There were more than enough 'what if’s' in the aftermath of the Celtics double-overtime loss to the Bulls Sunday afternoon in Game 4 of their first-round series. What if Paul Pierce had made both of his free throws at the end of the first overtime? What if the Celtics had been able to foul Ben Gordon instead of allowing him to get a 3-pointer? What if Brad Miller had been thrown out?
Of course, the Bulls could be asking the same thing about a bunch of plays that went the Celtics way if the score had been reversed.
If Game 3 was a perfect road game for the C’s, Game 4 followed a more time-tested playoff script. They controlled the boards, never let Chicago build too much of a lead and made one subtle adjustment after another in what was the first true grind it out game of the series.
But with a three-point lead in the closing seconds of the first overtime, the Celtics failed to execute and Gordon was able to get free for the tying shot. Then in the second overtime the Celtics were unable to score until a frantic closing minute.
So, it’s one that they let slip away. They had a chance to take firm command of the series and they couldn’t quite finish the deal. But, the flip side of that is the Celtics went into Chicago and regained homecourt advantage against one of the hottest home teams in the league.
Despite their dominance in Game 3, this is how it’s going to be for the rest of the playoffs. Without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe, the Celtics margin of error is slim, about as slim as the difference between executing one or two times in a 58-minute game and not.
1. PERK IS AN UNDER CONTROL BEAST
After Joakim Noah and Kendrick Perkins got themselves into a tussle in Game 2, the smart money was that the Bulls would test Perkins at the United Center. Never known for keeping his emotions in check, Perkins has become a hugely important player for the Celtics as he is by far the best rebounder among the healthy big men.
As it turned out, Perkins exhibited the best control of anyone in Chicago. The veteran Brad Miller was the one who lost his cool, throwing something between a push and a Zidane head butt into the grill of Big Baby Davis. It was a bad play by Miller and Danny Crawford rightly jumped in and assigned the only technical to Miller.
But then things got a little weird. Originally Crawford tossed Miller, but the refs got together, looked at the replay and changed the call to simply one technical, and in the end they got it right. Miller’s play wasn’t enough to warrant an ejection.
This series has been physical from the outset and in the most physical games (2 and 4) the referees have basically let the players play. That tends to work to the Celtics advantage and Perkins, in particular, was allowed to do his dirty work inside.
What gets him in trouble, as always, is when he does just a little too much setting screens on the perimeter and it cost him when he inadvertently tripped Gordon and picked up his sixth foul. When Perkins was in the game, the Celtics controlled the glass and eliminated a huge part of Chicago’s game, when he went out things got a little more frantic inside.
Through four games of this series Perkins has been the most consistent big man for either side and he’s going to have to keep playing that way, especially because it seems that Mikki Moore has fallen out of favor.
2. RAJON RONDO HASN’T CHANGED THAT MUCH
One of the fascinating things about the playoffs has been the rest of the country finally realizing that Rajon Rondo is an elite point guard. Certainly when someone plays as well as Rondo has—and he recorded another triple-double—it will open people’s eyes.
But what’s truly fascinating about it is that he hasn’t really changed his game. It’s true that he is being more assertive and attacking the defense at every opportunity, but when people such as Mark Jackson note that Rondo is a better outside shooter and that makes defenses respect him; well, he (and they) are missing the point.
Rondo’s jumper may have gotten slightly better, but what he’s figured out in his third season is that he can get inside almost any time he wants to, and once he gets there he has a variety of shots that he can use to finish.
On a day when he shot 9-for-18, most of Rondo’s misses came from outside the paint, and yet he still shot 50 percent and had 11 assists and only one turnover in 55 minutes. The problem for the Celtics was that Derrick Rose was just as good after playing two subpar games.
We are witnessing a subtle transformation from the Big 3 era to the age of Rondo, and while it has been accelerated without KG in the lineup, it’s also a credit to the Celtics veterans that they have not stood in his way as he asserts himself.
3. THE OVER-RELIANCE ON PAUL PIERCE COST THEM
It seemed curious that Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro elected to go small after Perkins fouled out, but with Tyrus Thomas inconsistent and John Salmons obviously hurt, Del Negro elected to go with Kirk Hinrich at the small forward position.
What that does is set up an apparently tantalizing mismatch for Paul Pierce. In general, whenever the Celtics can get a size mismatch with Pierce they get him the ball in an isolation situation against the smaller man. Considering his track record, it’s hard to argue against it, especially when the Celtics have the lead.
But Hinrich has done a fantastic job defending Pierce and down the stretch in regulation the Celtics went to that well too often and came up dry. While it’s true that Pierce didn’t get many calls when he did get to the basket, it’s also true that nobody was getting any calls.
If there was an obvious bone to pick with the way the Celtics played Game 4 it’s that they recorded assists on just 19 of their 40 made field goals. The ball movement that has been their staple wasn’t on display all that much Sunday and running Pierce in isolation’s is the surest way for it to stop.
4. THE ART OF THE GOOD FOUL
According to the +/- numbers, the Celtics were +10 in the 18 minutes that Brian Scalabrine played. Scal didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet when he was in there. He took just two shots, made one, and had four rebounds and a steal.
He also committed six fouls, but it was how he used his fouls that was so important. (Mikki Moore take note). Of his six fouls, four were shooting fouls that would have been layups and the Bulls made only 5-of-8 free throws. Even the clear path foul he committed on Hinrich didn’t cost the Celtics that much as Hinrich made only 1-of-2 and the Bulls missed on their possession.
Committing clean hard fouls was something PJ Brown did better than anyone else in the NBA during the playoffs last year and Scalabrine executed that subtle part of the game perfectly Sunday.
5. WHAT NOW?
Of the five NBA playoff series that had a split of the first two games, the Celtics were the only team to regain homecourt advantage in Game 3. The Sixers, Heat, Rockets and Mavericks all won on their home floors to extend their advantage. So, the Celtics did their work in Chicago early by winning Game 3, and have homecourt in two of the next three.
But the Celtics lost the chance to put the Bulls away quickly and earn some much needed rest. Game 5 is Tuesday, Game 6 is Thursday and if there is a Game 7 it will be Saturday. That’s a fairly quick turnaround for a team as depleted as the Celtics are right now.
Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have each averaged 40 minutes game. Big Baby Davis has played even more minutes and Rajon Rondo has played 173 of the series’ 207 total minutes so far. That will have an effect in this series and beyond, if there is a beyond.
And yet, as crushing as the loss in Game 4 was, the Celtics still have the advantage in this series and, as always in the playoffs, they will worry about tomorrow when tomorrow gets here.