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Monday, May 05, 2008

Celtics Pride: Stifling Defense Grounds Hawks, 99-65

In most cases, seventh games are death for the road team and that was certainly true on Sunday when Boston hammered Atlanta 99-65. The 65 points are the second fewest scored in a seventh game in the shot clock era and the Celtics also held the Hawks to .293 shooting from the field, the best defensive field goal percentage performance in a seventh game in the shot clock era and the third best in NBA history. Paul Pierce led five Celtics double figure scorers with 22 points and Kevin Garnett contributed 18 points and 11 rebounds. Ray Allen never found his groove and he was the only Boston starter to not score at least 10 points (seven points, 3-12 field goal shooting). Joe Johnson was Atlanta's high scorer with just 16 points on 5-17 field goal shooting and no other Hawk reached double figures until Salim Stoudamire came off of the bench to score 10 points in 15 minutes of garbage time action.

I agree with Jeff Van Gundy that it is wrong to say that Atlanta had nothing to lose in game seven; the Hawks had an opportunity to advance in the NBA playoffs and no matter how young and talented your team is you are not guaranteed to have that chance again. That said, the legacies of each of Boston's "Big Three" players hung in the balance and the tension and pressure that both teams felt during the early going was palpable. After Johnson opened the scoring with a three pointer and Kendrick Perkins put back an Allen miss, the teams traded an assortment of missed shots and turnovers before a strong Allen drive gave Boston a 4-3 lead. Garnett is not a go-to scorer and he did not even attempt a shot until he canned a jumper at the 5:40 mark but Pierce and Allen were both aggressive right from the start. In one 38 second stretch, Pierce committed a turnover, missed a layup and missed a three pointer but he continued to look for opportunities to score. If the Hawks had truly played as if they felt no pressure they could have definitely taken an early lead and really put the screws to the Celtics but the Hawks looked tentative, nervous and uncertain, shooting jumpers when they had openings to drive and missing layups when they did go to the hoop. Atlanta Coach Mike Woodson called two first quarter timeouts to try to settle his team down but Johnson was the only Atlanta player who even came close to playing his normal game in the first 12 minutes, scoring nine points on 3-6 field goal shooting. Pierce also had nine points as the Celtics led 27-16 at the end of the quarter. Boston held Atlanta to 6-23 field goal shooting and outrebounded the Hawks 17-8. Only a pair of Johnson three pointers late in the quarter kept the game from getting completely out of hand.

Atlanta only scored four points in the first 5:17 of the second quarter and the Celtics steadily increased their lead. Remarkably, Boston led 44-26 at halftime. It is not often that an NBA team scores just 26 points in a half; the playoff record low in the shot clock era is 23 points and it took a Johnson three pointer with 3:49 remaining to avoid tying that mark.

It is worth emphasizing that the Celtics were hardly burning up the scoreboard either; this game is an excellent demonstration of the truth of the saying that defense wins championships. The Celtics looked a little tight on offense--particularly right at the start of the game--but their defense was on point from tip-off to final buzzer and their relentless effort and execution at that end of the court made all of the difference. Allen had an awful shooting game and Pierce missed 13 of his 20 field goal attempts, so if the Celtics relied primarily on their offensive skills to win games then they would have had nothing to fall back on in this do or die situation--but this team wisely hangs its hat on defense, as most championship teams from the past have done. The Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors might want to look at the tape of this game and see how hard Boston played on defense.

The only slight drama in the second half came at the 9:09 mark of the third quarter when Marvin Williams committed a flagrant two foul on Boston's starting point guard Rajon Rondo. Williams said afterwards that he and Rondo are close friends and that he was not trying to hurt Rondo but regardless of his intent the play certainly looked like a total cheap shot and Williams can expect to be suspended for the start of the 2008-09 regular season. The NBA might want to consider taking some preemptive action--such as increasing the fines or making the suspensions longer--to discourage defenders from fouling players who are in mid-air in such a fashion that the fouled player comes crashing to the ground; NBA players are bigger, faster and more powerful than ever and you'd hate to see someone get seriously injured. The Brendan Haywood foul on LeBron James, the Jason Kidd foul on Jannero Pargo and the Williams foul on Rondo were all dangerous plays that could have had disastrous consequences and the same could be said of DeShawn Stevenson's wild swing at James' head, which fortunately was about as accurate as a Stevenson field goal attempt and thus did not connect squarely.

The Williams-Rondo play once again made me think of the Suns and Nuggets; Rondo crashed to the ground and briefly lay motionless under the basket that is right in front of Boston's bench but no Celtics' players left the area of the bench and none of the Celtics who were in the game at the time threw punches, talked trash or even did anything to warrant receiving a technical foul, proving once again that--contrary to what some Suns and Nuggets tried to make people believe last season--it is possible to keep control of your emotions even during a very heated moment in an NBA game. Near the end of the quarter, Garnett delivered an illegal screen to Zaza Pachulia, who had confronted Garnett earlier in the series; this was a hard foul but not a cheap shot and there is no question that Garnett did this quite deliberately--Mark Jackson noted that this is the old school way of getting a message across without injuring someone or getting suspended. The Celtics led 73-39 at that point and Boston Coach Doc Rivers wisely sat Garnett down for the remainder of the game. The Celtics doubled the Hawks' score on a few occasions during the third quarter, pushed the lead to as much as 79-41 and were up 79-43 going in to the fourth quarter as both teams began emptying their benches.

The Celtics' performance is impressive not only because of their total dominance of the Hawks but also in light of the considerable pressure on the team's three stars prior to this game, because they would have borne the brunt of the substantial amount of criticism that the Celtics would have received had Atlanta beaten them. However, the reality is that the Celtics should have never been in this position in the first place, pushed to within 48 minutes of elimination by a 37 win team that would not have even come close to making the playoffs in the Western Conference. Granted, it is hard to sweep anybody but there is no excuse for Boston to lose three games to this team--and the Celtics' easy victory in game seven only reinforces that point: the Hawks are simply no match for a fully focused Boston team, which makes one wonder why the Celtics were not that focused on a nightly basis during this series and why they were unable to sustain their concentration level at all in the three games played in Atlanta, particularly in the fourth quarters of those contests. Boston won the series, so perhaps we should not make too much of these lapses but we should not make too little of them, either: since the NBA expanded the first round series from five games to seven in 2003, no team that was pushed to seven games in the first round made it to the NBA Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM

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