December 26, 2011
There hasn’t been a lot of optimism coming from Boston Celtics’ followers leading up to the NBA season. Starting with the trade rumors surrounding Rajon Rondo, then the failure to bring in David West, and finally the incredibly unfortunate injury to Jeff Green, there were not a lot of people feeling great about the Celtics going into their opening day matchup with the New York Knicks. Thus many could take the 102-100 loss as a sign of things to come. To me however, this loss came with a number of encouraging signs and numerous reasons for optimism going forward.
The first and possibly most important positive to come out of this game was the play of Rondo. It was hard to know how Rondo would react to his name being openly shopped around the NBA. The sixth year point guard, always seen as the Big Three’s little brother, has seemed mentally fragile at times in his career. Thus the knowledge that Danny Ainge did not want him around could easily have effected his game in an adverse manner. In many ways that would have been understandable. How exactly is a player supposed to give his full effort to an organization when the man in charge is actively trying to get rid of him? However, if game number one is any indication, Rondo has taken these rumors as motivation.
Rondo had a great season last year but, based on this first contest, this year is going to be miles better. This is an admittedly small sample, but from last nights game it appears that every aspect of Rondo’s game has improved. He was more aggressive than ever in looking for his own shot, attacking the basket for 31 points. Yet he was still excellent in getting his teammates involved, dishing out 13 assists. His defense was once again excellent, totaling five steals. He took and made most of his jump shots and even went 9 of 12 from the free throw line, the two areas experts have identified as the only ones’ holding him back. Yet most importantly Rondo’s whole attitude seemed different. People have repeatedly questioned Rondo’s leadership, but throughout this game it was abundantly clear that Rondo was running the show. It is clear to anyone who watched this game that this is Rondo’s team. He was totally and utterly in charge. The offense ran through him. Everything ran through him. This game should show everyone that Rondo is ready to take the reigns and carry this team into the future. He is ready to be a leader. This is Rondo’s team.
Another encouraging sign was Brandon Bass’ debut. I am not Danny Ainge’s biggest fan. From not resigning James Posey, to letting Tony Allen walk, to trading Kendrick Perkins, to his disgraceful treatment of Rondo, Ainge has made mistake after mistake since bringing the Big Three together. However getting Bass straight up for Glen “Big Baby” Davis was an excellent move. Bass plays exactly the same type of game as his fellow LSU alum Davis, he is just better at it. Essentially what Ainge did was trade Glen Davis for a better Glen Davis. Both players are good jump shooters, good rebounders, and good positional defenders. Bass is simply a better athlete which allows him to be a better one on one defender and a better finisher around the basket. Multiple times last night Bass grabbed offensive rebounds that Davis, a strong rebounder in his own right, might also have gotten. The difference is Bass finishes where Davis would likely get his shot blocked. The addition of Bass allows coach Doc Rivers to get better bench production while not changing his strategy at all.
In addition Bass does not come with all of Davis’ baggage. Glen Davis grew up a lot last year, but the name “Big Baby” still very much applies. He was a star in College and never stopped trying to be one in the pros. He matured in his last year in Boston but he still forced up way too many shots and hogged the ball way too much. As good as Daviswhen his shot was falling, when it wasn’t he tended to get frustrated and allow the rest of his game to suffer. This was never more apparent than his utter disappearance in the playoffs against Miami. This will not happen with the more mature Bass. He will give Boston all the positives that Davis did with none of the negatives. Subbing Bass for Davis makes this team better.
Another important aspect that can’t be overlooked is that Mickael Pietrus was not available last night. As soon as he is able to suit up he is an instant improvement over Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic. Daniels and Pavlovic are good defenders, Daniels can even contribute offensively in the right circumstances, but Pietrus is better in every aspect of the game. He’s a better shooter, better ball handler, better defender, better athlete, better everything. Once healthy Pietrus, not Daniels or Pavlovic, will be Rivers’ first wing off the bench and he is an instant upgrade. He would have been the man coming off the bench to guard Carmelo Anthony and would have done a better job. Daniels and Pavlovic did their best, but they simply aren’t as good as Pietrus. Adding a (hopefully) healthy Pietrus solves a lot of the Celtics problems. They have been looking for a player to fill the James Posey role since Ainge let him walk away in 2008. Jeff Green would have been that guy this year. Without him the Celtics really had no one capable of filling those shoes. Now they have Pietrus, and once he’s healthy he can do it.
