Friday, June 8, 2012

Game 7: History in the Making

Following the trend of many closeout game 6 opportunities which the Celtics have encountered during the Big Three era, Thursday night’s game in Boston featured a similar outcome as the Celtics showed little heart and as a result were blown out by LeBron James and the Miami Heat.  LeBron lovers and haters alike must agree that LeBron played phenomenally throughout the entire night, and his 45 point, 15 rebound, and 5 assist performance can easily be heralded as the greatest playoff game of his career thus far.  LeBron was undeniably and scarily dominant, and the look on his face said it all: he was in the zone and no one would stop him.

On the other hand, the Celtics failed to respond, and the Boston crowd and players alike were lulled to sleep by James’s barrage of contested jumpers and powerful drives to the hoop.  The Celtics seemed like they gave up early, and apparently forgot that it is still entirely possible to win a game even if the other team’s star scores upwards of 40 points.  Nevertheless, you can be sure that this won’t happen again next game, and that both Boston and Miami will show up to battle with their backs against the wall in a Game 7 that will surely be a clash of the titans.

There is so much on the line for both teams.  Between the perpetual media scrutiny that LeBron, Spoelstra, and the Heat must constantly face, and the potential last game and last opportunity to win a championship for Boston’s Big Three era, Game 7 will be less like Paul Pierce’s analogy of a "good old, classic bar fight," and more like an all-out war.  The last game of this epic series, along with Games 2,4,5, and 6 will likely all be shown rather frequently on ESPN Classic someday for their respective implications and storylines.  The "Let's Go Celtics" chant that emerged from the Boston crowd despite a 20 point deficit in the final minutes of last night’s game was incredibly emotional, and will likely give the Celtics some extra fuel for their trip down to Miami.  The players and coaches know that America will be watching, and expecting 100% effort from everybody on the floor.

The Oklahoma City Thunder will also be watching, waiting, to see if the Conference Finals eerily similar to their own against San Antonio will feature a team that wins with athletic superiority and a freak of nature MVP small forward, or with experience from an older defensive-minded veteran squad led by topnotch coaching and a superstar point guard.  This year’s playoffs have featured countless epic games, and so many stellar performances from young and old squads alike.  

We have seen 23 year old Kevin Durant and his Thunder come of age, becoming the first team from the West in 14 years to make it to the NBA Finals not named the Spurs, Lakers, or Mavericks while defeating all three on the way there.  We have seen the #1 seeded Chicago Bulls ousted by #8 seeded Philadelphia.  We have seen the LA Clippers make an identity for themselves in the West, now known as “Lob City” and not just that “other team” from Los Angeles.  We have seen Rajon Rondo mature before our eyes and take the reigns of the Celtics’ franchise, still not a member of the Big Three, but rather the leader of them.  We have seen LeBron James silence his critics.  We should all feel privileged to watch this series and Game 7 tomorrow night, as we will be watching all-star players, hall of famers, and an MVP battle it out in a game that is so much more than just a game.  We will be watching history in the making.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Scared of a Little Thunder

Last night, the most athletic team in the NBA and my preseason pick to win the NBA finals knocked off the heavily favored San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, winning their fourth straight game to finish out the series 4-2 while storming back from an 18 point deficit.  The Oklahoma City Thunder combine a distinctive mix of incredible athleticism and basketball talent, led by superstar Kevin Durant, along with great coaching and sound strategy provided by coach Scott Brooks.  The Thunder look essentially unstoppable right now, and are poised to win their first championship since moving from Seattle.  While one can argue that they look very similar to the Miami Heat on paper, the Thunder are much more well-rounded, and I do not think that they can be stopped.

Durant has won three consecutive scoring titles, thus proving that he is in fact the best scorer in the NBA… however he is not the only reason that the Thunder are so dominant.  While they were largely dismissed because of their youth and inexperience, they have shown great maturity and growth while rapidly developing into a star-studded team with composure and maturity under Brooks.  While Durant’s scoring is off the charts (just under 28 PPG in the playoffs), OKC’s mentality focuses on team play and winning, and their chemistry is far better than that of Miami, who consistently show an inability to close out their close games and a lack of trust in their head coach.

Furthermore, OKC’s point guard tandem of Russell Westbrook, a young and explosive slashing scorer, and Derek Fisher, a veteran facilitator who knows just what it takes to win big games while essentially only scoring in dagger situations, takes much of the pressure off Durant.  Simultaneously, these other weapons enable Durant to frequently take over certain stretches of the game, since he is not the only guy who can put up points that opponents must worry about.  Lately, these stretches have been coming in the fourth quarter, and at age 23, Durant is showing that he has the ability to be one of the most clutch big time scorers that the NBA has seen.  You also cannot forget about James Harden, another big time scorer and the third member of their big three along with Durant and Westbrook, who took home the coveted Sixth Man of the year award, and has been chipping in over 17 points per game in the postseason coming off the bench.  

