You watch this Celtics team and it makes you shake your head. How can they play so dreadfully at home against one of the worst, most dysfunctional outfits in the NBA and then turn around and play a tough, physical game on the road the next night against one of the hottest teams in the league?
After getting embarrassed Friday night against the Wizards, the Celtics got back a small measure of their pride with a well-deserved 105-90 win over the Bucks Saturday night, which left them one game behind the Hawks for third place in the Eastern Conference with two games to play.
It’s possible that no matter where they finish, the Celtics will be looking at the Bucks in a first round playoff series. (The two teams also close the regular season against each other Wednesday in Boston).
If it was a playoff preview, the Bucks left little doubt that they won’t be intimidated by the Celtics. Late in the game, Kurt Thomas gave a hard foul to Glen Davis that concluded with Thomas throwing Davis to the ground. Davis waited a second, and then retaliated with a hard shoulder back at Thomas, something he has been far too quick to do this season.
Thomas, who has spent his entire career giving hard fouls, was assessed a Flagrant 1, while Davis earned a technical. That was just a warmup for the main act, however. On the next possession, Paul Pierce and Jerry Stackhouse became entangled and exchanged words and harsh glares.
That prompted Bucks coach Scott Skiles to storm after the officials with every intention of getting thrown out, which he was.
“It wasn’t a statement win,” Doc Rivers told reporters after the game. “It was a good win. It’s tough to win here. They played hard. They play aggressive. Lots of good things for us tonight.”
Rivers decided to sit Kevin Garnett to give him some rest, but Paul Pierce scored 24 points and recaptured some of his missing mid-range game and Rajon Rondo had 15 points and 10 assists.
The Celtics held Milwaukee under 100 points, something they haven’t done against anyone in the last six games and under 40 percent field goal shooting, while only turning it over nine times. As the coach said there were a lot of good things from the Celtics Saturday night, which begs the obvious question: Why can’t they play like that more consistently?
That’s an answer no one has, but we do have three other things to delve into:
REST FOR THE WEARY
Rivers decision to rest Garnett Saturday night may have come a day too late for the Celtics most important frontcourt player. Garnett looked miserable trying to keep up with young Andray Blatche Friday, with Rivers saying that he “looked tired.”
He probably was. It’s gone relatively unnoticed this season but Garnett has actually played in 68 of the team’s 80 games. If someone suggested in October that Garnett would play in 70 games this season, you probably would have taken it.
He missed one game in December and then 10 straight in January after he banged his knee against the Warriors, but he’s answered the call every time since then, playing 39 straight until Saturday.
Considering he was coming off the first major surgery of his professional career, Garnett has actually held up fairly well. His minutes are down, which has led to a slight decrease in shots, points and rebounds, but his per-minute averages have not dropped much, nor has his shooting efficiency.
What has changed is that Garnett is not initiating offense like he once did. Garnett has never really been the go-to guy down on the block with the Celtics that he was with the Timberwolves (and even there people wanted more out of him offensively), but he has been more reliant than ever on teammates to set him up for his shots.
According to the invaluable website Hoop Data, 82 percent of Garnett’s makes have come off assists. That’s up from 74 percent last season, 67 percent in his first season with the Celtics and 59 percent in his last season with Minnesota.
All of that makes sense in context. The Celtics have better talent around him than he ever had in Minnesota and he has a point guard in Rajon Rondo who is able to initiate the offense and set him up, two things he rarely had with the Wolves.
However, it also suggests that Garnett is not creating his own shot as much as he has in the past. That’s one effect of the knee injury.
The other, which has been more obvious to observers, is that Garnett does not move as well as he once did. This is the much bigger concern.
There are times when this has been painfully evident, as when Orlando’s Rashard Lewis drove around him like he was standing still for a last-second game-winner, but it has manifested itself more often in things like closing out on jump shooters and defending the pick and roll. Garnett hasn’t been off by much, but he’s been off enough for it to be noticeable at times and he is the key element in Tom Thibodeau’s defense.
Which brings us back to Friday night’s game when Blatche scored 31 points and had 11 rebounds while Garnett shot 3-for-12. Blatche had something to prove. In their previous meeting he had said a few things to Garnett, which motivated Garnett to say a few things back, and left Blatche confused and embarrassed. (The Washington Post reported at the time that he seemed on the verge of tears).