In addition Joey Crawford will not be refereeing every game this year. Crawford is probably the worst referee in all of sports. In a game that is supposed to be about the players Crawford constantly makes it about himself. Six technical fouls were called last night but it wasn’t because the game was chippy, it was because of Joey Crawford. Crawford has to blow his whistle and run around like the short angry man he is letting everyone know that he is in charge. The guys ego is way to big to be a referee, but David Stern keeps him employed, God knows why. It was a Joey Crawford game and once again fans were subjected to a game that for prolonged periods seemed more like a free throw contest. Once again the play of the game was a foul shot. I won’t begin to comment on how bad this is for the NBA, I’ve done that enough, but from a Celtics perspective it is encouraging that they had a chance to win a game in which they essentially weren’t allowed to guard Carmelo Anthony. Take away Joey Crawford and the Celtics may win that game. No other official would have put Anthony at the line for the game winning free throws. But Crawford saw Marquis Daniels try to steal the ball from Carmelo Anthony. It wasn’t a foul, he got all ball, but Daniels is a role player trying to steal the ball from a star. In Crawford’s book this isn’t allowed. Instead It’s another opportunity to blow his whistle and feel important. The Celtics don’t win many games that Crawford referees because he doesn’t allow defense. However the fact that they still almost won in spite of him is a good sign.
Finally, everyone should realize that the Celtics almost beat the New York Knicks, one of the better teams in the East, without their best offensive player Paul Pierce. This is quite an achievement. Pierce is the one Celtics player, with the possible exception of Rondo, who is irreplaceable. Their entire offense changes when he is out of the lineup. Ray Allen eventually got his points, but he had to work way harder to get them without Pierce. When Pierce is on the floor teams cannot bracket Ray and simply have to hope their man can stay with him around screens and live with the results. Without Pierce, Ray is forced to handle the ball much more and isn’t as effective. Kevin Garnett came on strong in the second half, but his lanes to the basket were more limited and his looks were more contested. Simply put, when Pierce isn’t on the floor there is more help defense available and the whole Celtics offense suffers. Without Pierce everyone has less space. Rondo and Bass were excellent, but if Pierce were healthy their efforts would likely have been enough to get the Celtics a win not just keep them in the game.
The most pronounced effect of Pierce’s absence was that the Celtics were missing their go to guy. When the shot clock runs low Paul Pierce gets the ball. When the play they run doesn’t work Paul Pierce is the one who bails them out. Anthony did this multiple times for the Knicks last night. Without Pierce the Celtics weren’t able to answer. When the Celtics need a basket Pierce is going to be the man with the ball in his hands. With the Celtics down two with 16 seconds left they would have isolated for Paul Pierce, not settled for a Marquis Daniels three. With the score the same 12 seconds later, it would have Pierce not Garnett shooting a long jumper. Pierce is the Celtics captain and it is not just a letter on his jersey. When he is on the floor Celtics feel that there is no one they can’t beat because there is no shot Pierce can’t make. Rondo did his best to pick up the slack, but he can’t duplicate what Pierce does. He is not that type of player. The whole team looked a little lost during crunch time because that is normally where Pierce would take over. The fact that they still almost won without him says a lot about this team.
Obviously health is a big question mark for Boston. They really haven’t been healthy since winning the Championship in ’08. However if they can stay healthy they can beat anyone. Jermaine O’Neal is not Kendrick Perkins, but he does give them that same type of paint presence. Mickael Pietrus is not James Posey, but he has the potential to give them similar production. Brandon Bass is not Glen Davis, he’s better. Garnett isn’t the player he was, Pierce probably isn’t either. But Rondo is ten times the player he was, and like a fine wine Allen seems to get better with age. If they can make it through this abbreviated season healthy, and if their bench can come through like Bass did last night, they will be a tough out in the playoff. Bulls will give them problems, but they have no answer for Allen or Pierce. The Knicks and Heat will be a challenge, but they have no answer for Rondo, and they wont be able to injure him this year. There are teams that will give the Celtics problems, but if they are healthy there is no team they cannot beat. Many have counted them out this year, but after watching last night’s game, I’m not going to do that. Never count out a champion.