With the Chicago Bulls down three points in the waning seconds of overtime, Joakim Noah decided to pretend he was a point guard, dribbling down the floor in transition. For a second, it looked as if Noah might be successful. He had a lane to the hoop, with Kevin Garnett trailing behind and the help defense slow to recover.
Then Garnett – 34 years old, playing his 16th year in the NBA, and in the 39th minute of his night – quickly gained ground, extending his long arm and poking the basketball away. After the steal Garnett celebrated as Garnett does, loudly and demonstratively. He pulled his jersey off his chest, exposing his left nipple. A scary look overtook his eyes and he screamed something that I’m pretty sure I could make out through my televison.
”That’s all heart.”
After losing all of a 16-point second half lead, that was how the Celtics closed out the Bulls for the 110-105 victory: with all heart. Well, that and execution.
Doc Rivers spotted a weak link in the Bulls’ defense and Boston spent all of overtime exposing it. Kyle Korver couldn’t guard my 90-year old grandmother, so Rivers knew he definitely couldn’t defend either Paul Pierce or Ray Allen. Thus Rivers called a Pierce-Allen pick-and-roll almost every play during overtime, forcing the Bulls to either switch Korver onto Pierce or die trying.
The Bulls switched the first one and Pierce scored over Korver. The Bulls could see defending Pierce with Korver wasn’t going to work out (at all), so they stopped switching. A couple plays later the C’s ran the same play — this time, Korver helped on Pierce while Deng fought over the screen. They tried so hard to get Pierce that they forgot one thing — Ray Allen’s a pretty good shooter. Pierce looped a pass to Allen, who drained a three-pointer. It gave Boston a 103-101 lead, and the Celtics would never trail again.
They wouldn’t have even been in overtime if not for a Rajon Rondo defensive stand. The Bulls isolated Derrick Rose up top on the final play of regulation, and Rondo (obviously) was given the task of defending him. Garnett loomed ominously in his defensive stance on one side of Rondo, and Rose crossed over, away from KG. Rondo slapped it away, dove after it, and the clock ran out before Joakim Noah could attempt a buzzer-beating jumper.
The play showed the stark contrast between Rose’s game and Rondo’s. They are both great point guards, but they couldn’t be more different. Really, there are only two similarities between Rose’s game and Rondo’s: lightning-in-a-jersey athleticism and a broken down jumper. Other than that, the two stars are so different. Rose looks to attack, attack, attack. He’s a classic scoring point guard who loves to score at the rim and utilizes his power and vertical leap to finish among the trees. Rondo looks to probe rather than attack, gauging a defense’s openings and capitalizing. He drives with the idea of passing first, as was especially evident on one pretty baseline drive he made tonight. The defense collapsed on him and he had a choice between two options: drop a pass to Jermaine O’Neal for a semi-contested two-pointer, or out to Ray Allen for a three-ball. He chose option number two, and — like almost everything Rondo has tried this year – it worked.
At one point, sitting on my couch watching Rondo run the offense, I thought to myself, “I’m starting to take what he does for granted.” We can all see that he compiles so many assists, but when you just look at the totals you fail to understand his mastery. You fail to understand the way he calculates every move to open up a teammate. The way he drives to a specific spot on the floor so he can create more space for his teammates. The way he throws dimes equally well with both hands. I asked myself a question tonight, one that’s ridiculous when you think about it but might actually be true: Is Rajon Rondo able to create a shot for whichever teammate he wants? Can he not only choose who he wants to pass to, but then make a play so that player gets an open shot? Maybe he can’t, but sometimes it seems like he can and does.
What else happened tonight? At one point in the second quarter, Marquis Daniels received the ball with Kyle Korver defending him. Tommy Heinsohn keenly noted, “That’s a matchup worth exploring.” Daniels drove right by Korver for a bucket, then spent the next few minutes abusing every defender the Bulls sent his way. Oh, Ronnier is the best you’ve got? Turnaround jumper. So you wanna lose me in transition? Reverse lay-in, smooth. Kyle Korver, really? Might as well put a red carpet down for me. Daniels was everything we ever wanted him to be. These are the nights when I wonder why he isn’t a matchup nightmare every time out.
A couple other role players weren’t as impressive. You may look at Jermaine O’Neal’s scoring (12 points) and his suddenly-wet jumper (5-6 shooting), but not me. I looked at what he’s supposed to do, which is rebound, and I saw that he didn’t grab a single board in 20 minutes. Yeah, that’s right. He’s damn near seven feet tall and couldn’t grab a single rebound in 20 minutes. Oy vey. At least he wasn’t alone in his awfulness. Nate Robinson joined J.O. on my shit list, which is becoming quite routine for Robinson.
I’m okay with Robinson missing a few shots. That’s to be expected. I’m even okay when he takes bad shots, like the running fadeaway he took on one fast break. That’s to be expected too. What I’m NOT okay with is how the Celtics offense has run with Robinson in the game. He pounds the ball into the floor too often and the offense loses all continuity. On a daily basis, the +/- stat isn’t always perfect. With a small sample size, it can be misleading. For example, Ray Allen was a -12 tonight. All he did was shoot 9-12, score 25 points and unleash a dunk that made me think it was still 1996. But sometimes the +/- stat can be incredibly telling. Rondo was +14, Robinson was -9. The Celtics are THAT much better when Rondo’s in the game. Part of that is Rondo’s brilliance, of course. But part of it is that Nate Robinson is not playing a good point guard.
Is there anything else to note? Kevin Garnett had two especially vicious dunks, both of which made me hop up and down like a kangaroo on speed. Pierce’s bounce pass to a cutting Allen almost brought a tear to my eye. The Rondo-Rose matchup was every bit as good as advertised, even if neither played their best games. Brian Scalabrine received a video tribute and a standing ovation, and then blocked a Paul Pierce jumper. No, he really blocked a Paul Pierce jumper.
Shaq missed the game because he’s hurt. Rondo almost missed the game due to a minor case of plantar fasciitis. (Uh-oh?) Big Baby continued to provide a consistent scorer (and charge-taker) off the bench. Joakim Noah was brilliant and never stops working, even though his jump shot form has been known to kill small children. Taj Gibson is pretty good. Luol Deng did a great job defensively on Pierce, and dropped 20 points of his own.
And tonight’s win? Even if the Celtics almost kicked it away?
It was all heart.
Just ask KG’s left nipple.