The Celtics definitely don’t like to make things easy, and they’re starting to fall in love with overtime a little more than I’d like to. But they just completed a four-game road trip of death, and they were one Rajon Rondo three-pointer away from a perfect 4-0. I find it hard to be too disappointed that the Celtics are still having difficulty closing teams out.
They’re 8-2, hold the best record in the Eastern Conference, and have already demonstrated the ability to beat anybody, anywhere. If they could develop a killer instinct, everything would be just peachy in Celtics Town. As it is, I’m almost perfectly content with the season’s start.
From the beginning of tonight’s 116-110 overtime victory against the Memphis Grizzlies, it was clear what Doc Rivers’s game plan was: Paint touches, paint touches, paint touches. Any time an offensive player brings the ball into the paint, that’s a paint touch. Whether he gets there with dribble penetration, an entry pass, an offensive rebound, whatever, it’s a paint touch. My coach used to obsess over those goddamn paint touches. I swear, he used to say the term “paint touch” even more often than I did in this paint touch-filled paragraph. Tonight, the Celtics thrived on a steady diet of paint touches (I promise, no more talk of paint touches). They made the game, or at least offense, look easy against a Memphis defense that had a lot in common with Swiss cheese. The Celtics compiled 32 assists, shot 57.7%, and finished 48 points in the paint. Even most of the Celtics’ jumpers came off inside-outside passes. Why were they so intent on working the ball inside? Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combine for a very talented frontcourt. Offensively, that is. Defensively? Eh, not so much. The Celtics took advantage of the weak Memphis interior all night.
But the game ball still went to a tiny guard who spent little time scoring points in the paint. Nate Robinson is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. Tonight, everything he touched turned to gold. He dropped 15 efficient points. He had one beautiful play where he cut to the middle of the lane, received a pass, jumped as if to shoot a layup, and calmly dumped a pass to a well-positioned Shaq for a thunderous dunk. The play illustrated a poise Robinson doesn’t always show, and he kept that level of poise all night long. He even showed some pressure defense that forced some turnovers and sparked a second-quarter Celtics run. Robinson was Nate the Great.
Also not too shabby in a supporting role? Shaq Daddy. 18 points, 7-10 shooting, and he even made four out of five free throws. Shaq’s so big, and he used to be so athletic, that everyone tends to underestimate his basketball IQ. We suspect that the plays he makes are easy, mostly because he’s the biggest man on earth. But there’s an intelligence to everything he does, a controlled purpose to every move he makes. We see Shaq being the recipient of passes leading to point-blank layups and dunks, and it’s easy to think he’s just lucky to be scoring so many east points. But he’s so smart. He knows how to move without the ball, how to get open. Size and athleticism alone can’t explain Shaq’s dominant career.
When I woke up this morning, I could have predicted the Celtics would blow a second-half lead. That part was easy. But I never would have guessed, not in a million years, that Tony Allen — yes, THAT Tony Allen — and Greivis Vasquez would have a big part in the Grizzlies run. With energy and playmaking, those two reserves were terrific. I started out the game thinking that it was a lot easier to watch Allen when he was on a different team. It was nice to watch him dribble to the hoop and not be worried sick that he was going to throw a bone-headed turnover. It was nice to see him crowd a shooter and not be worried sick that he was going to foul on a three-pointer. But then he started to kill the Celtics on both ends, and suddenly it wasn’t so fun watching Allen play for another team. And Vasquez? Shouldn’t he be playing overseas somewhere, rather than turning NBA games around with timely scoring and pesky hustle?
Moving back to the Celtics, there, of course, were other contributors to the win. Paul Pierce was phenomenal, scoring 28 points and refusing to settle for any outside shots. Rajon Rondo dished out 17 assists. (Do his assists ever stop? Do they? At some point, I’m actually going to start believing he might be able to maintain this pace all season. He can’t really, can he?) Ray Allen shook off a cold start to display the ice in his veins. Kevin Garnett continues to remind us that he’s Kevin Garnett again. Glen Davis kept making his impact felt. And Marquis Daniels, though he didn’t do much, that lefty scoop on the fast break was a beauty.
The game could have ended in regulation if the Celtics had capitalized on their final possession. The Celtics came out of a time out and Greg Dickerson told those of us watching on television that Doc Rivers had designed one play, but Pierce convinced him to try something else. What did Pierce argue for? An iso for himself, of course. It works sometimes, but I hate that call. To hell with good ball movement. To hell with getting the other players involved. This was Pierce, isolated at the top of the key, playing one-on-one for the game. The only problem was, he didn’t even get a shot off until after the buzzer. Oh well. At least the Celtics brought the hammer in overtime.
A couple more notes: Tonight marked the last game of Delonte West’s suspension. Hallelujah. Welcome back, West.
Also, watching Mike Conley get abused by Rondo made me admire his agent even more than I already did. $40 million, goddamn. It’s not even that Conley didn’t play well. Even the best players have bad games occasionally. It’s just that most of the time, I didn’t even realize Conley was on the court.
8-2 is nothing to frown at, folks, but the Celtics still have to work on one real weakness:
Kicking teams when they’re down.