J.J. is Dynomite!Joe Johnson has averaged at least 20 ppg each of the last three seasons but the two-time All-Star's skills are just a rumor to many NBA fans because he has spent that time toiling in Atlanta--but if he keeps having performances like Monday night's he will become a household name very quickly. Johnson poured in 35 points on 14-24 field goal shooting as his Hawks stunned the Boston Celtics 97-92 to square their series at 2-2. Johnson was especially deadly in the fourth quarter, outscoring Boston 20-17 by himself while shooting 7-10 from the field. He showed off an array of moves, including a crossover dribble that shattered Leon Powe's ankles before Johnson dropped in a long jumper.
I have been very impressed with Boston this year, not just by the performances of the Big Three--Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen--but also by the team's commitment to playing great defense on a nightly basis. There were valid questions about starting point guard Rajon Rondo, how much the bench could contribute and who would take the shots/make the plays down the stretch in close games but a 66-16 regular season record refuted most of those concerns. However, several of those issues came to the forefront during Monday's loss: the Celtics got virtually nothing from their bench, their defense fell apart in the fourth quarter and despite having three All-Stars the Celtics' offense fizzled in the final stanza. Allen had the strongest game of the Big Three--21 points on 8-14 field goal shooting. Garnett added 20 points, nine rebounds and six steals but he only had one assist and shot just 9-21 from the field. Pierce had 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists but he shot just 5-14 from the field. Joe Johnson and Josh Smith scored all 32 of Atlanta's fourth quarter points yet Boston found no way to either stop them or force someone else to shoot; the Hawks repeatedly ran a screen/roll play with Johnson and point guard Mike Bibby so that if Boston switched or doubled with Rondo then Johnson would be able to pass to Bibby for an open jumper but the Hawks never even had to go to that second option because Johnson always had either a clear driving lane or an open shot. After one play when Johnson blew past Allen and scored on a drive the TNT cameras panned to Boston Coach Doc Rivers just in time to catch him yelling in disgust; I could not tell if he was saying "Ray" or "Rajon" but Rivers was clearly not pleased with his team's defensive execution.
This series is obviously a long way from being over and the Celtics will have two of the final three games at home if necessary but there is absolutely no pressure on the Hawks--who have the worst record of the 16 playoff teams--while there is a ton of pressure on the Celtics because none of the Big Three players has a particularly glittery postseason resume in terms of team success. Game five could very well be the defining moment in the careers of Garnett, Pierce and Allen--and you can bet that they know it. They may never have a better chance to win a championship than they do with this team but if they lose this game they could very well exit the playoffs in the first round. That would be a much more shocking upset than Dallas' loss to Golden State last year because the Celtics have been a dominant defensive team all season long and that is usually a recipe for championship-level success.
Will the Celtics stay true to their motto of "ubuntu" and trust the defensive principles and offensive game plan that helped them to post the league's best regular season record? Or will each star try to win the game on his own? Garnett has never been the kind of player to try to take over offensively but after Pierce's poor shooting night it will be interesting to see how he performs and what kind of shots he takes in game five. Bench players tend to perform better at home than they do on the road, so that factor alone could prove to be the difference but if Boston's defense once again breaks down late in the game it will be very interesting to see how the Big Three react not only at that end of the court but also on offense.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:17 AM