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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Mr. Big Shot Takes Over in the Fourth Quarter as Detroit Beats Boston

The Boston Celtics led for most of the game but when crunch time arrived the Celtics disappeared and the Detroit Pistons won, 87-85. This showdown in Boston between the teams with the two best records in the Eastern Conference was just chapter one in a story that will continue throughout the regular season and very possibly not conclude until the playoffs. Chauncey "Mr. Big Shot" Billups made two game-winning free throws with just .1 second left in regulation and he finished with a game-high 28 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter. He also had a game-high eight assists. His backcourt mate Richard Hamilton scored 21 points on 8-11 field goal shooting. Antonio McDyess (13 points, 10 rebounds) was the only other Piston to reach double figures in scoring. Kevin Garnett led Boston with 26 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 9-15 from the field; he also did not block a shot, committed a game-high five turnovers and scored only five points in the fourth quarter, the last of which came when he split a pair of free throws with 3:54 left. Ray Allen scored 24 points on 9-13 field goal shooting, engaging in an entertaining--and at times scrappy--battle with fellow UConn alumnus Hamilton. Paul Pierce had a subpar game--11 points on 5-16 shooting, four rebounds, four turnovers. Rajon Rondo provided an early spark and he finished with 14 points (7-10 shooting), seven assists and three steals but a wise man (Bill Russell) once said that it's not how many points you score but when you score them (a thought that also applies to Garnett).

There were many interesting storylines coming into this game. During the pregame show, ESPN's Bill Walton listed four "keys": (1) Kevin Garnett's production, (2) the Billups-Rondo matchup, (3) Hamilton's production and (4) the defensive matchup of Tayshaun Prince on Pierce. Walton said, "The key is Kevin Garnett, who is the best player in this game. Garnett has to set a relentless pace and be so far ahead of everybody else that he brings his teammates along with him." Walton is right that Garnett is--or at least should be--the best player in a Boston-Detroit game but whenever I watch Garnett play, particularly against good teams, I think of something that Scottie Pippen said years ago: "He's very productive but unproductive. He gets you all the stats you want, but at the end of the day his points don't have an impact on (winning) the game. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, but in the last five minutes of the game he ain't the same player as in the first five." Garnett won the MVP in 2004 and he is a top five candidate for this year's award by virtue of his production and Boston's outstanding record--but will he ever take over a game and grab it by the throat the way that Kobe Bryant or LeBron James often do?

My questions about Boston coming into this season concerned the team's defense, the starting center, the starting point guard, the quality of the bench and how well the team would execute down the stretch in close games. Boston's defense has been magnificent and a lot of the credit for that has to go Garnett, whose length and quickness are very disruptive. Center Kendrick Perkins, point guard Rajon Rondo and the bench have all performed at least adequately and at times quite well. Boston's ability to execute down the stretch has not been tested for the most part because the Celtics have been rolling to victories without any extended road trips or even heading out West at all, so the fourth quarter of this game certainly merits close examination. First, though, let's take a look at what happened in the first three quarters.

The Celtics started off the game very crisply, creating open shots by posting up either Garnett or Pierce on the left block. On one out of bounds play, Allen cut across the lane from the right wing, Garnett set a screen and Allen curled around for a catch and shoot jumper. The big story early, though, was that no one could stay in front of Rondo, who repeatedly blew by Billups for layups and short jumpers. Rondo even scored over Rasheed Wallace after driving, coming to a dead stop, making a one hand ball fake that sent Wallace flying and then hitting a short bank shot; it looked like a Harlem Globetrotter faking out a Washington General. Rondo scored 10 straight points in a little over three minutes and Boston led 29-25 at the end of the quarter. ESPN commentator Hubie Brown said, "I think that he's shocked them by how easily he's blowing by the perimeter defenders and getting into the paint."

The Celtics pushed the lead to 10 points in the second quarter but Brown wisely cautioned, "Right now, they're on a honeymoon. They're 20-2. Let's see what happens when adversity sets in and they have to go out West. Can they do this on the road against the top teams in the Western Conference?" Rasheed Wallace's three pointer pulled the Pistons to within 52-45 by halftime. The first half showcased each team's weaknesses. Detroit can be vulnerable to dribble penetration, something that has been true ever since Ben Wallace departed; the Pistons are so good overall that they can overcome this against a lot of teams in the regular season but it can be an issue at playoff time. Boston has yet to establish a go-to player or a go-to play, which does not matter when you are blowing out teams in the regular season but will be critically important in the postseason. We caught a revealing glimpse of this on the last possession of the first half. The Celtics inbounded the ball with 9.5 seconds left. Garnett received the pass, did a dribble handoff with Pierce and then posted up on the right block. Pierce passed the ball back but Garnett was unable to even get off a shot before time expired. Sure, the Celtics still went to the locker room up by seven--but they ended up losing by two and they had the same problems executing at the end of the game that they did at the end of the first half.

