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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Celtics Edge Rockets in an Intriguing Early Season Encounter

The 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 singlehandedly 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:50 AM

9 comments

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9 Comments:

At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 8:15:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

David,

I'm glad you mentioned the Celtics' illegal screens. It's amazing how often KG in particular gets away with moving halfway across the court before he holds his position. No wonder Allen kept getting open...

Regarding Houston, I am absolutely not convinced that Artest is capable of thriving as a third option. He takes too many "Kobe" shots for my liking (too bad he isn't Kobe) and there are times when he massages the ball and the offense bogs down. With that said, you would think Houston's offensive execution would improve over the course of the season - they are still figuring out how to incorporate Artest at this point.

Of course, no matter what Artest does Houston isn't doing anything if Yao is missing layups, blowing dunks, and airballing jump-hooks like he was yesterday. T-Mac produced a vintage performance to keep them close in the second half but I don't know if he is physically able to do that on a consistent basis at this stage of his career.

 
At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 9:07:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I was going to watch but how could I with the first Black president going to be elected. Then I put the game on the last 3 minutes. Then someone yelled out PUT IT ON CNN!!! I put it back on CNN and I see the wonderful caption...Barack Obama as Presidental Elect. How any games are played on election night is stupid anyway.

However I could see this as a Finals matchup. Yao needs to stay out of foul trouble though.

 
At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 4:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

KG and Perk are both great at setting illegal screens and they usually get away with it. When the two of them set staggered baseline screens, Allen ends up shooting a shot with no defender in the same area code. The YouTube video that has been making the rounds about last year's Finals not only showed how the Celtics used their whole team to guard Kobe (because they were not worried about anyone else beating them) but it also showed a remarkable sequence in which KG set about five illegal screens before the ref finally blew his whistle.

I would not compare Artest's shot selection or shooting touch to Kobe's. Artest is capable of being a good complementary scorer but will never be the primary offensive option on a championship contender. The Rockets better hope that he understands and accepts that, because his lack of understanding and acceptance of that concept was a big part of the problem in Indiana, where he helped tear apart a team that could potentially have won a title.

 
At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 5:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

the rockets need time to mesh and i think theyll be fine see pau gasol and lamar odom if youre soft youll lose to te celtics bynum will make diffrence this year and home court. ron artest is good and bad for you he takes illadvised shots and think he should always be best player he great and all but well see if he the diffrnce this is only fourth game im not going to make it bigger than it is. theyll be there at the end.

madnice obama is half black not full blooded black this is the most overated thing ever he is as much white as he is black he is biracial he look black but his mother is white if he wasnt so lightskinned he wouldnt be close to the presidency he's a great man and it is a great achivemnt for blacks but he is not toally black as a black man myself im assumeing you black as well i feel proud i know alot of people was crying and falling out and everybody talking about it but you have to keep it in total prespective.

 
At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 7:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Dave!

Yao is also quite good at moving screens :p

I don't think Artest even averages 6 boards a game...
He does guard the best perimeter player on the other team, so that usually leaves him out of position to grab defensive boards.
Battier doesn't grab that many boards either... Prince too.. Bowen gets even less boards than Parker.

As for your suggestion that Ron should crash the offensive boards, I'm not so sure...
the Rockets lack of footspeed could hurt their transition defense if Artest doesn't get back ASAP...

Also how do you feel about playing Ron-Ron at PF? It puts him closer to the goal so he can take full advantage of his strength.
I really think that Ron is fully capable of averaging 9 rpg if he embraces that role.
He is enough of a 3-pt shooting threat to help space the floor. He can score in the post too. It also allows them to start Battier.
Referees also allow much more post contact, so he could really push, grab, smack, and bully guys who hate physical contact (KG, Gasol, Bosh, Dirk, etc...)

What do you think?

Z

 
At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 10:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

Yes, Yao's moving screens earned their own section in the Pedowitz Report but he's just one man, albeit a very large one; the Celtics use KG and Perk on staggered screens to great effect. I know that I am not the first person to mention that KG and Perk do this but it really played a key role in the fourth quarter of this game, particularly with the way that T-Mac was tiptoeing around the screens.

I agree that how aggressively Artest pursues offensive boards should depend a bit on who he is guarding and what his defensive responsibilities are in terms of getting back but on most teams the guards are the first line of defense and the three frontcourt players can go to the offensive glass. I'd rather have Artest on the offensive glass than shooting three pointers.

Artest can certainly play power forward but with his lateral quickness I would prefer to use him to guard a top perimeter player; against some teams, though, putting Artest at the 4, Battier (when healthy) at the 3 and T-Mac at the 2 would be very good.

I definitely like the idea of posting up Artest, particularly if Yao is not in the game or is playing in the high post.

 
At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 10:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

I agree that the Rockets need "time to mesh." I am not rushing to any conclusions about them; I am just pointing out some areas in which they need to improve. Then, at the end of the season we can look back and see if they adequately addressed those concerns or not.

 
At Thursday, November 06, 2008 11:51:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Reggie, Reggie, Reggie....thats something someone white who is ignorant and hating on Obama would say. And since you are black you should be disgraced for saying that. He is a black man. Look I know hes half white. But I bet he has been called the n word. I bet he felt totally black then. How about the fact that race has been talked about a lot in this election? Is that because he is part white? Please Reggie, dont take away whats at hand. So if he was Michael Jordan darkskinned would you feel better about it. I dont even want to talk politics on this basketball blog but to say he is half-white is obvious and missing the whole point of the matter. Im sure you may have white blood in your family somewhere too.

Can the Rockets please get out of the first round first please? I said this could be a possible Finals matchup but how soon I forgot. Yao is a soft player who is tough to watch at times. He should be averaging 30 to 35 points and 15 rebounds easily. No excuses. Hes been in the league long enough to know the pro game. He has the skills. There isnt a center who is as tall and skilled and he shoots 90 from the line. There is no reason he should be shooting fadeaways at 7 foot 7.

 
At Tuesday, November 11, 2008 11:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

my whole point was he is not totally black i didnt say it would mean more if he was darker and it has been proven people lighter pigmentation get ahead over darker it is great that there is a black president now and it meant alot to alot of people it changed the world forever and black people run the united states now.

but the rockets are going to be there at the end they definetely get out the first round this year and look like finals contenders where boston is boston they will be there with cleveland.

 

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