Saturday, May 03, 2008

Game 7 at the Garden

Well, it came a lot sooner than Celtic fans would have hoped, but their 66 win team is about to be tested in the fires of a winner-take-all game seven, against the Atlanta Hawks, a team that did not even win 50% of its games. How did it happen?

A) Up front, let's be clear that this Hawks team is better than their season record indicates. The Hawks have needed a PG for a long time (yes Chris Paul would have looked great in red and black...). They finally got one at the trade deadline with the arrival of Mike Bibby. Even though Bibby has been outplayed in Boston by the explosive Rajon Rondo, he has brought a calming, steadying influence that the Hawks have sorely needed. The more time he spends with the team the better they will be.

B) The Celts are having trouble adjusting to the playoffs. Why? The stakes are higher and so two people who are absolutely crucial to their success are under the gun. The first is Kevin Garnett. For whatever reason, he does not like to shoot the the ball crunch time. As with the Karl Malone, there seems to be a level of fear, and - even worse for a seven-footer who shoots free throws as well as he does - he shies away from contact too. So, as with the Mail Fraud, we get a rain of fall-away shots, hardly what it takes to get it done in the NBA.

All is not lost, however, since Garnett has two veteran all-stars at his side... which brings me to the second person whose performance seems to suffer in proportion to the importance of the occasion: Coach Doc Rivers. It is Doc's job to keep the team mentally up, game-situation prepared, and to make the necessary adjustments to keep the juggernaut running at peak performance. However Doc has never impressed as a game coach, being better at managing personalities than time outs. And Doc's reaction to stress seems to be to freeze up, almost as if he were calcifying before our eyes, and his resultant 'strategy' is to just play the vets longer and harder. In consequence Doc has tossed out the regular season rotations (such as they were) and substituted in their stead extended minutes for his veteran core (for example neither Ray Allen nor Keven Garneet had a break in the second half of game four).

This sacrifices the bench: one of the teams real strengths from the regular season, the ability to extend the suffocating defense for a full 48 minutes with fresh bodies spelling the starters. It also sacrifices the sheer physical athleticism that the younger bodies on the bench bring to the game. A tired veteran Celts team walking the ball up the court is also a Celts team that has a good chance of loosing. As Vince Lombardi said: "fatigue makes cowards of us all."

Perhaps even worse, when Doc does turn to the bench a major beneficiary is Sam Cassell. Now, don't get me wrong, I love that the Cs were able to land Sam. But the man is 38 years old. And he has not had much time with the team and doesn't have much experience with the plays to run. So he doesn't help much on D and unless his shot is falling he actually hinders the offense. His shooting would help at SG, but that would mean playing Eddie House (who, along with Tony Allen was unceremoniously dropped from the rotation).

Worst of all is that Doc often plays Sam with Ray Allen (not Tony) at SG - meaning we have two older, sub-par defenders (one who has already expended a great amount of energy) at the two perimeter spots.... not a good recipe for defense in general or big men fouls (covering for penetration) in particular. Bad, bad and BAD - no rest, no defense and no easy transition points.

C) the third reason, and this is the least important, but still a notable factor, is the curious calls of the men in stripes. Some of you may have noticed, for example in the Phoenix series, but also incidents in others, where out of the blue lane violations for free throws started to be policed with unusual scrutiny, resulting in numerous calls, I would not be surprised if more than in the regular season given how rare they usually are.

I bring this up as a reminder that sometimes, for seemingly no good reason, the refs decide to throw a curve-ball during the playoffs, this being one of them. Another seems to concern the defense of the Celtics. For 82 games they have played the same defense, but now they are incurring far more fouls - most pronounced in games 4 and 6 - than at any time since Pitino had the team running around like headless chickens. It is almost as if the defense that got the team where they are - and is a major motor for their offence, has been deemed unacceptable.

What is really unusual is that many of the fouls appear to be of the touch variety. While rebounding action is fierce on one end, a touch is enough to send someone to the line at the other. You may have seen the numbers - games 4 thru 6 the Hawks took roughly twice as many free throws as the Cs, 15 to 2 in the pivotal final quarter of game 6 - but the numbers alone don't convey the difference this makes in the defense, transition game and hence offense for the Cs.

It is not a case of the Celtics not getting their fair share of free throws. Rather it is a case of the Hawks getting an inordinate amount of free throws. Who would ever anticipate that the Hawks could ever get 47 free throw attempts in just one game? Or average 36 ft attempts over the past three games? People like to point to the different styles of play but the facts show that the Hawks had only 51 more FTA than Boston over the course of the entire season. And now somehow the Hawks have outshot the Celtics by 51 in the last three games?!? (71 for the series) Has the Celtic defense changed that much over the past 6 games? Strange days indeed!

One thing is for certain, this series has been the best thing for the NBA in Atlanta in 20 years. What is not for certain is whether the Hawks ride stops Sunday of contintues on to Cleveland. The odds say it will end, but then Doc has never won a playoff series and facing a similar situation against Indiana his team not only did not win but laid a stinkbomb of embarrassing proportions. Which is a long way of saying that I don't trust Doc under pressure. And pressure there will be.... particularly if these strange trends at the foul line continue.