Lastly, OKC has a pair of monsters in the paint in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, arguably the best defensive front court which features an on-ball defender in Perkins who can body up with the best centers in the league, and an incredible help defender in Ibaka who led the league in blocks both in the regular season and in the playoffs.  They are not struggling to have a defensive paint presence, as opposed to Miami who has none at all.  Bad news for OKC’s opponents: Ibaka’s offense has been coming around as well, and as the Spurs found out in Game 4, he too has become a legitimate scoring threat.

The Thunder were largely overlooked going into the conference finals, and after ending the Spurs’ 20 game winning streak and winning four straight to finish out the series, they will enter the NBA Finals hungry for a championship.  They combine incredible athletic ability both in the paint and on the perimeter with great coaching under former and likely future coach of the year in Scott Brooks, and if the Celtics can close out their series against Miami, their own storied Big Three era will be in serious danger of falling one series short of their second championship. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Chris Bosh Returns: The Man or the Myth

On Tuesday night, Chris Bosh returned from the abdominal injury that had sidelined him from the Miami Heat’s last nine playoff games.  Bosh came off the bench, and logged 9 points and 7 rebounds in just 14 minutes of limited playing time.  However, for the third game in a row, the Heat came up short against the resilient veteran Boston Celtics, dropping Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals 94-90.

While the general consensus from ESPN’s analysts seems to be that coach Erik Spoelstra did not play Bosh enough in his first game back, keeping him out of the game for the entire fourth quarter may have actually been one of the better coaching moves he has made over the past three games.  The truth is that Bosh’s impact on the game was a negative one for Miami, and while he still may be playing injured, his lack of defensive presence last night only added insult to injury.

As the head coach, Spoelstra’s job is to put a winning lineup on the floor.  He is not concerned with players’ individual stats, nor most analysts’ na├»ve obsession with those stats.  Nevertheless, there was one statistic which Spoelstra could not neglect when it came to choosing his lineup down the stretch, and that was the team-low plus/minus rating of -12 for Chris Bosh last night.

Bosh scored all 9 of his points, while pulling down 6 out of his 7 rebounds during the 10 minutes he played in the first half.  He later returned to the lineup with just under 4 minutes to go in the third, playing until the end of the quarter while grabbing just one rebound, and then was sidelined for the rest of the night.  Bosh says he felt healthy enough to keep contributing, but there is good reason for why Spoelstra apparently did not feel that those contributions were very beneficial.

Bosh exerted little to no effort on defense last night, and only appeared to have any energy at all while on offense.  Rondo was not able to effectively penetrate until Bosh’s early minutes, and while the Celtics could not really capitalize on Bosh’s pitiable defensive presence in the first half, Bosh’s return to the lineup in the third sparked an 11-0 run for Boston to finish out the quarter, while jumping out to a 5 point lead.  Kevin Garnett absolutely dominated Bosh in the paint during that time, and even rookie big man Greg Stiemsma was able to contribute down low while Bosh was playing.

Both of these teams pride themselves on tough lockdown defense, so it is no wonder that Spoelstra felt more comfortable finishing out the game without the big man whose defensive presence was virtually nonexistent.  As aforementioned, Bosh only exerted energy on the offensive end, which also explains why 6 out of his 7 rebounds came as offensive boards.  Every time the Celtics missed a shot, Bosh was nowhere to be found, and the Heat were forced to rely on non-big men to pull down the defensive rebounds.

 For Bosh to be effective in this series, he needs to contribute much more than just an ability to score.  The dynamic duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have shown that they can carry the team’s scoring load, and the more shots that Bosh takes, the less shots that they take.  On the offensive end, James dominated in the first half, while Wade was their go-to scorer down the stretch.  Coach Doc Rivers felt that the Celtics merely had to weather the storm until their defensive consistency paid off, and Bosh’s lack of a positive impact helped them to do so, while they simultaneously increased their scoring output in each quarter due to big defensive stops.  While many seem to agree that the Heat could have won if Bosh had played more than 14 minutes, it seems to me that the head coaches are the only ones who were really watching the game.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Big Al Returns to Boston

The Utah Jazz come to Boston tonight and will be looking to knock off the Eastern Conference leading Celtics. The two key matchups to keep an eye on are former Celtics' star Al Jefferson taking on Shaq in the paint, and point guard superstars Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo going at it. While I expect both of these matchups to lead to some great plays and quality basketball, neither Rondo nor Shaq need to dominate their man for the Celtics to win tonight, and since Williams and Big Al are both all star caliber players don't expect Rondo and Shaq to be able to take over this game they way they did in the fourth quarter against Detroit. While Rondo should be able to get his typical double digit assists and hopefully keep Williams to a reasonable number of points, it will be the original Big Three that make the difference in this one, so long as Rondo and Shaq reasonably contain Utah's two star players.

