There are some losses that reveal a deeper meaning. A hidden truth, perhaps. Or maybe a loss exposes a closely-held flaw that suddenly blossoms into a full-scale problem. Then there are losses like the 101-97 setback the Celtics had Friday night against the Mavericks. (Click here for a full recap)
Sure, they had a dreadful start and it would be unwise to allow anyone to make 67 percent of their shots in the first quarter. But slow starts haven’t been a problem.
It would help if they had made a shot in the final two minutes and 43 seconds, but late-game execution has never been an issue with this team and there was nothing wrong with the looks they got. “When it came down to it,” Kevin Garnett said. “We didn’t make shots that we usually make.”
Even down two points with 2.5 seconds left, Doc Rivers had a neat play drawn up that had Garnett slipping backdoor for a lob from Rajon Rondo. If it had worked, it would have been another in their highlight-reel of last-second plays, but the pass was just a little too high. It happens.
If it revealed anything it was that if they find themselves matches up against the Mavs in the NBA finals it would be one heck of a good show. The Celtics have played them twice and lost to them both times on last-second plays. That will bother them, but it doesn’t really change anything.
“We lost a game,” Rivers said. “We didn’t play great. We didn’t play poorly. We just lost a basketball game. I don’t think I’m going to loom too deeply into this game.”
It doesn’t happen too often around here, and especially not at the Garden where the Celtics are now 22-4. Their lead in the Eastern Conference is now a game and a half (two in the loss column) over the Heat. This one hurts, no question, but sometimes a loss is just a loss.
Still, every game in this 82-chapter novel does allow for some insight. Here are three points:
RAJON RONDO IS NOT JASON KIDD
When Jason Kidd was rookie his nickname was Ason, as in, “No J.” To say Kidd was a bad shooter when he entered the league would be putting it mildly. He didn’t break the 40 percent barrier until his third year in the league and to this day he remains just a tick over that mark for his career.
Of course if Kidd did have a jump shot back then, he would have been illegal. It didn’t stop him from running up outrageous assist totals and leading a sad-sack franchise like the Nets to two straight NBA finals.
In that way he’s a little reminiscent of Rajon Rondo, who also lacks a dependable jumper to go with his other considerable skills.
But over the last four seasons, Kidd has remade himself into a dangerous 3-point shooter. He’s not an on the move artist like Ray Allen, but if you leave him alone behind the arc, he’ll bury you. Which is exactly what happened late Friday night when Kidd got the ball at the top of the key off a scramble set and pump-faked Allen to give himself all kinds of space, and the Mavericks the lead.
“I’m kicking myself,” Allen said. “I’ll be in my bed thinking I should have never left him. That’s how the game goes.”
In a strange bit of foreshadowing, Rivers was asked about Kidd’s ability to knock down open 3’s before the game.
“Jason Kidd has always been known as the guy that couldn’t shoot,” Rivers said. “He’s literally laughed his way all to the bank. They still leave him open.”
But Rivers doesn’t see the parallels between his point guard and Kidd. “I’m not worried about Rondo as a 3-point shooter,” he said. “They’re so different. Jason Kidd has size and Rondo has speed. I think [Rondo’s] in-between game is more important.”
To that end Rivers has been encouraged by Rondo’s willingness to take the 16-23 foot jumper that teams dare him to shoot. Rondo’s taken more of them, and made more of them (45 percent, according to Hoop Data), than at any other point in his career so far.
“I think he’s starting to take the ones that have been there for the last two years,” Rivers said. “I think he’s more comfortable taking them and I think he’s taking the right ones too. The 3’s you can throw out the window. He’s taking the elbow jump shots. Guys are going under screens now, he’s pulling up and taking that shot. For us to be a great team, that’s a very important shot.”
Rondo may be forced to adapt like Kidd some day when his speed begins to wane, but for now that mid to long-range jumper is the one he needs to make. He had a good look at one late, but it didn’t go down. As Allen said, that’s the way the game goes sometimes.
THE BEAST IS BACK
It doesn’t take long to identify the bright, shiny silver lining in the Celtics loss. Kendrick Perkins made his first start in place of an ailing Shaquille O’Neal and it would frankly be a shock if the change isn’t permanent.
Perkins played 32 minutes and had 13 points along with 12 rebounds. It was his first double-double since returning from knee surgery, and it’s not likely to be his last.
“We love the way he’s playing right now,” Paul Pierce said.
He doesn’t look hesitant and he’s not forcing things. But the most encouraging thing for the Celtics is how agile he’s been since he’s returned. Long before his anterior cruciate ligament snapped in the finals, Perkins was battling knee tendinitis. There were times in the second half of last season when he looked slow and labored.
But now he looks like a new man. Perkins worked tremendously hard in his rehabilitation and dropped eight pounds to get down to 272. That relatively small difference is paying huge dividends.
Perkins played so well that Rivers played him all but two seconds of the fourth quarter. He’s already blown past the minutes restrictions that were supposedly in place and he defied the limitation on not playing more than seven consecutive minutes.
“I’m not worried about the total minutes,” Rivers said after Perkins logged a season-high 32. “I’m more worried about in a row. And again, I thought we went over that in the fourth quarter, but he looked good so I left him in.”
Perkins’ strong play has been huge for the Celtics because Jermaine O’Neal’s comeback didn’t go as planned.
WHAT NOW FOR THE O’NEAL BROTHERS?
First, Shaq. The big man is now dealing with an Achilles injury that kept him out Friday and will probably keep him out Sunday against the Magic, as well. Rivers said he doesn’t think it will last much longer with that, but with Shaq no one really knows.
Jermaine O’Neal, on the other hand, finally has some resolution, but it’s not the kind he was hoping for. Celtics president Danny Ainge informed the press after the game that O’Neal had surgery Friday to clean out his knee and will be out another 6-8 weeks.
According to Ainge, the surgery was originally prescribed by team doctor, Brian McKeon, but O’Neal wanted to see if a four-week rehab would work instead. It didn’t. O’Neal experienced more swelling in his knee after only a week and relented on having the surgery.
“Jermaine couldn’t be given 100 percent assurance that [surgery] was going to fix everything, so he was trying to fix it just by resting and building up the glutes and quads that we talked about last time,” Ainge said. “And it just kept swelling even before he started resuming his activities and so he reconsidered and did it.”
The 6-8 week timeframe is a guess, according to Ainge but it would hopefully put O’Neal back on the court at the end of the regular season and in time for the playoffs.
“He really wants to contribute to the team in the playoffs and we think he can,” Ainge said. “If he can get healthy, he’s already shown in the short time he’s been with us and in training camp how good he can be defensively.”
For now the Celtics are down to Perkins, Semih Erden and hope at center with a spot of Glen Davis on the side. It’s not the scenario they envisioned, but it’s enough for now.