As has been the case for much of the "Big Three" era, the Boston Celtics head into their first-round playoff matchup against the New York Knicks with a host of questions—and seemingly few answers to give.
They're a year older than the bunch that was already "too old" a year prior. Ray Allen has departed, taking advantage of the greener pastures waiting in Miami. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce both spent time on the trade block again this season, mostly as a result of the biggest change from 12 months ago—the season-ending ACL tear of Rajon Rondo.
But in the months following Rondo's injury, the Celtics have, well, been the quintessential Celtics. The trade winds slowed to a San Diego breeze, bringing in Jordan Crawford as the only notable arrival or departure. And despite the injury to Rondo, there was no panic from Doc Rivers—just a cool and collected staying of the course.
Ever since the arrival of Garnett and Allen prior to the 2007-08 campaign, the regular season has always been a secondary concern. It's an 82-game marathon, and Doc Rivers' penchant for shrugging at midseason losses is only rivaled by Gregg Popovich in San Antonio.
It would have been easy for Rivers to panic after the loss of Rondo. The Celtics were already barely keeping their head above water in the Eastern Conference, falling in and out of the No. 8 seed with a possible series against Miami in the offing. (And, as an aside, your guys didn't "want" the Heat, Celtics fans. No one wants to get pulverized in five games.)
However, Rivers stayed the course and the ship steadied. The Celtics finished the regular season with their first No. 7 seed in franchise history, and with Rivers getting a matchup with an equally calm and collected Mike Woodson and his New York Knicks.
Woodson, who was in his first full season as the Knicks head coach, had his own share of turmoil during the regular season. New York went through a midseason malaise, going 20-21 over a stretch of games from mid-December through mid-March after an 18-5 start. But, alas, the Knicks rallied over the last month and re-ascended to the No. 2 seed in the East.
Two persevering teams. One series, and it should be a doozy. Here is a complete breakdown of the Celtics' first-round series against the Knicks, along with a complete schedule of where to watch every game.
First Round Schedule
|1||Saturday, April 20 at 3 p.m. ET||Madison Square Garden in New York City||ABC|
|2||Tuesday, April 23 at 8 p.m. ET||Madison Square Garden in New York City||TNT|
Friday, April 26 at 8 p.m. ET
|TD Garden in Boston||ESPN|
Sunday, April 28 at 1 p.m. ET
|TD Garden in Boston||ABC|
Wednesday, May 1
|Madison Square Garden in New York City||N/A|
Friday, May 3
|TD Garden in Boston||N/A|
Sunday, May 5
|Madison Square Garden in New York City||N/A|
Regular Season Record and Stats Leaders
Points Leader: Paul Pierce (18.7 PPG)
Rebounds Leader: Kevin Garnett (7.8 RPG)
Assists Leader: Paul Pierce (4.7 APG)
First Round Series Breakdown
Biggest Strength: Defensive Efficiency and Scheme
It's not breaking new ground to say the Celtics are a great defensive team. They have been ascendant every season on that end since the "Big Three" era began, and that hasn't changed since Ray Allen's departure for Miami. Boston gave up 101.1 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, finishing eighth in the league, per NBA.com.
And, surprisingly enough, the Celtics have been slightly better defensively since Rajon Rondo's injury.
Much of the reason Boston has more than survived without Rondo is the continued excellence of Avery Bradley. A 94-foot hound who wreaks Louisville-like havoc on opposing point guards, Bradley would have gotten All-Defense consideration had he not missed the first half of the season. The Celtics have been especially good with Bradley and Kevin Garnett together on the floor, and the latter's minutes should only increase in the postseason.
Watching Bradley in pick-and-roll situations is particularly mesmerizing. In the clip below, Mo Harkless eventually hits a difficult shot, but it comes after Bradley flummoxes Beno Udrih with some sensational man-to-man defense.
Boston is the best team in the league against pick-and-roll ball handlers, per Synergy Sports, and Bradley is arguably the biggest individual reason why.
The second and most important reason comes from scheme. Tom Thibodeau came over as an assistant coach prior to the 2007-08 season and installed a defense he would eventually carry over to his gig with the Chicago Bulls. The Celtics' scheme is predicated on intelligent rotations, especially in pick-and-roll situations and on isolations.
The play above is a perfect representation of how the Celtics' defensive scheme works. On this possession, Brooklyn's Joe Johnson is isolated above the break against Jordan Crawford, who competes with Jason Terry for Boston's worst man-to-man defender nightly.
Whenever Boston recognizes the isolation is being set up, the other defenders leap into action, getting either one foot inside the paint or standing just outside the paint. Notice how Jeff Green stands at the complete opposite side of the low block as Kris Humphries.
