The Celtics wouldn’t have found a way to win this game last season. Luke Ridnour wouldn’t have traveled. Nate Robinson wouldn’t have sank both free throws with four seconds left. Michael Beasley would have made a 3 in the final seconds. Something would have happened that would have prevented the Celtics from stealing a win in a game where they didn’t play very well for three quarters.
Debate the merits of a 96-93 victory at home over the Timberwolves all you want (click here for a full recap), but if the Celtics are going to get where they want to this spring, they will need all the wins they can get. This isn’t last season where the injuries became so severe that they forced Doc Rivers’ hand and made him ease off -- not yet anyway.
The Celtics want to get homecourt advantage at least through the first two rounds of the playoffs and if they are going to accomplish that, these are the kinds of games they need to win. So, give them credit for playing tight defense throughout the fourth quarter.
“Well, we had to play it at some point, you know,” Rivers joked. “And we did down the stretch, which was nice.”
Give them credit for executing their sets and getting the ball in the right players' hands at the right time. Give the bench credit for at least providing some energy when the starters put them in a first quarter hole again.
These games in January aren’t going to win any awards for aesthetically npleasing basketball, but the Celtics are going to try to win them anyway, even when their best offensive player (Paul Pierce) has an identity crisis for the first half and they get demolished on the boards.
This was a game the Celtics would have lost last season, and as meaningless as it seems in early January, these outcomes will have a huge impact on their fortunes come April.
Here are three key takeaways from Monday’s game
SPREADING THE GOSPEL OF REBOUNDING PERCENTAGE
Before they played the Wolves, Rivers was inundated with questions about Minnesota’s rebounding monster, Kevin Love. If you look at the total number of rebounds per game, the Celtics rank 27th, which makes them look like a bad rebounding team. They’re not.
The Celtics don’t get a lot of total rebounds for two reasons. One, they don’t take that many shots and they shoot the highest percentage in the league. That means there are fewer rebounds to get. But that’s on offense and the Celtics simply don’t care about hitting the offensive glass. What they care about is defensive rebounding.
Fortunately, we have a stat called rebounding percentage, which offers a far better way to measure how well a team actually rebounds. Coming into Monday’s game, the Celtics were grabbing 76 percent of the available defensive rebounds per game. That ranks fifth in the NBA, and with Kevin Garnett in the lineup they were in the top three.
This is what concerns Rivers and it explains his comments after Love grabbed 24 rebounds, 19 of which were not really a problem.
“The five offensive rebounds [by Love] are the ones that stood out more,” he said. “The defensive rebounds, someone’s going to get the defensive rebounds. Those aren’t a big deal to me. But the offensive rebounds are the ones that he hurts you on.”
That’s not to explain away what was a bad rebounding night for the Celtics. Minnesota missed 49 shots. The Celtics had 23 defensive rebounds, while the Timberwolves had 13 offensive boards. That’s not good and it wasn’t good on Sunday against the Raptors, as well. This is also where they miss Garnett -- who has returned to form as a dominant defensive rebounder -- the most.
Make no mistake, the Celtics' inability to rebound defensively last season was their biggest weakness, and it was exposed against the Lakers.
“We lost a title over rebounding, as far as I’m concerned,” Rivers said before the game. “We put an emphasis on it. We’ve been very good for the most part. I think it will be something we’ll talk about all season as a focus for us.”
As for Love, he is simply a unique player. Comparisons were thrown around ranging from Paul Silas to Mark Landesberg (that one was Rivers) to Dennis Rodman and Jayson Williams (Ray Allen’s contribution). But packaged together with all of his skills, Love is making his own name.
“Guys like him come around once every 10 years,” said Shaquille O’Neal, who is not an easy man to impress.
His 19 defensive rebounds were expected. His five offensive boards were a much greater concern.
THE NEXT STEP FOR RAJON RONDO
Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis came up with the sagging defense concept on Rondo when he was with the Lakers, so it was no surprise to see the Timberwolves treat Rondo the same way. The difference between the Wolves and the Lakers is that while Kobe Bryant is big enough, and smart enough, to get in the passing lanes and bother the Celtics point guard, Ridnour is not. Rondo had 16 assists Monday and his impact was once again evident on the flow of the Celtics offense.
Once Pierce stopped trying to be a facilitator in the second half (Rivers told him at halftime, "Paul you no longer have to be the playmaker; we need you to be an aggressive scorer"), the Celtics offense kicked into gear.
But the biggest shot of the night was a 15-foot jumper that Rondo buried with 44 seconds left that put the Celtics up by three points. That’s the shot he has to take, especially if his myriad injuries wind up robbing him of his ability to get in the lane and finish.
“You could see how they were playing Rondo,” Rivers said. “We were trying to get Rondo to take shots. We wanted him to take shots because it’s the next step for him. He can make those shots. That’s what is so frustrating for our guys. He passed up at least six of them. Rondo can make those shots. We just have to get him to make them after a miss and take another one. The way they guarded him tonight is the way they’re going to guard him in the playoffs. All teams.”
The evidence does not necessarily agree with Rivers’ optimistic assessment about his player's shooting. This season, Rondo is shooting just 29 percent on attempts 10-15 feet away from the basket. Last season he made them at a 46 percent clip, which was a career-high. Nothing fluctuates more for NBA players than two-point shooting percentages, but Rivers is correct that Rondo will have to make those shots because he will get them.
“He’s an elbow shooter,” the coach maintained. “He can make them all day. He will make them all day. We just got to get him to take them.”
VON WAFER PROVES HIS WORTH
Contracts for players with non-guaranteed deals become guaranteed for the rest of the season on Jan. 10. That’s important for Von Wafer because he falls into that category of player. He couldn’t have picked a better time to have his best game of the season, although it’s seemed a fairly safe bet that he would survive the deadline regardless.
Wafer scored a season-high 10 points and tied with Pierce for the team-high in rebounds with six.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a trend,” he joked. “But I’ll take it.”
Wafer took to heart something Kevin Garnett told him last week about helping the big men on the glass, so with the Celtics getting pounded on the boards, that’s what he did. That was also important because it was further evidence that Wafer is on board with what the Celtics are asking him to do, and that hasn’t always been the case.
“Everybody else is doing it,” Wafer said. “You don’t want to be the only guy on the outside looking in. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t buy in. You need to buy in, or leave.”
Although his jumper has yet to come around, Wafer provided a huge lift with some timely drives to the basket, and yes, his defense. From the moment he arrived, Wafer’s defense has been in question and he hasn’t always said the right thing about his abilities on that end of the floor. On media day he noted that he was an offensive player.
“We still give him crap for that,” Rivers said.
But lately, Rivers has no complaints.
“He’s proven to us that he’s more than that,” the coach said. “It’s funny to watch him. He gets excited about defensive stops now and that’s great because I get excited about that as well.”
There’s no telling how this experience will end for Wafer. Delonte West got his cast off Monday and he is slated to return sometime around the All-Star break (more on that here). When he does come back, it’s a safe bet that he’ll immediately rejoin the rotation.
By the same token, one never knows how this Celtics team will look when that happens and opportunity may still be waiting for Wafer to grab.
“It’s amazing when everybody’s not playing great, somebody else kind of steps forward and helps you win,” Rivers said. “I thought tonight was a great example of that.”
That’s just one reason the Celtics were able find a way to win the kind of game they lost routinely last season.