Many fans will regard the Boston Celtics' close 98-93 victory over the Detroit Pistons as a forgettable affair, especially considering the late wide-open three-point shot Detroit had to tie the game. National pundits will simply (and deservedly) credit the highest contributors, Jeff Green and Paul Pierce.
But the more important facets of this game—the pros and cons from the players not necessarily regarded for their contributions to the box score—could mean a lot to the Celtics' current and long-term chances.
Most everyone expected Boston to beat Detroit. But nobody outside of Celtics Nation figured it would be such a battle. With Kevin Garnett remaining out due to an inflamed ankle, and a down-but-never-out squad continuously fighting for East Coast prominence, the C's showed many signs both good and bad on Wednesday night.
Green and Pierce clearly paved the way to this win, but the stars of the game are expected to deliver. The following analyses cover what most headlines and cover stories will not report—the players and factors that may prove to be the difference between an NBA Finals run and an early playoff exit.
Avery Bradley and His Confidence
Bradley started off the April 3 game by banging out an early three-point shot. Minutes later, he quickly pulled up for a jump shot with no reservations. The Celtics must embrace the fact that AB continues to play with confidence, regardless of recent struggles.
He also hounded opposing point guard Brandon Knight, helping to hold Detroit's starters to only nine assists. Sure, Jose Calderon did not play, but Bradley deserves credit regardless. He played scrappy defense, and even though he came away with no rebounds, he helped teammates fight for boards most of the night.
He continued to shoot without hesitation late, knocking down both of his second-half shots. He finished with 11 points off 5-of-8 shooting, with three assists and only one turnover.
But AB largely helped Boston the way he knows best—by continuing his “zero tolerance” defense, regardless of the NBA referees' inability to recognize his skills. Even when called for the occasional foul, he disrupted Detroit's offense from the ground up.
Bass showed his aggressive spirit on both ends vs. Detroit, banging down low while also confidently hitting shots from mid-range.
Coach Doc Rivers has given him more opportunities as of late, likely hoping to instill some confidence in the power forward come playoff time (or attempting to boost his trade value for the offseason).
The superb offense Bass contributed against the Pistons cannot be disputed, with 17 points off 6-of-8 shooting and 5-of-7 from the free-throw line.
Bass added seven rebounds but still showed periodic deficiencies blocking out.
But the biggest positive he brought to the table was on D. He had three blocks, including a huge rejection in the third quarter, dispelling the recent notion that his interior defense is altogether useless.
Bass may have committed three fouls, and given up four turnovers in his 37 minutes of play, but Boston will certainly take his plus-eight point differential.
On a number of defensive possessions, the Celtics slid in place to help teammates on the drive. White-and-green jerseys outnumbered their blue-wearing foes under the defensive hoop more often than not, paving the way for an eventual 30-27 advantage.
Jeff Green made some big plays down low, even registering two monstrous blocks on low-post looks down the stretch.
However, Boston still needs to work on its sliding defensive transitions when opponents penetrate the lane. Too often, opponents find themselves open on back-cuts and on openings off drives. Playoff foes will undoubtedly expose such flaws.
At one point, Charlie Villanueva got hit with a wide-open look from 16 feet on the perimeter, his bread and butter. Even though the Celts had a 15-point lead at the time, they have no excuse for giving an old mid-range shooter such an opening. That shot led to the Pistons' rally that brought the game back to single digits.
Unnecessary fouls also seem to be an issue, with the Celts committing hand-checks when they get beat off the ball. Additionally, they showed weaknesses when outsized or outnumbered, issuing hard fouls and putting the Pistons on the line.
And not to beat a dead horse, but the rebounding often seemed lopsided, especially without Shavlik Randolph on the floor. Greg Monroe alone collected 17 rebounds, and Detroit beat Boston 52-34 on the boards.
The Pistons gobbled an unbelievable 24 offensive rebounds to the Celtics' four, while garnering 26 second-chance points.
You don't have to know Celtics legend and color commentator Tommy Heinsohn to understand the issues stemming from holding the ball too often. Especially in the first half, the Celts seemed completely lost when dwindling the 24-second shot clock.
When Courtney Lee, Jason Terry, Jordan Crawford, Green and Randolph were on the floor at the start of the second quarter, athleticism was clearly on Boston's side.
But offensive movement was clearly not, as exemplified by terrible execution and low-percentage shots. Rivers made a quick move to bring in Terrence Williams, but the issue remained.
Simply put, players must move off the ball with better urgency. Without Pierce, every unit seems purposeless on the offensive side, leading to forced or highly contested attempts from the field.
Problems consisted in the second half, with many failed plays leading to wasted possessions as the shot clock began to expire.
Boston should have put Detroit to rest early in the second half—but the second unit's failure to move the ball, and failure to move without the ball, let it become a game again by the fourth quarter.
The Celtics had seven turnovers by the 3:25 mark of the second quarter. Boston's guards largely contributed to such an indelible issue throughout the game, registering eight of the team's 15 miscues.
They tied Detroit with 20 assists and 15 turnovers. That's not good—the Pistons not only rank 21st in team turnovers and 23rd in assists, but they also sit 24th in opponent turnovers.
Crawford's aggressive penetration can be great for Boston's offense when he draws contact and puts in layups. But he also causes problems when he dribbles into contact and cannot pass out due to sliding defense.
His struggles may not show in the box score, but the keen eye notices his inability to hit the open man early or make the extra pass.
Courtney Lee, who logged zero assists and accounted for a minus-two point differential in his 13 minutes of play, might be an even more important issue at hand. The 27-year-old guard continues to have a topsy-turvy year for the C's.
Boston also tried its hardest to push the fast-break offense, with little to no effect—they only scored four points on the run. If the Celtics hope to make a serious playoff push, they will certainly need to improve their skills in transition.
Shavlik Randolph's Contributions
At one point late in the first quarter, Randolph took the ball off the dribble and made a spin move for a layup. Then he denied Monroe on the other side moments later.
What outside-the-box score detail from Wednesday is Boston's biggest issue?
He absorbed a huge offensive foul with 8:40 left in the game, when Boston was down by five. He also hustled on a fast-break rebound with 7:50 left, and fought off three defenders for an offensive board with 7:30 remaining. This guy is the definition of an “outside-the-box-score player.”
Randolph is often the one guy rebounding—a sentiment Heinsohn mentioned during the game's broadcast, and a fact that further indicates the Duke alum deserves postseason minutes.
His teammates' collective body language suggests that they agree—Shav could be a big factor, both in the latter point of the regular season and in the playoffs.
Much can be taken from the Celtics' playoff-clinching win against the Pistons. Jeff Green scored 34 off 13-of-19 in his continued emergence, and Paul Pierce's relentless leadership again paid dividends on all levels.
But the aforementioned small things, both positive and negative, could be the make-or-break points down the line for Boston.