This rotation leaves the Celtics a bit vulnerable against a Knicks team that's almost allergic to the paint. New York shoots a bevy of jump shots and makes a ton thanks to its stable of elite shooters on the outside. A team with like the Knicks oftentimes give the Celtics a tough time because quick-release jump-shooters can get good looks against Boston if the passing is smart enough.
For most of the season, it hasn't been. The Celtics finished fourth in opponent three-point percentage this year, their intelligent close-outs being a major reason why. But New York torched them for a 14-of-27 performance the last time these two teams played, so seeing which side of the spectrum this series falls on will be captivating.
Biggest Weakness: Lack of Individual Firepower
As is the case offensively, the overall numbers point to the Celtics being better without Rajon Rondo. They scored 99.2 points per 100 possession with him on the floor this season and 102.3 while he's on the bench, per NBA.com. That represents the difference between being a bottom-five offense and right around league average.
Those are statistics Celtics fans know well—especially those who spend their evenings in a local Worcester bar arguing Rondo was holding this team back. No one can deny Rondo's talent, not even his most strident critics. But there became an increasing groundswell of dissatisfaction with Rondo in Boston with the star guard this season, as he often chose individual stats over what's best for the team.
As the brilliant Bob Ryan would put it, Rondo is the king of the "selfish assist." He would become purposely passive to a fault, choosing to make passes rather than take wide-open jumpers. It was especially apparent when Rondo was chasing the all-time record for consecutive games with double-digit assists.
Fine. That's fair enough. But the reason fans in Boston were so disappointed with Rondo's regular season is that he was so ascendant 12 months ago. Rondo's 44-8-10 line during Game 2 against Miami was one of the single best postseason games in Celtics franchise history—and that's obviously saying something.
For all of his enigmatic personality traits, Rondo plays his guts out in the postseason. And he's the only player on Boston's roster who can continually bring elite offensive production on a nightly basis at this point.
Don't get me wrong, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce continue to amaze. Their longevity and continued effectiveness is something we'll be marveling at long after their careers are over. They're just not capable of bringing it every night on that elite level anymore, which is understandable given the thousands of NBA miles on their treads.
At this juncture in his career, Garnett is little more than a jump-shooter offensively. Pick-and-roll opportunities and spot-up shots consisted of 40 percent of the Big Ticket's possessions ending in a field goal attempt, free throws or a turnover, per Synergy.
Though his most-used type of possession is still a post-up, shot location data backs up what the eyeball test shows: Most of those are turnaround jumpers. According to NBA.com, Garnett has taken less than a quarter of his shots inside five feet this season. While Garnett has never been a bang-around style of player inside, that represents about a seven percent dip from his first couple years in Boston.
Pierce, meanwhile, has showed the most signs of life since Rondo's injury. He averaged nearly 20 points per game and shot over 50 percent in March, but has been battling lingering ankle issues in April.
Garnett and Pierce have always risen to the occasion since becoming teammates. It just remains to be seen whether they can still win an entire playoff series as the Celtics' two best players.
Best Matchup: Boston's Smart Motion vs. Knicks' Cut Defense
One of the biggest overarching ways Doc Rivers has tried to mitigate the loss of Rondo is by re-committing to the team's motion offense. It's a set that has always been the Celtics' base under Rivers, but Rondo's penchant for improvisation mitigated its prevalence a bit.
Whenever Rondo went down, Rivers made sure to emphasize no roles were changing. The base offense would stay the same, just no one in particular would over the ball-dominant role left by the Celtics guard's absence.
"It's just basketball," Rivers said (via the Associated Press). "There's no point guard. It's just basketball by committee. I don't want a guy thinking now he's Rondo."
As mentioned earlier in this space, Boston has survived just fine without a traditional point guard. The key to this re-ascent has been the prevalence of smart cuts in the Celtics' offense, a staple of motion-style, "everybody plays point guard" sets.
According to Synergy Sports, Boston has averaged 1.26 points per possessions when a cutter finishes a play with a field goal attempt, turnover or free throws. That ranks third overall in the league and has taken an increased emphasis as the team uses fewer pick-and-roll possessions without Rondo.
As luck would have it—or, more accurately, a team boasting defensive minuses Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd—the Knicks have been wretched against opposing cutters this season. Synergy measures them as the sixth-worst team in the league at 1.23 points per possession.
In the video above, New York simply doesn't communicate. It's apparent that the Celtics are trying to cut through the middle of the floor, but Kenyon Martin and Iman Shumpert fail to talk to one another and the result is an easy Brandon Bass layup. It's a simple play from Boston, but one that vexed the Knicks during their regular-season meetings.
