Celtics Edge Rockets in an Intriguing Early Season EncounterThe Boston Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets 103-99 in Houston in a game that some people touted as an NBA Finals preview. Obviously, such talk is extremely premature--at this time last year no one could have imagined that the Celtics and the Lakers would meet in the 2008 NBA Finals--but it is still interesting to examine some of the things that this contest demonstrated:
1) Both teams pride themselves on defense and rebounding but the Celtics won in both of those areas, holding Houston to .391 field goal shooting (Boston shot .519 from the field despite off nights from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) and outrebounding the Rockets 46-41. Are the Rockets mentally and physically tough enough to truly contend with the league's elite teams? Every year the Rockets go out of the playoffs in the first round. The addition of Ron Artest is supposed to bolster Houston in this respect but he cannot guard all five players at once--and despite his tough defense his game is not without flaws, either (see below).
2) The Celtics--specifically Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins--set the best illegal screens in the NBA; the Celtics maintained their lead down the stretch by repeatedly running Ray Allen (29 points on 11-15 shooting) off of double baseline moving screens set by Garnett and Perkins. Tracy McGrady did not seem particularly enthusiastic about fighting his way through those screens. Finally, the Rockets switched Artest on to Allen and put McGrady on Pierce. Artest smothered Allen so much that he could barely breathe, let alone touch the ball, though Allen did break free long enough to receive one pass before Artest bulled his way through traffic and forced Allen to give up the ball to an open Garnett, who buried a long jumper to put Boston up 100-95 with :59 left. The Celtics are a big, physical team that pushes, holds and grabs at both ends of the court and it will take a physical, tough-minded team to beat them in a seven game series.
3) Skillful finesse players--particularly frontcourt players--face a major challenge against Boston. We saw Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom all but disappear in the 2008 NBA Finals after being effective throughout the regular season and through the first three rounds of the playoffs, including a victory over the defending champion Spurs. Yao Ming towers over Perkins, yet Perkins pushed him around, blocked several of his shots and put up better box score numbers (15 points on 7-8 shooting, seven rebounds and four blocked shots compared to eight points on 4-14 shooting, seven rebounds and no blocked shots for Yao). Even though Yao struggled at times, when he was out of the game the Rockets looked even worse because then their frontline was simply too small. It will be very interesting to see how the Rockets match up with the Lakers, who will always have a big and skillful center-power forward duo on the court.
4) Ron Artest certainly brings a tough mindset at the defensive end of the court but true toughness is also defined by having a sound decision making process under pressure. Artest shot 3-16 from the field, including 3-10 from three point range. There is no reason that Artest should be firing up 10 three pointers in a game; he'd be far more effective using that big body to set screens for the team's shooters and then crashing the offensive boards--but despite his reputation, Artest has never been a great rebounder for his size or position. He did have seven rebounds against Boston but he has never averaged more than 6.5 rpg in a season during his career and his career average is just 5.1 rpg, a number befitting a shooting guard but not a bruising small forward who is built like a power forward. Artest only participated in the playoffs four times in his first nine seasons and only got out of the first round once, so he has a lot to prove in terms of truly being a difference maker at an elite level.
5) Kevin Garnett is in a perfect situation. He has never truly wanted to assert himself offensively or be the main man down the stretch of ball games and on this team he does not have to shoulder those responsibilities; although he did nail the big jumper off of the feed from Allen, Garnett only had four fourth quarter points and he spent most of the final stanza setting screens for Allen. Garnett is a multi-dimensional player who is a brilliant rebounder and defender and yet in a peculiar way he is also a role player. Can you picture Shaquille O'Neal anonymously setting baseline screens during his prime, let alone being happy with such a task? I know that it is tempting for Celtics' fans to compare Garnett to Bill Russell but Bill Russell was a dominant rebounder (well over 20 rpg) and shotblocker whose presence was felt on almost every possession. Garnett can be dominant in stretches but there are also stretches when you don't even notice that he is on the court. He finished with 14 points on 6-15 shooting--mostly jump shots--and 11 rebounds. He had one blocked shot and a -8 plus/minus rating. If Garnett did not have Ray Allen to score 11 fourth quarter points to secure the win then one could look at Garnett's production and rightly wonder what is so special about his game--but on this team what he provided is just enough and meshes well with what the other players contribute.
6) The difference between Boston and Houston's offensive execution was dramatic. This was not just a matter of one team making shots and the other team missing. The Celtics knew where they wanted the ball to go and how to get it there, while the Rockets often looked disjointed. Of course, Boston is a great defensive team while Houston is still trying to integrate Artest into the game plan but if the Rockets are planning on getting out of the West--let alone winning a title--then they will have to make some big strides on offense. Tracy McGrady (26 points, including 19 points on 6-13 field goal shooting in the second half) had to single-handedly carry the Rockets' offense in the second half as Artest (1-8) and Yao (1-10) shot 2-18 from the field. Artest has always believed that he should be the number one offensive option on his team and while his confidence may be a good trait in some regards it is not at all helpful in this area: Artest should be no more than the third option on the Rockets, with the scoring distribution being something along the lines of 25 ppg for Yao, 23 ppg for McGrady and perhaps 15 ppg for Artest. Rafer Alston, Shane Battier (when he returns to action), Brent Barry and McGrady should be attempting more three pointers than Artest, who currently ranks first on the squad in three pointers attempted. Even though Artest can make three pointers, he should be capable of getting in the paint and fighting for offensive rebounds, while those other players are smaller, leaner athletes who belong on the perimeter. If Artest is shooting three pointers then what are those other players supposed to be doing? This is not the Parks and Recreation Department League where you just go out and shoot three pointers if you feel like it; each player has to fill the proper role for the team to be successful. Pierce and Allen gave up shot attempts and reduced their scoring averages to play for a winner. Can Artest accept without complaint being the third leading scorer and not taking an excessive amount of three point shots?
Perhaps some of these observations may seem like nitpicking. After all, if the Rockets made a couple more shots or got a couple more stops then they could have won the game--but that is not the right way to analyze basketball, because it could just as easily be said that if Pierce and Garnett had shot their normal percentages then the Celtics would have won comfortably. The reality is that the next time these teams play the statistics put up by individual players will probably differ to some degree but the overall patterns--Boston's physical play and tough defense, Yao's difficulty dealing with physical defenders, Artest's wavering concentration on offense--will not change. During their 3-0 start prior to this game the Rockets showed that they have enough talent to win at least 50-55 games and position themselves to make a good postseason run but if they want to truly be an elite team that advances in the playoffs then they will have to play smarter and tougher at both ends of the court.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:50 AM