Before the season began, Utah was one of the five teams I mentioned as a team to watch out for, and they have played very well on their way to a 27-15 record. However, they have also proved to be inconsistent, and find ways to lose games they have no business losing such as when they lost to the New Jersey Nets on Wednesday night. They are capable of playing good defense, but also collapse at times the way Charlotte's defense does and did against the C's, and Boston's Big Three should be able to take advantage, as well as Glen Davis and Boston's second unit who will be running all over Utah's bench. Starting wingmen Andrei Kirilenko, who was once considered a very good defender many seasons ago, and Raja Bell will not be able to respectively contain Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and look for Ray to rebound from his poor shooting night against the Pistons while Bell continuously gets picked and loses his man. I would not be surprised to see Utah do a ton of switching on defense that results in Williams sticking with Ray since Bell will not be able to. KG will have his hands full with the energetic and hard-nosed Frenchman Paul Millsap, but should be able to expose Millsap's weaknesses and put up some points or get him into early foul trouble. It will be interesting watching Garnett and Jefferson battling in the paint, the two guys who were traded for each other a few seasons ago just before the Celtics went from worst to first. Jefferson will be looking to prove to Ainge and the Celtics that he can play big and still control the paint against the best of them, even guys like Shaq and KG. Though Big Al does have games where he almost disappears and lets Deron Williams do all the work for Utah, tonight will not be one of them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Diesel Fuels a Boston Comeback

The reason I stressed the importance of putting the Pistons down early is because they feed off of momentum, especially when they're motivated to beat a superior team like the Celtics. Since the C's played casually and without energy for the first three quarters of the game, Detroit kept the game close and actually had an 8 point lead in the fourth quarter. Luckily the Celtics are resilient, and finally showed signs of life in the fourth, sparked by Shaq's hustle on his way to Boston's only double-double in the game. Paul Pierce had a relatively quiet 22 points, but he and Rondo kept the Celtics in it while a 15-27 Pistons' team played hard and appeared to be the better team on the floor for much of the game. However, Shaq's offensive rebounding and dives for loose balls turned the game around in the fourth, as the Celtics had their best quarter with 28 points and Ray Allen made a very clutch long jump shot after a timeout to put the game away after shooting just 1-7 from the field prior to the shot. Had the Celtics just played harder from the start, they would not have had to rely on a fourth quarter comeback and 38 year old Shaq diving to the floor and putting his health on the line in order to beat this mediocre Pistons' team. Perhaps the only guy playing with any energy last night aside from Shaq was his backup, rookie Semih Erden.

Erden may have dropped a pass or two that would have led to easy buckets, but he did manage to pull in four big rebounds and score 6 points on 3-4 shooting in just 17 minutes played. Also, his one miss was a bounding hook shot in which two Pistons were hanging off of him, but the refs refused to call a foul on the play. There is no denying that even though there may be better athletes in the NBA, very few of them have the energy, basketball IQ, and ability to control the paint that Erden does. He loves to contest every shot he can get his hands near, which results in a lot of opposing misses, and Erden boxes out his man, gets rebounds, and throws quick outlet passes to his guards which lead to fast breaks against defenses that are caught off guard. In his 17 minutes, Erden not only managed to score some points and pull down some boards, but also got a block, an assist, and a team high plus/minus rating of +9. The Turkish rookie does all the little things right, and I still love seeing him get opportunities to get on the court.

Give some credit to the Pistons. Even though the Celtics were lacking the energy that typically gets them wins, Rodney Stuckey and Greg Monroe were making some big shots for them, and were truly the difference makers for their team. Tracy McGrady also had a consistent presence on the court with 7 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals, but shot just 2-9 from the field. His missed jumpers opened the door for the Celtics' comeback, and had he shot better like he did when they faced off in Detroit three weeks ago, the Pistons probably would have won this game. Detroit played some tight defense in order to hold Boston's high powered offense to just 86 points, and were doing a lot of switching on defense in order to keep Ray Allen from having any open jump shots. Luckily for the Celtics, the Pistons continued to keep their leader and sharp shooter Rip Hamilton benched for this game, even though the Carmelo Anthony trade has allegedly fallen through, which means that Hamilton has missed five consecutive games for no genuine reason. Pistons' coach John Kuester could sure use a lesson from Doc Rivers about the importance of team chemistry.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Out For Revenge

