After the vintage performance from Boston’s stars in Game 3, most of the attention rightfully went to Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, in that order. But on the periphery of the massive performances from Boston’s studs were some important results from the bench:
Glen Davis played only 11 minutes
Many fans have been blinded by Davis’s sometimes-reliable midrange jumper into believing he’s an efficient offensive player. But the fact of the matter is that Davis earned his larger role this season by becoming a defensive stopper. Where he was once a liability, Davis became a force as one of the league’s best charge-takers. Doc Rivers could overlook Davis’s oft-spotty shot selection because he played so hard, because he would rotate defensively and help his teammates on every play.
As Davis’ confidence in his midrange jumper became lost late in this season (or in the middle of the season, or sometime before that, or whenever), Rivers continued to play him. This was because A) he still played defense, B) there was nobody else to take the minutes, and C) he still played defense. But Davis’s charges taken have dropped precipitously since the beginning of the season, and he hasn’t been playing with the same energy. Especially when contrasted with Joel Anthony, who’s succeeding by doing the things Davis used to do, Davis looks—how should I say this?—less interested than he has in the past.
He hasn’t rebounded well all season long and he has never been an efficient scorer, so Davis’ biggest contributions this season have come on the defensive side of the ball. If he’s not willing to play with the same energy as he used to (see: Game 4 of last year’s Finals), then there’s not much point in playing him. That sounds harsh, considering that Davis finished in 4th in this year’s Sixth Man of the Year voting. But anyone who has watched the Celtics knows the extent of his struggles for the past two months, at least. Again, I’m not being overly harsh. This is cold, hard truth.
Rivers admitted Davis hasn’t been playing up to expectations.
“Not right now,’’ Rivers said. “But I believe he will. I don’t ever lose faith and I keep throwing him out there and I’m going to keep throwing him out there. He has to play better. And it’s not about scoring for him. It’s about rebounding. It’s about taking charges. He’s been our energy guy. That’s what he is and when he gets caught into thinking offense, I think that affects his game. We’ll free his mind eventually, and I think the sooner the better.’’
The sooner the better, indeed.
Jeff Green’s defense on Lebron
For three quarters, Rivers hid Jeff Green from Lebron James. By this, I mean he played Green alongside Paul Pierce at all times while Green defended somebody else. This was likely a conscious decision, because Lebron had pantsed Green during Game 2. Apparently sparked by his demotion of sorts, Green handled James Jones on the perimeter quite well, chasing him around screens and showing the appropriate (read: limited) amount of help for his teammates when necessary. And then, in the fourth quarter, Rivers showed surprising faith in his new combo-forward: he finally gave him the Lebron assignment.
And Green was marvelous. Nothing short of marvelous. No, really. Where he was hesitant in Game 2, he was a pitbull in Game 3. He funneled James into help. He played physical defense, unafraid of using his chest to bump Lebron. He even got into the passing lanes and caused deflections (the most important of which ended with Rondo’s steal and dunk). This is weird, me praising Jeff Green, but you know what they say: give credit where credit’s due. And Green deserves credit. He rose to the moment and made things difficult for Lebron. Granted, Lebron won’t always miss those shots. But Green took him out of his comfort zone, which is all a defender can hope to do against a superstar.
Check out this play:
To recap: Green physically harassed Lebron around the perimeter, forced a pass, hustled over when Lebron got the ball again to force another pass (though he was a little out of position on the closeout, he worked hard enough to get himself back in the play), then chased down the rebound, did his best to rip it from Chris Bosh’s hands and cause a jump ball, and then ended the whole sequence by standing over Bosh like a tough guy?
I had only one question after this play: who are you, and what have you done with Jeff Green?
Counteracting small with small
In Miami, the Heat trotted out a small lineup and Boston tried to stay big to take advantage of the mismatches. What resulted were funky matchups that had Kevin Garnett or Glen Davis chasing James Jones outside, matchups that favored Miami. I blamed Rivers’ lack of trust in Green; Green came to Boston to provide versatility yet Rivers was unwilling to go small with Green at power forward. Until Saturday’s Game 3.
When the Heat went small Saturday, the Celtics reacted by mirroring the small lineup themselves, normally with Green playing power forward and Pierce at small forward. The results? More natural matchups, with Green defending Jones (and doing so quite well) while Pierce stayed on Lebron. The Boston bench has made a habit of losing leads this season; using the small lineup Saturday actually managed to extend Boston’s lead. Even when Chris Bosh subbed in alongside Joel Anthony to give Miami a more conventional lineup, Rivers stayed small for a short while longer. Green just shifted over to guard Bosh, and the lineup continued doing work.
What should we take from this?
1) Green played well enough that Rivers could trust him. I’m not sure he trusted Green in Miami, but the version of Green we saw yesterday was quite a bit feistier. After setting his 2011 playoff-high in scoring in Game 2, Green saw his offensive production fall considerably in Game 3. But Game 3 was by far his best performance of the playoffs.
2) Miami can force some tough matchups. Because Lebron has the ability to defend four positions, Miami can get away with some weird lineups. We already knew this, but the Celtics (when Green plays well enough, at least) possess the versatility to counteract those lineups.
3) After months of tinkering with a bench that seemed busted, Rivers might have found something that works. A key? Playing Kevin Garnett, rather than Glen Davis, alongside Green in the small lineup. All of Boston’s small lineups featuring both Green and Davis have been woefully outscored, probably a factor of playing two undersized, under-rebounding players together. But most small lineups with Garnett and Green have at least held their own, a pattern that has repeated itself during both the regular season and the playoffs.
Delonte West rising to the occasion
In three straight games against Miami, Delonte West has scored at least ten points. After scoring in double figures only once in his previous ten games (and averaging only two points during the New York series), West’s revived production has been a blessing. He has been much more aggressive looking for his own shot, both on the perimeter and while penetrating to the hoop (though I still wouldn’t mind if he actually makes his next dunk).
A shoulder injury suffered in Game 3 caused some fear among the Celtics brass, but West felt good enough that he decided not to undergo an MRI. If he continues his solid play, he gives the Celtics a weapon off the bench that they expected all season long.
To win again tonight, the Celtics might need another heroic performance from the Fantastic Four. But they’ll also need the peripheral players to do their jobs. If any role players don’t look up to the task, look for Rivers to again demonstrate a quick leash. This isn’t the time to learn from mistakes.