The story will go that the big, bad Boston Celtics were not big and bad enough. It will probably start in most places with LeBron James holding the basketball after an and-one, laughing and repeatedly crowing “Yeaaaahhhhhh” in the face of an obviously hostile Kevin Garnett. The story will continue to include the Celtics’ vow for retribution, with Rajon Rondo telling the world he wants to see Miami “hit the deck,” almost like Larry Bird did in the 1984 NBA Finals, one game before Kevin McHale laid out Kurt Rambis and the Celtics started to batter the Showtime Lakers.
This isn’t wrestling, though. It’s basketball. And while the Celtics could use James and Wade going to the hoop with a little hesitance because they fear somebody might put them on their asses, the more important factor is rotating defensively so the All-World duo doesn’t get easy baskets. The Celtics were similarly beaten by dribble penetration during stages of the Philadelphia series, particularly the second halves of Game 4 and Game 6, before adjusting and limiting the Sixers to just 75 points in Game 7. But as explosive as Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday are, James and Wade are the Sixers raised to the third or fourth power. It’s critical that Boston maintains its defensive identity for 48 minutes. As horrendous as Boston’s offensive output was (excepting the second quarter, the Celtics scored just 44 points), it was their defensive breakdowns that allowed Miami to dance to an easy lead and ultimately crow in Garnett’s face as the lead ballooned late in the fourth quarter.
Doc Rivers often says an opponent’s offensive rebounds are normally the result of poor defensive rotations. When the Celtics don’t rotate properly, they are out of position for the ensuing rebound even after forcing a miss. The Heat missed 36 shots last night. They had 13 offensive rebounds. That equates to a 36.1 percent offensive rebounding rate, a number which would have led the league by a comfortable margin.
Stopping James and Wade won’t necessarily require hiring a hatchet man to slam them with a tire iron as they float through the paint. But it will take a better defensive focus as the Celtics attempt to counteract a small Heat lineup that gave them all kinds of fits last night. With Garnett beginning the game defending Shane Battier and Greg Stiemsma also taking turns defending the former Dukie, Boston’s two finest interior stoppers spent some serious time chasing shooters around the perimeter. Losing Chris Bosh hurt the Heat in the sense that they now have only two scorers, rather than three, but it gives James and Wade more room to operate because Erik Spoelstra has wisely opted to give most of Bosh’s playing time to floor-spacers.
Rivers should probably start with putting Brandon Bass on Battier regardless of the situation. Let Garnett and Stiemsma handle Joel Anthony and/or Udonis Haslem, for it’s easier to help off those two without the threat of allowing an uncontested triple by a pretty good shooter. Battier finished just 2-for-9 from the arc last night, but his presence on the perimeter kept the Celtics from clogging the paint successfully as they have done so many times to so many teams in the Big Three era.
Yes, the Celtics offense again struggled to score points. There are dozens of reasons for that, including “Goddamn, that Lebron James covers space quickly,” but we can reduce them to “the Celtics offense is not very good, and the Heat defense is.” Boston’s offense will struggle to breathe in this series, just as it has for most of the season, despite the few random “whoa, so that’s what good offense looks like” efforts occasionally sprinkled in. The Celtics will surely need better performances from some of their stars (Ray Allen finished 1 for 7, and Pierce was 5 for 18), and they will certainly need to shoot upwards of the 39.5 percent they mustered last night. But they aren’t going to suddenly morph into the Phoenix Suns. The Celtics’ defense strapped on the Celtics’ offense and carried it like a backpack throughout the season. Now that they’ve arrived in the Eastern Conference Finals, that isn’t likely to change.
Defense remains the necessity. Maybe the Celtics will throw an elbow or two during Game 2. Maybe they will bump and shove Lebron James and Dwyane Wade until the post-game shower stings with pain.
But those are just semantics. Retribution will come via wins, and wins require a defense more dedicated to clogging lanes than handing out bruises.