Here was a night when the Celtics offensive machine was spinning its wheels like a Prius in a snowbank. It was a night when the factors in the C's usual formula for disaster — low shooting, high turnovers and lots and lots of offensive rebounds for the other team — were all happening at once. It was a night for the Celtics defense to stand up and win a tough game on the road.
We forget sometimes with the 50 percent shooting and Ray Allen and Paul Pierce bombing 3's all over the court, that the Celtics are, and always will be a defensive team first. So, they dug in their heels against a gritty and sometimes feisty to the point of chippy Trail Blazers team and came away with an 88-78 win to open their four-game West Coast road trip. (Click here for a full recap).
The Celtics held the Blazers to 37 percent shooting and in the fourth quarter when the game was very much in doubt, they clamped down even further and held them to just five points for the first nine minutes of the final quarter. By then a six-point lead had become 15 and it took a late surge for Portland to even approach 80 points.
Once the Celtics settled down and made a nifty adjustment — courtesy of Rajon Rondo — to put Kevin Garnett in the high post to facilitate the offense, the Celtics began to play like the Celtics again on offense. Garnett had five assists in the third quarter. Ray Allen got hot and that was enough.
But it was their defense that got them this win and started their trip off on a positive note.
Here are three more points from the win:
THE BEAST IS BACK
It’s not supposed to work this way. Young basketball players coming off their first major knee operations are not supposed to come back looking this strong and vibrant, but Kendrick Perkins looks even better than he did before.
Perkins had 10 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes and made sure to let Portland tough guy Joel Przybilla know that he wasn’t going to let him throw Rondo around like a ragdoll on his watch.
The play happened early. Przybilla straightened Rondo out with a hard pick that actually looked entirely legitimate, but the force knocked Rondo straight to the ground. Perkins came over and got in Przybilla’s face. The end.
“He’s an enforcer,” Doc Rivers told reporters in Portland. “Przybilla was trying to be physical and Perk’s going nowhere.”
If there has been one component that has been missing from the Celtics this season, this was it. Sure, they’re still tough (no matter what Orlando GM Otis Smith says) and Shaquille O’Neal will lay anyone out who tries to go to the basket, provided he can catch them. But Perkins is the muscle behind all the flexing.
Now they just need to be careful because while he looks faster and stronger, he’s still in the early stages of a comeback from a major knee surgery. Rivers copped to leaving him in too long Thursday night. Not the total amount of minutes, although 21 is a little over the 16-18 range the coach prescribed, but the duration.
“I extended his minutes too long,” Rivers acknowledged. “He was playing so well in the first half and I left him out there. I have to do a better job of monitoring his minutes.”
The Celtics are expecting get Shaq back Friday when they play the Suns and it should be easier to keep Perkins’ time down with another body in the middle. No matter how tempting it may be, it does them no good to push him too hard at this stage of his comeback.
WHERE DOES KEVIN GARNETT RANK AS A PASSING BIG MAN?
The question was asked by our own Michael Holley on Twitter: Is Kevin Garnett the best passing big man of the last 20 years?
It’s an intriguing question without a definitive answer (or at least the time to properly dig in). The names that were thrown around in response were all solid choices: Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Arvydas Sabonis, Brad Miller, maybe Kevin Love in time.
Garnett recorded more than 400 assists for six straight seasons from 1999 through 2005, topping out at 495 in 2002-03. Keep in mind that this came at a time when he was also the best rebounder in the league, as well as the primary scoring threat on the Timberwolves.
For comparison sake, Miller and Webber never had 400 assists in a season and Divac did it once, in his next-to-last year. Sabonis didn’t come to the NBA until he was 31 and his body was on borrowed time, but he never did it either.
Garnett did it six years in a row. In his prime when he was asked to do everything else to carry a franchise that always a player or two short of truly competing for a championship.
Since coming to the Celtics, Garnett has had to do less than his Minnesota days and his numbers have dipped across the board, but he has always been a willing passer.
He flashed his skills in a stunning minute-and-a-half stretch in the third quarter when he assisted on four straight baskets. Twice he hit Ray Allen for open 3’s and he also hit Perkins for a dunk and Allen for a layup.
Ironically, one of his greatest strengths has always been looked at as a weakness. Garnett was always so willing to make the pass – to make the right play – that some people questioned whether he wanted the responsibility of taking the shot himself.
True to his nature, Garnett wouldn’t change for his critics. This, he believed, was the correct way to play the game and this was what he would do. Everyone else, frankly, could go to Hades and leave him alone.
As much as Garnett has given Boston in his three and a half seasons here, we shouldn’t forget that we never got to see him truly at his best. For 90 seconds Thursday night, he gave us a glimpse.
VON WAFER IS STARTING TO GET IT
Slowly but surely, Von Wafer is earning trust. It took him a while to understand what the Celtics need from him. Not just offense, which is his calling card. And it’s not like they’re asking him to become Raja Bell or Bruce Bowen on the perimeter.
What they need from Wafer is steady, consistent play. If the shot is there, take it. When it’s not, they need him to keep things moving and not gum up the works.
Wafer didn’t play in the first half when the Celtics bench was getting seriously outplayed. Rookie guard Patty Mills was giving the Blazers what the Celtics want from Nate Robinson and Dante Cunningham was doing the same to Glen Davis. Those two had 14 points in the first half, while Robinson and Davis combined to miss all five of their shots.
The Celtics needed a lift and Wafer provided it early in the fourth quarter. Wafer got a steal and drove from Gresham to Portland for a layup. Then he got a defensive rebound. He scored only four points in six minutes, but he gave the Celtics a quick jolt of energy and some needed rest for Ray Allen.
He has watched as Luke Harangody and Semih Erden have delivered big performances and knows that he is capable of doing the same when his number is called. “I feel it. Definitely,” he said Tuesday night after the Cavs game. “My shots are starting to feel better.”
His time may be running short to make an impact because Delonte West is likely to return after the All-Star break, but his opportunity is happening right now and he is finally beginning to justify the investment in time and patience the Celtics have afforded him.