In the third quarter, the game ground to a halt, making half court execution very important. After Billups' three pointer at the 6:41 mark, Boston only led 56-54. On the next possession, Pierce forced a three pointer early in the shot clock. Brown observed, "Right now, Pierce is starting to get a little tense. He wants to get some shots up. They missed him twice cutting into the painted area with Prince behind him." No one is going to force shots when the team is winning easily and everybody is putting up good numbers but when things become tough we find out what kind of game a player really has.

Boston still led 65-61 going into the fourth quarter. A big momentum shift happened after the Pistons put in Lindsey Hunter, perhaps the best on the ball defender at the point guard position in the NBA. ESPN's Jon Barry immediately said that Boston might want to consider having Pierce bring the ball up the court just to avoid having to deal with Hunter. The Celtics did not make that adjustment and Hunter stole the ball twice. The second steal led directly to an uncontested Hamilton fast break dunk that put Detroit up 70-67 with 9:23 left. Boston never led the rest of the way. The Pistons led 78-71 by the 5:58 mark but Allen's driving reverse dunk, two Garnett free throws and an Allen three pointer trimmed the margin to 81-78 with 4:28 remaining. Although Rondo abused Billups in the first quarter, he did not score a point in the second half and he was beaten several times by Billups in the fourth quarter. Billups' three pointer with 3:34 left put Detroit up 85-79. Neither team scored in the next 2:33 but it is interesting to examine who had the ball during that time; in other words, note that Garnett's name only appears a couple times and never as the primary option. Pierce traveled and Billups missed a wild jumper with the shot clock winding down. Rondo missed on a wild drive to the hoop and McDyess answered with an airball jumper. Garnett passed inside to Perkins, whose shot was blocked by Wallace. McDyess missed another jumper. Pierce drove to the hoop and forced an off balance shot; Brown commented, "That was a desperate move." Perkins blocked a jumper by Prince. Allen dribbled into the left corner and missed a fadeaway three pointer. Obviously, neither team was putting on an offensive clinic but the Pistons had a six point lead in their back pockets. Garnett rebounded a missed jumper by Allen and passed to Allen, who fed Eddie House for an open three pointer that broke the scoring drought; one of the best times to shoot a three pointer is right after an offensive rebound when the defensive players are out of position.

Billups missed a jumper on the next possession and Boston got the ball back down three with 37 seconds left. Brown immediately said, "You don't need a three if you go quick." In other words, the Celtics should have tried to get a two point basket with more than 24 seconds still left on the clock, giving themselves a chance to get a defensive stop and then go for the win. Instead, the Celtics used up almost all of the shot clock before Allen bailed them out by drilling a three pointer from the top of the key. Brown noted, "This is a big pressure shot, because if you miss it the game is over because you are going to foul." Allen deserves credit for making such a big shot but the larger point is that the Celtics executed very poorly, both in terms of clock management and in terms of the shot that they ultimately took.

Now it was Detroit's turn to make a strange move. Billups had been having his way all quarter long on isolation plays, to the extent that Boston Coach Doc Rivers took out Rondo and put in Tony Allen. However, after the timeout, Detroit ran a screen and roll with Billups at the top of the key. That brought Kevin Garnett--the Celtics' best defender--into the play and after Billups bobbled the ball Garnett got the steal. Boston called timeout and had a chance to go for the win with five seconds left. Pierce received the pass and fired a fadeaway from the left baseline--but he not only missed, he shot too soon and Detroit secured the rebound with just under two seconds left. After another timeout, Detroit inbounded to Billups, whose pump fake suckered Tony Allen into fouling him. Billups sank the free throws and the Celtics lost at home for the first time this season.

Garnett did get the potentially big steal from Billups and his offensive rebound preceded House's three pointer--but down the stretch, with the game on the line, he did not have a primary role offensively. Even worse, the Celtics executed poorly on several possessions with the game in the balance, only to be temporarily bailed out by the big three pointers by House and Allen. Playoff games often come down to getting key defensive stops and then executing efficiently on offense. Yes, this was just one game and the Celtics still have the best record in the league, but they also have some things to work on before anyone should just pencil them in to the NBA Finals. Let's review the keys that Walton mentioned before the game: Garnett's production was good but he did not put his stamp on the game in the closing minutes the way that the best player on the court should; Billups got the best of Rondo (and Rondo's replacements) when it mattered the most; Hamilton essentially canceled out Ray Allen; Prince shook off his own shooting woes to do a good defensive job on Pierce--and Boston needs Pierce's scoring more than the balanced Pistons need Prince's scoring, so that matchup worked out well for Detroit.

These critiques may seem like nitpicking but whoever eventually wins the Eastern Conference will be a team that holds itself to that kind of high standard and is able to execute under pressure in close games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:24 AM

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