after Tinsley delivered a hard foul to Pierce at the 3:06 mark with the score tied at 38. Tinsley whacked Pierce on the left arm and also hit him on the head. Pierce visibly took exception to the contact but calmed himself down by doing some pushups instead of confronting Tinsley. Pierce made both free throws and on the next Celtics possession he finished off a hard drive with an emphatic slam dunk. Pierce scored 13 points in the last 3:06 and Boston led 52-43 at halftime. After the game, Pierce said, "I was a little frustrated. I thought it was a flagrant foul...I tried to use it to fire up my teammates. We didn't need any fighting. When I did the push up, I was just blowing off steam." Boston Coach Doc Rivers added, "Clearly they lit a fire under Paul, because he thought the play was not a clean play. Got him upset and as a coach you've got to make a decision. We went to isos for Paul right away after that and my read was if he gets going because of that then we ride him. If he goes too quickly then you just go to something else. When we went to it the first time he scored and then you knew that he was in the right frame."

Boston kept the lead in double figures for most of the third quarter but never extended it past 16. Pierce had just two points on 1-2 shooting but Allen got loose for 15 points on 5-10 shooting. This is a good example of how a player's contributions don't always show up statistically; the Pacers had to pay added attention to Pierce and that left Allen open. One could argue that Pierce's contributions showed up in his second quarter statistics but the point is that he had an impact on what happened in the third quarter just by being on the court; the threat that he poses offensively means that in future games he can also have that kind of an impact even if he does not have a second quarter scoring outburst because if teams trap him from the start of the game to prevent a Pierce scoring run then Allen or someone else will be open. The only way to fully understand this kind of dynamic is to actually watch a team play and to really pay attention to what they are trying to do and how the other team is countering those things. Plus/minus can hint at some of these things, but Pierce's impact--and the impact of any other player who must be double-teamed--is no less real even on occasions when his teammates do not make the open shots that his presence creates. Only a handful of players have that kind of effect on a game, guys like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and a few others; sometimes their teammates take advantage of playing four on three and sometimes they don't but a player who commands that kind of coverage is more valuable than players who don't, regardless of what their respective statistics might indicate.

Boston led comfortably for most of the fourth quarter, although Indiana briefly got to within 89-82 at the 4:07 mark after a Tinsley layup. He missed a free throw that could have cut the lead to six and then Garnett hit a big jumper at the 3:44 mark. When people talk about clutch shots they usually mean buzzer beaters but Garnett's basket was huge because the Pacers had just trimmed the margin from 14 to seven in less than two minutes. If he had missed and the Pacers scored then all of a sudden it is a two possession game with plenty of time left. One of the knocks on Garnett during his career is that he has not made a lot of shots like that in the fourth quarter, so it is interesting both that Boston went to him in that situation and that he delivered. I'm still not sold on a 20 foot jumper being a go-to move for any seven footer not named Dirk Nowitzki but I give Garnett credit for making it at a crucial time. A couple possessions later, Garnett scored a layup on a feed from Pierce and the Pacers never seriously threatened again.

"It was a good win. I don't think it was a well played game by either team," Rivers said after the game. "But obviously we'll take the win. Defensively I thought that we were pretty solid all night." He is not completely satisfied with how the Celtics closed out the game: "That is the one thing that we are not doing yet. We had three or four times when the lead was 14 or 16 and we defensively gambled and gave up threes. I know that there were at least three of them and that just brings the game back. I love my team because they are trying to do stuff and they are trying so hard but I'm trying to tell them to sometimes just be solid. We're doing extra: Paul fouls a three point shooter when if he made that shot with Paul draped all over him, that's all you need but then we're trying to do extra instead of just being solid. We're going to learn that."

"We're busting our ass out here. We're working really hard," Garnett told the assembled media outside the Celtics' locker room during his postgame standup. "Every night we're working hard. Like I keep saying, we know our flaws and we're very much aware of them and we're just trying to continue to work. We have to take care of the ball and get better ball movement at times and be more patient at times. We're still a work in progress. We're just a team that's working hard." Garnett noticeably does not enjoy talking to the media, so the added attention and coverage that is part of being on a successful team will no doubt be one of his biggest challenges/frustrations this season. The funny thing is that after Garnett finished a somewhat brusque question and answer session and went back into the locker room, several members of the media agreed that he actually acted a bit better than he had in the past (all I know from firsthand experience is that on the one previous time that I spoke with Garnett he was reserved but polite). I think that Garnett is just a very intense player who does not particularly enjoy talking about his team with outsiders but what is interesting is that his disposition toward the media is not generally held against him but other players are criticized for similar or even lesser "offenses."

