Celtics Dominate Suns, 117-97The Boston Celtics quickly patched up any chinks that may have been appearing in their armor. After looking sluggish in back to back losses to New Orleans and Philadelphia, the Celtics took a quick lead against the Phoenix Suns, withstood a strong second quarter rally and completely dominated the second half en route to a 117-97 victory. Kevin Garnett scored 30 points and he also had six assists, though his board work was subpar (just three rebounds). Paul Pierce repeatedly exploited mismatches to score 27 points on 9-16 shooting, posting a glittering, game-high +29 plus/minus rating. All five Boston starters scored in double figures and the Celtics enjoyed a 41-27 rebounding advantage. Center Kendrick Perkins had a game-high 10 rebounds but after him it was a real team effort on the glass as four Celtics had six rebounds each, including Pierce and point guard Rajon Rondo. Amare Stoudemire led Phoenix with a game-high 32 points on 11-16 field goal shooting, adding six rebounds. Steve Nash had a quiet game, finishing with 12 points and nine assists. Shaquille O'Neal scored 16 points on 6-9 field goals shooting and he had a team-high seven rebounds; at one point, ESPN commentator Hubie Brown said, "They're not helping Shaq on the glass. Rebounding is a total team effort."
The Celtics took a 13-6 lead at the start of the first quarter and they led for most of the first half. Stoudemire and O'Neal combined to score 32 first half points on 12-15 field goal shooting but the Celtics ripped the Suns' zone defense to shreds, either scoring on dribble penetration by Rondo and Pierce or running the high-low play to perfection with Garnett at the top of the key dishing to cutters on the baseline. Presumably, the Suns went to the zone to hide Nash and Stoudemire, both of whom struggled defensively early in the game in their one on one matchups. Pierce also gave fits to Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell at various times during the game. The problem with the zone is that even when the Suns stopped the initial shot they did a poor job of getting defensive rebounds. The easy, superficial response would be to blame O'Neal but, as Brown's comment indicated, it was not O'Neal's fault. The team's rebounding and interior defense has improved since his arrival, even though the team performed poorly in both areas in this game.
The Suns have actually done an excellent job of incorporating O'Neal's strengths at both ends of the court into their offensive and defensive game plans; they are now able to slow games down and punish teams inside by feeding O'Neal the ball on the block. The biggest concern for the Suns is one on one defense at the point guard and power forward positions (yes, this means you, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire). Many teams have point guards who can either overpower or outquick Nash and other matchups sometimes prevent the Suns from simply switching Hill over to point guard on defense (for instance, having Hill guard Rondo and putting Nash on Pierce would hardly be a good idea). Also, while Stoudemire's recent shooting and scoring exploits have been very impressive he has a tendency to give up nearly as much on defense as he provides on offense. People are still talking about how many points he scored versus Tim Duncan in the 2005 playoffs, apparently forgetting that Duncan also had a huge offensive series--and Duncan's team won. O'Neal has instantly reversed the Suns' negative rebounding differential to a positive one but he can't be expected to guard his man and Stoudemire's man at the same time.
It is hard to quibble with anything that Stoudemire is doing offensively. He has added a reliable jumper to his repertoire and he has turned into an outstanding free throw shooter. Deft Nash passes certainly help him to pad his scoring totals but he'd be a great scorer with or without Nash. O'Neal is actually helping Stoudemire now at least as much as Nash is, because when O'Neal is in the game he is attracting a lot of defensive attention, leaving Stoudemire free to slash and cut. As Brown explained, "If you leave him (Shaq) you are giving up a potential dunk. It is hard to double-team big to big." In other words, when Stoudemire gets loose, O'Neal's man cannot help because then Stoudemire could easily slip the ball to O'Neal for a dunk. Sometimes that plan works the other way, too; Stoudemire got a dunk early in the game when O'Neal set a screen for him on the baseline, forcing a switch. Now the Suns had two mismatches to exploit: the slower Perkins guarding Stoudemire near the free throw line and the lighter Garnett guarding O'Neal deep in the post. Stoudemire received the ball and went right around Perkins like he was not even on the court.
O'Neal has lost a lot of explosiveness but he is still is a 300-plus pound player who has a lot of skill. Brown observed, "If he catches it on that defensive circle, one bounce and it's all over." The only way to guard O'Neal is to force him to receive the ball outside of the paint but that is much easier said than done. After years of watching the Suns shoot tons of baseline three pointers, it is surreal to see them intentionally slow down, feed O'Neal and benefit from easy, high percentage shots in the paint. That extra offensive dimension will make them a tougher out in this year's playoffs than they have been in the entire Nash era.
The Celtics built a 15 point first half lead but the Suns rallied to briefly take the lead before settling for a 57-57 halftime tie. Mike Tirico and Jon Barry made a big deal about how poorly the Suns shoot when Nash is not in the game but most of the comeback happened with Nash on the bench (he had a -23 plus/minus rating in this game, second worst on the team). ESPN ran a graphic stating that this season the Suns shoot 52% from the field when Nash is in the game and 44% from the field when he is not in the game. Tirico and Barry said that this shows how much the Suns' players depend on Nash to provide them with open shots but that is hardly the only explanation for those numbers. For one thing, Nash is one of the best shooters on the team, so whoever comes in the game for him is going to lower the team's percentage--and that gets to the real heart of the matter: the Suns do not have a true backup point guard. When Nash is not on the court they either make Hill a point forward or they put shooting guard Leandro Barbosa at point guard. If the Suns had a backup point guard who could dribble penetrate and make good passes (Barbosa is excellent at doing the former but inconsistent at doing the latter) then there would not be such a dramatic difference in the team's field goal percentage with Nash and without Nash. Also, those field goal percentage stats do not indicate who is in the game with Nash and who is in the game when Nash is out. Presumably, when Nash is out there are reserves in the game across the board. Perhaps Tirico and Barry believe that Stoudemire and O'Neal cannot shoot a high percentage without Nash but I don't buy it.
The Celtics seized control of the game in the third quarter as the Suns managed to score just 16 points while committing seven turnovers. In the brief, post-third quarter interview, Boston Coach Doc Rivers told ESPN's Ric Bucher, "We didn't make any changes. We just did our defense better," adding that Stoudemire was "unaccounted for" on several screen/roll plays in the first half. The Celtics poured it on in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Suns 33-24 as Pierce produced 12 of the team's points.
After ESPN ran a graphic showing Boston's excellent record this season against the best Western Conference teams, Barry made an excellent observation when he said that it is wrong to read too much into East-West games like this because the teams only meet twice a year and there are often extenuating circumstances affecting those isolated games (injuries, back to back scenarios, etc.). That said, many people questioned how well the Celtics would do against the top West teams and throughout this season they have passed that test with flying colors.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:51 AM