When the Celtics and Pistons faced off in Detroit three weeks ago, Kevin Garnett left the game with a calf injury and the Pistons went on to win against a deflated Celtics' team. The Pistons tend to play some of their best basketball against the Celtics, as last time around former NBA star Tracy McGrady was making clutch jumpers like the Tracy McGrady of old, and point guard Rodney Stuckey was running the offense for them very effectively. Also, big man Charlie Villanueva, who had that "cancer patient" dispute with KG earlier this season, loves to knock down long jumpers, so the Celtics need to make sure they get off to a fast start and put the Pistons down big early on in the game. This Detroit team is struggling right now, despite coming off a win against the slumping Dallas Mavericks on Monday, and has a miserable 4-17 record on the road while the Celtics have a 19-3 record at home and are looking for their fourth consecutive win. Garnett will be out to seek revenge for the injury that the Pistons gave him which caused him to miss nine games, and look for him to energize the Celtics, help Boston put up a lot of points in the first half, and lead a defense that needs to clamp down early on the inconsistent Detroit offense. They are capable of playing the playoff worthy basketball that Detroit used to always play, but lack consistency and leadership, and will implode if Boston can put them down big early on.

Boston should have no major issues in running their offense effectively tonight, as Rondo, Shaq, and the Big Three should all have ample opportunity to score against a Detroit defense that can be easily be penetrated and broken down to the point where they essentially stop contesting shots. Part of the reason for this is that longtime Detroit scorer Rip Hamilton has been getting benched every game recently while the Pistons prepare to trade him as part of the three team deal that would supposedly send Carmelo Anthony to the Nets. Hamilton and his teammates have expressed great frustration with their coach over this matter. Also, Detroit is not as athletic as they used to be, and typically don't get the huge blocks and clutch steals that were associated with Pistons' defense during their reign as the beasts of the Eastern Conference. Boston should be able to penetrate them with relative ease on offense, while clamping down and sucking the life out of them on defense. If you can get a lead on the Pistons early, then McGrady, Stuckey, and Villanueva won't make the big shots that keep Detroit in the game like they did three weeks ago when the Celtics lost Garnett, and then played sloppy basketball for the rest of the game. Boston should have a very well rounded attack on offense, and expect a ton of open threes from Ray Allen and a bunch of strong drives to the hoop from Paul Pierce. Also, the Celtics need to limit the impact that rookie center Greg Monroe makes on the game for the Pistons.

The Pistons only recently moved Monroe into their starting lineup, and the athletic rookie big man has proved he can be a huge difference maker with his size, athleticism, defense, and rebounding. Having KG back will be huge for the Celtics on the boards, but Monroe is great at hunting down offensive rebounds and finishing the play with an easy bucket. The Pistons are still relatively easy to stop, especially when they're on the road, and clamping down on them early should get Boston the win tonight. Also, no matter how effective Monroe proves to be on offense, Shaq and Garnett should have no problem getting underneath him for easy buckets and trips to the foul line when he's on defense, as this athletic rookie will not be able to stop the very big and very strong all star pair of big men in Boston's starting lineup.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Still Think We Need Rasheed?

With a huge win fueled by the return of Kevin Garnett last night against the Orlando Magic, the Celtics asserted their position as the top team in the Eastern Conference, and reminded the panicking Celtics’ fans all over New England that when everyone on this team is healthy, they are in no need of any trades or acquisitions of washed up players like Rasheed Wallace in order for them to make a successful playoff run. In a game that was practically knotted from start to finish, the Celtics came out on top with 52 big points in the paint against Dwight Howard, another 13 assist night and double-double from Rajon Rondo, and 31 minutes of inspired play from a healthy Garnett as he dropped 19 points, led the defense to battle against a very versatile and dangerous Orlando offense, and got the game winning steal in the final seconds that sealed the victory for Boston. This game was proof that Garnett is the biggest difference maker for the Celtics, as they have not looked this organized or played this tough ever since they lost him to his calf injury. Now that Garnett has returned, the Celtics are back, and should continue asserting their dominance in the conference while they prepare for the return of the other starting big man, Kendrick Perkins.

The Celtics never let up last night, which is why they were able to overcome Orlando’s eleven three pointers and Howard’s 33 point 13 rebound night. All of Boston’s starters scored in double digits, and Big Baby Davis scored 15 points on 6-10 shooting off the bench. Davis is so much better for the C’s when he’s filling in for Shaq or Garnett instead of starting, and I was happy to see him balance the amount of jumpers he was taking with strong post-up moves and drives to the hoops. When he was starting in the nine games that Garnett sat out, his jump shot became the primary scoring option for the Celtics, which led to three losses that could have easily been avoided, as well as several sloppy wins. However, he is a different player when coming off the bench with Nate Robinson, and his energy and offensive ability can spark big runs against opposing second units instead of disrupting the flow of Boston’s offense when he is logging nearly 40 minutes per game as a starter. The Celtics played great last night with the return of KG, and will be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time as there is currently not a team in the NBA that Boston can’t beat in a seven game series. With Perk also coming back in early February, the Celtics have a ton of solid big men, and barring any major injuries, Sheed is definitely going to have to sit this one out.