Coach Doc Rivers needs his Celtics to win in 48 minutes and avoid more overtime contests.
The Boston Celtics have defied the odds this calendar year, winning games many analysts have felt they should lose. They have not only survived the loss of floor general Rajon Rondo (out for the season with a torn ACL) and rookie starting power forward Jared Sullinger (also out for the year after back surgery), they have rallied as a team to become a national talking point.
But the exciting ride has included many bumpy roads, including a plethora of overtime periods. Veterans Kevin Garnett, 36, and captain Paul Pierce, 35, have provided major minutes in post-regulation contests since the late January injuries to their valuable allies. Such gutsy efforts have pushed the Celtics into legitimate contention, but have consequently exhausted the metaphorical heart and soul of the organization.
Since Rondo sustained his knee injury mid-game on January 25 in Atlanta, the Celtics have gone 10-5. Boston's winning ways began the game after their point guard went down, as the squad welcomed the defending champion Miami Heat to the Garden, not yet aware of the severity of his affliction.
The Celtics battled to overcome LeBron James' Heat, sparking an astonishing seven-game winning streak leading to the current 10-5 stretch. However, this wintertime dream has featured nightmarish realities, including a staggering eight overtime periods, a constant shortage of men and the challenge of introducing two brand new members of “Team Green,” guard/forward Terrence Williams and guard Jordan Crawford.
Coach Doc Rivers understands the importance of wins, but has also iterated his preference to rest Garnett so he remains healthy for the long haul (Pierce will likely need some time as well). Budding star Jeff Green has helped matters in many respects, scoring consistently off the bench (and as a starter in Garnett's lone absence this year, with Pierce only logging 25 minutes). But he has yet to take over a truly competitive game against a formidable opponent.
And the fourth quarters versus many such opponents have been daunting. Garnett often appears to battle down low for rebounds all by his lonesome, while Pierce relies on his tired legs to run isolation drives against younger, quicker defenders.
Such sudden end-of-regulation dependence on KG and Pierce has directly contributed to an unfortunate number for Boston: ten regular season overtime contests.
The blame for this overworked stretch cannot be placed on the Truth or his dutiful compadre Garnett. The Celtics often seem to lack a collective sense of urgency as the game clock wanes, forcing the veterans into implausible attempts at heroism.
Overtime periods, however, have largely been much different. Most of the time, Boston utilizes its extra five minutes well, pushing the ball up court, passing efficiently and maintaining the defensive importunity that sparks runs.
KG showcased such overtime intensity in Monday's 110-107 win over the Utah Jazz. Garnett denied center Al Jefferson positioning on back-to-back Utah possessions, and inevitably forced the Jazz into quick, poor-percentage shots. Even when Jefferson had an opening, it was at the top of the key, where he experiences little accuracy (his jumper bounced off the front rim and saw a lucky bounce).
But Boston needed no luck on the offensive side in overtime. The Green worked together to create openings for Pierce, a far cry from the one-man show he was forced into in the fourth. The go-ahead three the captain hit in OT directly resulted from quality team basketball, and his next two makes were due to constant off-ball movement and spacing.
Utah defenders knew they couldn't cheat, knowing shooters would be left open on the wings. So they left Pierce in single coverage, and he pushed through screens on the dribble-drive for high-percentage pull-ups. He scored seven straight overtime points, finishing with 26 as well as eight assists and seven rebounds.
And with a little help from his friends, KG capped off prime defensive stands by keeping Al Jefferson off the boards with aggressive box-outs. He grabbed 10 rebounds to go with his 13 points off 5-of-9 shooting, registering his 16th double-double of the season. Like so many other grueling games this year, the Big Ticket showed he will never relinquish his will to win.
The Celtics especially needed that will Monday, in the raucous confines of Salt Lake City's EnergySolutions Arena, having lost three of their first four games in a rigorous five-games-in-one-week west coast trip.
The Truth and KG once again made the biggest impact in the clutch, proving Boston benefited from GM Danny Ainge's inability to deal them by last Thursday's NBA trade deadline. They still have the heart and drive to lead the Celtics to gritty wins over playoff teams, east coast and west.
They also proved that they cannot win games by themselves.
Boston's explosion in the second half of the season has been ignited by superb team basketball, which continues to propel them in overtime affairs. For the sake of Doc Rivers' aging veterans and short-handed bench, the Celtics must find a way to collectively close out games in 48 minutes if they expect to compete for the title in June.