Go ahead, try to figure out the Celtics.
Try to make sense of a team that makes less than 44 percent of its shots and 30 percent of its 3-pointers for an offense that is easily the least efficient of any of the remaining playoff teams. It’s a team that was defined by its defensive might and brawn, and is now living on a steady diet of three-guard small lineups that switch and junk up defenses like a college team. To top it off, the only player to offer a burst of youth and athleticism had shoulder surgery and was replaced by an injured 36-year-old guard who has had to reinvent his Hall of Fame shooting stroke on the fly.
Yet, here they are, one win away the most improbable trip to the finals since the last Celtics team to accomplish the feat just two years ago. It’s tempting to draw parallels between now and 2010, and while there are some -- a lackluster regular season, constant trade rumors -- these two teams really are quite different.
Kevin Garnett was nowhere near as effective in 2010. Rajon Rondo wasn’t this consistent. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were healthy. Tony Allen was a destructive menace on defense and Glen Davis and Nate Robinson provided instant offense off the bench. They also were much bigger, with Rasheed Wallace and Kendrick Perkins playing center alongside Garnett.
This year’s team has an offense that ranked 25th in points per 100 possessions and turnover rate, while also finishing dead last in offensive rebounding percentage. In fact, the Celtics' rate of getting less than 20 percent of their own misses was the worst since 1971 when the stat was introduced.
This is nothing new to longtime followers. Over the last five years, they have consistently been one of the most turnover-prone teams in the league and an indifferent, as well as ineffective, offensive rebounding team. But this year the Celtics' shooting percentage went from elite to just good and their rate of getting to the free throw line went from good to mediocre. Suddenly those turnovers and lack of offensive boards looked even worse on a team that struggled to score points as much as the Celtics. When they talk about their thin margin for error, that’s what they mean.
The second half of the season told a different story as they generated the second-best record in the league behind the Spurs, spurred on by two significant adjustments: Garnett’s move to center and Avery Bradley’s insertion into the starting lineup. Bradley no longer is an active member of the team, which adds a whole other layer to their playoff success, but the second half served as a wake-up call to the rest of the league that there still was life in the Celtics.
They maintain, however, that that they did not need to be convinced.
“We still knew who we were and what we needed to be to get to this point,” Ray Allen said after Game 5 of the conference finals. “I don’t believe one player in this locker room worried about that. We just knew what the league was. We saw how it was shaping up. It was important for us to just find a way to come together.”
And they have.
The Celtics cut down on their turnovers significantly during the postseason and dramatically increased their rate of going to the free throw line, where they are making over 80 percent of their attempts. They’ve even made a better effort on the offensive glass, something that has paid off throughout the Miami series.
They’ve also improved their defensive rebounding percentage, which had slipped noticeably this season. Garnett has been a monster, clearing 27 percent of all the available defensive boards. They’ve also received notable contributions from their backcourt, especially Allen, who has grabbed 60 defensive rebounds in 16 playoff games.
In a way, this is simple. The Celtics are playing better basketball than they did during the regular season, and because it’s the playoffs, their best players are playing more minutes.
Garnett is averaging 37, up from 31 during the regular season, and Rondo is logging 42 minutes a night, up from 37 during the season. Paul Pierce’s minutes have also increased from 34 to 39, and that makes a huge difference for a team without a sixth-man type of reserve who can sustain things when one or more of them are out of the game.
Rondo and Garnett have performed like superstars throughout the playoffs, with Garnett averaging almost 20 and 10 every night and Rondo throwing in around 17 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds each game. Because they have been so good, the rest of the team has been given the room to make adjustments and find other ways to contribute.
Pierce is shooting less than 40 percent from the floor and just 33 percent from 3-point range. He’s been slowed mainly by a string of tough matchups -- Joe Johnson, Andre Iguodala, LeBron James -- as well as a knee injury. But he’s still scoring 20 points and night, and he’s living at the free throw line, where he’s attempted more shots than anyone except for LeBron and he’s making over 90 percent of them.
Like Pierce, Allen is shooting less than 40 percent from the floor and he’s had to adjust his shooting technique because of the bone spurs in his ankle. He’s now snapping off shots quicker and with less arc, while reaching double figures in scoring in five of his last six games. He also spent hours looking at film of his free throw shooting technique before detecting a flaw.
“Where I am now, it’s right where I’ve always been,” Allen said after making all eight of his attempts in Game 5. “I do have to say that my ankle contributed to it. I noticed where when I shoot free throws, I’m a lift-off-my-feet shooter. I was watching film and that’s what I wasn’t doing. I was pushing through it. I’ve shot so many free throws in my downtime that I knew that’s what it was. It was just a matter of getting into the game.”
Brandon Bass, who conveniently gets left out of most Celtics conversations, has been generally steady and occasionally spectacular. The matchups haven’t been kind to Bass throughout the playoffs, but he’s still averaging 10 points and five rebounds and providing needed offense in spurts.
The unsteady bench also has begun to find itself. There is no star on the order of James Harden or Manu Ginobli, so the C's have done it by committee. One night Keyon Dooling pops a trio of 3-pointers, and in the next game Mickael Pietrus snaps out of a shooting slump. Marquis Daniels may have saved the season with his play in Game 4, and Greg Stiemsma saved Game 5 simply by playing solid minutes in the third quarter when Garnett was getting a rest.
Behind it all is Doc Rivers, who has kept the whole thing together with subtle adjustments, quirky lineups and a solid mix of play-calls coming out of timeouts. If the Celtics have a secret weapon it’s Rivers, who is adding to his reputation as one of the premier coaches in the league.
We can spend all day dissecting numbers and strategies and still not put all these pieces in order. For that we need the less-quantifiable half of the equation. It’s as old as the sport itself, but the Celtics genuinely believe in each other and trust one another. Whatever problems they have, they work it out on the floor. Whatever needs to be done, they try to figure it out.
“When you get this close to doing something special, all those small little gripes that [we] had, they’re no longer issues,” Allen said. “I’m playing for one cause and one cause only.”
He added, “We have some very strong personalities, guys that want to win. Our only fault is at times we all want to do it. We found a way to come together and do it together.”
With that come all the other subplots and storylines: Is this the end of the Big Three? What does Garnett plan to do next year? Is Rondo solidifying himself as the foundation of whatever comes next? (Quick takes: Probably. No one really knows. How in blazes can you think about trading Rondo now?)
Right now, tomorrow and for however long this goes, none of that really matters. They have made an uneasy peace with the future and all they are worried about is the present. You can hear it in their answers and you can see it in their actions.
This is who they are, whether it makes sense or not.