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Monday, February 11, 2008

Celtics Beat Spurs 98-90, Improve to 5-2 Without Garnett

The addition of Kevin Garnett is obviously the biggest single offseason move that the Boston Celtics made but their league-leading record is not solely based on his production. An abdominal strain has caused him to miss seven games but after Sunday's 98-90 victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs the Celtics improved to 5-2 without Garnett. Paul Pierce opened the game by quickly scoring 14 points on 5-5 shooting and he finished with a game-high 35 points while shooting 11-18 from the field. The Spurs tried various defenders on him, including Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili, but no one was able to contain him. Ray Allen (19 points) and Eddie House (10 points) were the only other double figure scorers for the Celtics, although rookie Glen "Big Baby" Davis had a strong game off of the bench with nine points, eight rebounds, three steals and good defense against Tim Duncan. Despite Davis' efforts, Duncan still finished with 22 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots. Ginobili had 22 points, four rebounds and four assists. It is worth noting that the Spurs were without the services of injured point guard Tony Parker, the 2007 NBA Finals MVP. The newly signed Damon Stoudamire (eight points on 3-11 shooting) hardly replaced Parker's normal production.

The "secret" to Boston's success this season is actually not a secret at all: the Celtics are at or near the top of the NBA in virtually every measurement of team defense. Last year, the Celtics were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, so it is only natural that a lot of this improvement has been credited to Garnett, a perennial member of the All-Defensive Team--but the interesting thing is that the Celtics are still playing good defense even without him on the court. Many members of the media have apparently already decided that Garnett should win this year's MVP, so rather than trying to figure out the technical reasons for Boston's excellent defense we are told that Garnett's mere presence is inspiring the team; that's pretty funny considering that, unlike most injured players, he does not even sit on the bench during the games. I guess he is using psychic inspiration. I don't doubt that Garnett's energy and his passion for playing defense have had a positive impact on the team during practices but inspiration alone does not hold the Spurs to .443 shooting or outrebound them 46-37. No, what has happened in Boston is that young players who were not interested in playing defense have been shipped out and replaced by a group of players who are committed to playing defense on a nightly basis. Even Pierce and Allen, hardly great defenders for most of their careers, have bought into competing hard at that end of the court. During the telecast, Jeff Van Gundy made the interesting point that it is harder to make a bad offensive player into a good one than it is to transform someone into a good defender. He did not explain why this is the case but I think that a big part of the reason is that being a good offensive player requires a certain set of skills--ballhandling, passing, shooting--that some players never develop but that being a good defensive player is largely a question of how hard a player competes on a nightly basis. This season, even the Boston players who are not great individual defenders are competing very hard on defense. This has been true since opening day; I saw the Celtics in person for the first time this season when they beat Indiana on November 13 and one of the things that struck me the most about that game is the team's level of defensive intensity. We don't even talk about such things regarding the Spurs, because playing good defense and playing hard every game are essential parts of their identity as a team; it remains to be seen if Boston can perform this way under playoff pressure.

Every once in a while, a study pops up that purports to identify the best clutch players in the NBA based on their field goal percentages in the final moments of close games. I have never put much credence in those stats because the sample size is invariably small and no effort is made to put the numbers in context. The ending of this game provided more justification for my skepticism. In the final :48 of regulation, Ginobili missed three three point shots. Does that mean that he is a poor performer in the clutch? No, the poor performers are all on the bench at that time. There is a reason that Ginobili ended up taking those shots--he is the player on his team who is most likely to make them. Such shots tend to be tightly contested and are often fired in desperation because there is not enough time left to pass the ball and continue to run a play. Rick Barry once told me that the only stat that he considers to be pure is free throw percentage. That may sound self serving because he was a great free throw shooter but his reasoning makes some sense: Barry said that virtually every other stat can be misleading, noting that field goal percentage does not indicate a player's shooting range, rebounding can be padded by tipping one's own misses and that assists, steals and blocked shots are subjectively determined by scorekeepers. It would be interesting to know the free throw percentages for top players in the fourth quarter or even in the last two minutes, particularly if the sample size is large enough to be significant--but field goal percentage in such situations does not really tell us all that much. Stoudamire missed a three pointer at the buzzer that could have made the final score 98-93. If he makes that shot is he more "clutch" than Ginobili? There is an understandable fascination with buzzer beaters and last second shots but in many cases games are won because of shots that are made a bit earlier in the fourth quarter--and if a great player makes enough of those then his team will not need for him to make big shots in the last two minutes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:46 AM

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