It goes without saying that in years past Garnett would have come into Friday night’s game in a full frenzy, determined to put the young fella in his place and let him know about like only he can, in language NSFW. That didn’t happen, obviously.
This is really the essential question for the Celtics.
If Garnett didn’t rev his odometer into the red at the thought of playing Blatche, knowing that Blatche himself was going to play like his manhood depended on it, then that backs up the notion that the Celtics have gone into cruise control.
But if Garnett did crank up his internal crazy -- and say what you will, but the man has always given as much of himself on the court as he has to give – and the legs didn’t go where the mind wanted them to, then the Celtics are in very big trouble.
This doesn’t all fall on Garnett, of course. The Celtics have had trouble stopping dribble penetration all season, and they did again Saturday against the Bucks. In the past they could rely on Garnett’s fearsome presence backing them up, but it remains to be seen just how much he has left.
FEAR THE DEER?
Last Saturday night when most of the country was watching the Final Four and getting ready for Easter, Bucks center Andrew Bogut lost control of his balance while he was hanging on the rim and proceeded to turn his right arm into linguine after a sickening crash on the floor.
Bogut had surgery on his broken right hand and he also has a dislocated elbow. The injuries are expected to keep him out of the playoffs, which is a shame because the former No. 1 overall pick was finally coming into his own as a very good NBA center.
With Bogut out, Milwauke suddenly looked like a very attractive possible first round opponent. This proposition was posed to Ray Allen last Sunday and in his typically sage veteran manner, Allen preached patience before burying the Bucks.
“Let’s see how they react for a few games,” Allen said.
It’s been a few games and the Bucks still look dangerous. They held on to beat the Suns after Bogut got hurt and then registered wins over the Bulls, Nets and Sixers, which is not like saying they beat the Lakers, Cavs and Magic, but it’s considerably better than people thought they would be doing last weekend.
Without Bogut, Ageless veteran Kurt Thomas is getting another chance to reach into his endless bag of tricks (just ask Glen Davis) and showcase his mid-range jumper, both of which remain effective. Teams don’t get better when they lose their best player. Well-coached ones, however, adjust and the Bucks have a very good coach in Skiles, who is a leading contender for Coach of the Year.
Skiles went small at times with Ersan Ilyasova playing the nominal role of center way out on the perimeter. Teams that have gone with small lineups have done well against the Celtics this season, although they were able to counter Saturday with a lineup that featured Davis as the lone big man on the floor. (Kendrick Perkins played just 15 minutes as a result).
“They do play small a lot and we don’t,” Rivers said after the game. “That’s something we’re going to have to get used to.”
The Bucks also play strong defense, don’t allow second-chances on the glass and rarely turn it over. That alone, will keep you in a lot of games as long as you can make shots and now that they have John Salmons to make them, they have become very good.
Since acquiring Salmons, the Bucks have gone 21-7 and that’s not a coincidence. He has effectively replaced what they thought they were going to get out of injured star Michael Redd and Celtics fans are well-acquainted with what Salmons can do in a playoff series once the former Bull gets rolling.
The Celtics sure sounded like they were anticipating playing Milwaukee in the first round. After what we saw Saturday, it might be a very interesting series.
PAUL PIERCE’S MID-RANGE GAME RETURNS
Paul Pierce began the season playing like one of the 10 best players in the league. He has ended it searching for his rhythm.
Injuries have contributed to his downturn and since his latest return he has good nights mixed in with some terribly inconsistent ones. His shooting percentages have steadily dropped in the areas between the basket and the 3-point line. (Celtics Hub did a solid breakdown, which you can read here.
Against the Bucks, Pierce made good use of his pull-up game, particularly in the second half as he made his first seven shots en route to a 24-point night. He was asked after the game if he thought rest would be beneficial for him and he responded that he’d rather try to regain his touch.
Rivers backed this up saying, “That’s why [we’re] still playing him. If he can get his offensive rhythm, that makes us very good.”
It’s dangerous to bet against Pierce in these situations. He appeared worn down by the end of the playoffs last season, but it’s worth remembering that he played very well in the first round against the Bulls.
Ray Allen’s shooting stroke has returned after a lengthy hiatus and Rajon Rondo looks ready to take on an even bigger role once the playoffs start. If Pierce can get himself back on track, then this team become much tougher to beat in a playoff series.
As the season draws to a close, there’s a lot of iffs associated with the Celtics. Pierce is just one of many.