Road wins are hard to come by in the NBA even for good teams, so the fact that the Celtics won despite not playing at their peak level is impressive. One somewhat sloppy win in November is not enough to make me jump on the bandwagon that has Boston cruising to the NBA Finals but this is the first time that I've seen this Celtics team in person and I am impressed by how hard they played throughout the game, particularly on defense. It is obvious that on the nights when each member of the Big Three is clicking that Boston will be very hard to beat but this performance showed that Boston is capable of grinding out wins as well. People forget that even the greatest teams of all-time had to do that sometimes; the classic example of this that I like to cite is Chicago's win over Indiana in game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Bulls shot .382 from the field but scratched, clawed and battled their way to 22 offensive rebounds, proving that they were going to win the game no matter what: if they kept missing shots then they would fight to get the ball back and then shoot it again. Shooting guard Michael Jordan (9-25 from the field, 28 points) had five offensive rebounds and small forward Scottie Pippen (6-18 from the field, 17 points) had six, so it was not just about Dennis Rodman, who had three offensive rebounds. Call it tenacity, heart or will to win, the great teams have it and that is how they win even when they are not at their best. The Celtics provided a glimpse of this against Indiana and it will be interesting to see if they can replicate such efforts at playoff time against the very best teams.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

Prior to the game, I asked Coach O'Brien, "What have you noticed about the Celtics early in the year that has surprised you? They've put so many new players together and they're doing so well so quickly." He replied, "I think that Doc and Danny (Ainge) have done a great job of getting veteran bench people--getting Eddie House, who really keeps them in the flow from the three point line, and then stealing (James) Posey, who helps them do the same thing. When they go to the bench they have people who can continue to space the court and keep the lane open for (Rajon) Rondo and also for Kevin Garnett. So I think that getting a better than average bench put together and then utilizing it very effectively has been the thing that has probably surprised a lot of people."

Asked to list some keys to beating the Celtics, O'Brien said, "We're going to have to defend their three point shots. You never beat a really, really good team unless you are extremely aggressive both offensively and defensively." He added that the Pacers have shown the ability to push the tempo offensively in spurts but have yet to do so for four quarters. I followed up by asking, "Why is it difficult to stay aggressive offensively for four quarters? Is it a mental thing?" O'Brien answered, "You know what? We're working on that. I think the tendency on teams is to revert back to habits. The habit of most people in the NBA is that the fourth quarters are grind it out time. That's not my viewpoint. My viewpoint is that the thing that gets you your lead has to sustain the lead: (fast) tempo, moving the basketball, moving people, going inside out on drives or postups. Part of it is my ability to substitute intelligently to make sure that we always have fresh people on the court in the fourth quarter."

O'Brien disputed Denver Coach George Karl's recent statement that Danny Granger is the Pacers' number one option: "I don't even think that's relatively accurate. I don't view Danny as the number one option at all. I think that our offense has to run through Jermaine. That doesn't mean that Jermaine is going to be the guy who scores the most points; it means that Jermaine, for a guy his size, is going to be a big assists guy this year. He'll probably, in the long run, be our high scorer. The offense runs through Jermaine. The offense runs through Jamaal. I would say that Danny Granger is no more of a scoring option than Mike Dunleavy is or than Jermaine is. It doesn't look to me as if there is one guy who we go to--we need to play team basketball constantly. It never even has been a discussion for one moment in our coaching meetings that Danny Granger or this guy or that guy is our number one scoring option. You play basketball. I think that Danny Granger is going to be one of the great recipients of this style because it is perfectly suited for him. I'm not trying to say that he is not a key part of this; he is an extremely key part of this. When you talk about number one options you talk about who Paul Pierce was last year--the ball is going to go to him and he is going to touch the ball 20 times down the stretch. This is more of a team concept of offense...George Karl knows a lot about basketball and I know that it was a compliment to Danny and I'm not trying to take that compliment away but him being the number one option is inaccurate."

***

In the locker room before the game, Pierce offered his thoughts on playing alongside Kevin Garnett after each of them endured several losing seasons with Boston and Minnesota respectively: "You know how some people get stuck in marriages where they really don't want to be but they are so used to each other that they just hold on and find ways to work it out? That was kind of the situation that Kevin and I were in...I was kind of at the end of my rope. Going into the summer, I thought one of two things was going to happen: we'd either do what we did right now or I would be traded. I'm happy. The funny thing about is that when we played Minnesota last year one time on the free throw line I said to Kevin, 'Am I going to have to come to Minnesota or are you coming to Boston?' That's a true story."

I asked Pierce, "Why do you think that the Celtics have been able to jell so quickly defensively?" He answered, "It just has to do with our commitment, working at it every day and buying in to what the coaches want us to do. We practice it each and every day. Of course, the presence of Kevin--an All-Defensive player for the last decade--helps a lot."

***

During his pregame standup, Coach Rivers said, "There will be a time this season when something will happen and that will be the test for us. San Antonio and the other top teams have gone through tests. We've gone through nothing. That's why a lot of people have picked other teams (to do better than Boston) and rightly so."

I asked Rivers, "You have been very good defensively very early. What are the reasons that you have been able to make that adjustment so quickly despite adding a lot of new players and has it surprised you how quickly you have become a good defensive team?" He answered, "No, really, I mean we've focused on it. Give all the credit to the players. They've committed to it. Garnett makes a big difference. That's clear. James Posey coming off the bench makes a difference, having another veteran. We just have a different group of guys. We just have mature guys, older guys, who understand the urgency of defense. I think that makes you a better defensive team."

I followed up by asking, "Do you have a certain statistical target in terms of defensive field goal percentage or something else that you set as a goal for your team to say that this is how we know we are playing good defense?"

He replied, "At the end of the game, we look at the 'W' and the 'L.' Then you look at the stats and say that this was too high or too low."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:52 AM

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