If the Knicks don't improve their defensive awareness in the postseason, Boston may get a ton of uncontested layups.
Worst Matchup: Knicks in Transition
For all of their excellence on defense, the Celtics are a team that loves to play at a certain pace. Their roster, save for Bradley and Green, isn't equipped to handle run-and-gun teams. And with the questionable defenders this particular Celtics team boasts—looking at you Jason Terry and Jordan Crawford—having structure is of the utmost importance.
Most of the time, Boston is able to mitigate opposing teams' transition opportunities by controlling the pace. Opposing teams finished only 11.1 percent of their possessions in transition this season, according to Synergy Sports. That's a below-average rate overall and is juxtaposed by the Knicks' 12 percent rate in this series.
When the Celtics do get forced into transition opportunities, though, the results are cringe-worthy. Opposing teams score 1.23 points per possession against the Celtics in transition, which is the second-worst rate in the entire league. It's the only area defensively where Boston is truly dreadful, allowing teams to shoot 63 percent from the field. (Its offensive rebounding rate is a little concerning as well.)
The Celtics get lucky playing New York. The Knicks are one of the slowest-paced teams in the league and have finished fewer than 10 percent of their possession in transition, per Synergy. New York's roster isn't equipped for a run-and-gun style whatsoever, boasting a roster so old that makes the Celtics look like a bunch of Jabari Parkers.
However, the Knicks have increased their transition rate during their four meetings with Boston this season. They've gone from right around nine percent of usage in transition to over 11, which amounts to one or two extra possessions per game.
The video above shows a perfect example of how the Knicks could take advantage of the Celtics during this series. Taking the initial rebound, Iman Shumpert hands the ball off to Raymond Felton fully expecting a standard half-court set. But Felton sees Boston's to lingering defenders slacking a bit in the backcourt and takes advantage, forcing an over-help from Jason Terry and connecting with Shumpert of an easy corner jumper.
These possessions will be kept to a minimum, certainly. Neither side wants to run much, and postseason pace tends to slow down from the regular season. But in games that are expected to be close, these one or two extra transition chances a night could secretly swing the series.
Key Player: Jeff Green
Perhaps the only player more enigmatic on the Celtics' roster than Rondo is Jeff Green. A strong, rangy forward with a bevy of athleticism, Green has more athletic tools than anyone in the league outside of the LeBrons of the world.
He's averaged 17 points per game while making 49 percent of his shots (43 percent of his three-pointers) since the All-Star break. That ascent has helped the Celtics immensely on the offensive end while giving credence to his long-term contract.
The coup-de-grace during his second-half ascent was obviously his career-best night against the Heat in March. Facing off against a Miami team at the height of its historic win-streak powers, Green scored 43 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots. Though the Heat ultimately came away with a two-point win, that game was viewed as evidence of Green's true potential as a player.
Green has since added to that Miami performance with great nights against New York and Detroit. But the problem with these ascendant evenings is that they're sporadic, seemingly coming whenever Green is feeling good and ready to be not-terrible.
He's a player with extreme highs and extreme lows. His first game after that Miami contest was a vintage Green disappearing act, where he took just eight shots and grabbed two rebounds.
While the Celtics will more than welcome any highs Green can give them down the stretch, any semblance of consistency would also be appreciated. Playoff coaching is all about how you use your rotation, and if Doc Rivers never knows what he's going to get from Green, it's hard to know when to play him.
Odds are he won't fall out of the rotation the way a similarly enigmatic Nate Robinson once did. But without Green being at least a semi-star for most of this series, Boston can't compete over a seven-game slog.
Picking against the Celtics in the NBA playoffs has become a yearly tradition the past three seasons. Boston inevitably slugs its way through a shrug-worthy regular season, one filled with trade rumors about its best players and talks of internal dissent. There is always a sense of impending doom for these Celtics, always giving it "one last ride."
And inevitably, they always persevere. This core (though Ray Allen has left) has made it to the conference semifinals in every season together, Doc Rivers leading them every step of the way. Just when everyone in Boston and across the nation counts this team out, it kicks out at the 2.5 mark and makes a surprising run.
Unfortunately, that won't happen this time around. While the Celtics won't go down without a fight and this series will inevitably last six or seven games, the loss of Rondo remains a blow that's unrecoverable over course of a playoff series.
Generally speaking, the team with the best player wins an NBA playoffs series—especially in the seven-game format. With Rondo and Carmelo Anthony facing off, that would have been a question. But Anthony's brilliance down the stretch is indicative of an impending tour-de-force in the postseason, and the Knicks have built a great team around their superstar.
The series ends in Boston—just not the way Celtics fans envisioned.
Series Prediction: Knicks in six.