Devolution: Noun: The notion that a species can change into a more “primitive” form over time.
There’s been a common theme to every single Celtics game against every single inferior team for the past few years, and frankly, it’s depressing as hell.
Here’s how it goes: The Celtics score a ton in the first quarter and hold the opposing team to between 10-15 points. Then the opposing team cuts the lead to nine or 10 by halftime. Both teams see-saw back and forth in the third and fourth quarters, culminating in an exciting ending that leaves us frustrated and angry at the end (because the Celtics lost to the Raptors by three) or gloomy and sarcastic (because the Celtics beat the Raptors by three). Once in a very great while, Boston actually completes a blowout, but even then C’s fans are biting their fingernails to the quick waiting for everything to blow up, for the proverbial blowout football to be pulled away from Charlie Brown.
So what happens? Why does Boston morph from San Antonio offensively in the first quarter to Detroit in the fourth? The easy explanation is also a lazy one: that Boston gets a big lead and switches off. This isn’t impossible, but it seems unlikely that a team with Kevin Garnett would be able to switch off, well, ever.
The Celtics were up to their usual tricks against Washington Saturday night. After leading something like 38-4 after the first quarter (I may be exaggerating a little), the Celtics allowed the Wizards back into the game by letting them go on a 60-4 run (again, exaggerating a bit) before a big three from Paul Pierce and a couple of bone-headed plays by Washington (I’M SO SURPRISED I COULD POO) handed the Celtics a near-miss victory.
So what happened? The Celtics held the Wizards to 86 points, or 94 points per 100 possessions. This is a respectable number, although not elite like last year. Still, Boston’s offense seemed like much more of a problem than the defense, Jordan Crawford’s big night excepted, so let’s take a look at what changed for Boston between the first and fourth quarters. As always, I apologize for the quality of the videos, and I’d encourage anyone who knows of a good way to record videos off a computer (at least, a way that is better than me recording them with my smart phone) to contact me via Twitter.
This play took place in the first quarter. Note that this wasn’t off a transition opportunity. It’s almost cheating to judge the C’s offense when the opponent misses and the Celtics are able to get out and run because the results are SO much more positive than plays after the opponent scores. But this was after one of Washington’s first baskets.
Pierce and Wilcox both show like they are giving Rondo a screen above the three point line, but before Rondo commits to either side, Pierce slips past Wilcox, using the big man as his own screener. Kevin Seraphin recognizes what they are attempting to do and fades off Wilcox a bit, but for whatever reason he ends up in no-man’s land, neither truly guarding Wilcox nor denying Rondo’s passing lane to Pierce. Martell Webster, who is trailing after Pierce, is unable to catch up and contest down low. Rondo delivers a perfect bounce pass, Pierce spins and dunks. This play was run with confidence and fluidity, and it worked to perfection. It utilized several players, it wasn’t a pick and roll and ended in an easy layup. It was, in essence, everything that Boston’s late game execution is not.
Here’s an example of Boston’s offense mid-second quarter, as Washington is making a bit of a run.
This play WAS off a miss, which gave the Celtics an advantage: the Wizards couldn’t match up quickly enough. Notice that as soon as Pierce gets down the floor, he realizes that the much smaller Jordan Crawford is forced to guard him. Rondo realizes this at the same moment (because he realizes everything at every moment) and tosses a long pass to Pierce in the post. Jannero Pargo knows that Crawford is about to be abused (Pierce was 8th in the NBA in post-up PPP last season), so he reluctantly travels all the way over from the opposite three point line to double. Pierce immediately kicks the ball to Rondo, who wandered over once Pargo left him, and Kevin Seraphin is forced to rotate away from Garnett. When Rondo scoops the ball to Garnett, he has an open jumper. It banks in.
The good news about this play: Everyone rotated to where they should be (including Sullinger, who drew Jan Vesely away from Pierce under the basket), and the passing was quick and crisp. The bad news: one of the indicators Boston’s offense is struggling is the reliance on long distance shooting.
Still. There is little to complain about here, except that Washington is somehow within five before Garnett knocked down his shot.
Now let’s advance to the fourth quarter. The Wizards are really challenging at this point; but for a YOLO Paul Pierce three, the Celtics would be trailing by two. Still, they are ahead by one with a chance to extend that lead to a more comfortable margin. So what do they do?
Garnett had been shooting quite well, so getting him alone in the post against Trevor Booker was obviously Rondo’s intent, since he calls Pierce over to help get Garnett isolated. The play works pretty well, Garnett just misses the shot. So this isn’t a BAD play necessarily, right?
Well, hold on. There are three problems with this play conceptually.
- With a point guard like Rondo, why the hell are the Celtics running a Triangle offense?
- The reason Pierce came over was so that Rondo and KG could run a pick and roll in an attempt to get Rondo’s defender switched onto KG. It didn’t work, so KG is simply isolated against his usual defender. The Celtics are NOT an isolation team, but late in the game, they have a tendency to play in isolation, running the shot clock down as far as possible. Since the shot clock is at 4.3 seconds when Garnett gets the ball, he’s literally the only option, and he has to move fast. When Boston isolates individual players, they fail to utilize the sheer volume of offensive talent available. At this point, the C’s have Jason Terry, Paul Pierce, Rondo, Garnett, and Jared Sullinger all on the court. Garnett’s shot was fine…but there were plenty of other options available, if they had started the play a little earlier.
- Boston has a tendency to rely heavily on Kevin Garnett late in games. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Garnett is an extremely versatile 7-footer, so he’s undeniably a weapon. But when Boston’s offense becomes predictable, they become remarkably easy to guard. Garnett-only offense is remarkably easy to guard.
So on that note, consider: On Boston’s next play, Rondo dribbles to the same side and runs a pick and roll with Garnett. Rondo tries to lob an awkward pass over Jannero Pargo. Booker sees it coming and breaks it up. Washington politely turns the ball over, but on the next play Rondo throws another over-the-top lob to Jeff Green who is immediately swarmed by three Washington players. Green somehow manages to turn a layup into a wild field goal attempt, and the Wizards are given another chance which they promptly turn over yet again, setting up this play:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Garnett and Rondo run a pick and roll to get Rondo’s player switched onto KG. It doesn’t work, and Garnett’s man is still guarding him. Garnett gets the ball with 4.3 seconds left on the shot clock in the middle of the lane and tries a fadeaway jumper from THE EXACT SAME SPOT HE TRIED IT TWO PLAYS BEFORE. YOU AREN’T GOING TO BELIEVE THIS: IT HAS THE EXACT SAME RESULT.
Fortunately, the Wizards are STILL the Wizards, so Martell Webster took a fading, falling 3-pointer from the corner and missed it badly, so Boston hung on for their first win. But as many people pointed out after the game, it didn’t really feel like a win in anything besides the win column.
There is absolutely no reason Boston’s offense should be predictable with a point guard like Rajon Rondo and options like Pierce/Garnett/Lee/Terry/Barbosa/Sullinger/you get the idea. Opposing defenses should be turning in circles for most of the game, unable to guess where the next attack will come from. The Celtics can run, post up, spot up, and pass the ball around. When they synchronize all of those things together, they are a Lamborghini running smoothly. But when they become one-dimensional, running pick and roll after pick and roll between the same two players, they are more like my car, slogging inefficiently toward the destination and praying like crazy that they don’t fall apart along the way.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.