After going down 3-0 against the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics have regrouped and brought the series to 3-2 following an emphatic win at Madison Square Garden. The Celtics have an opportunity in Game 6 to move even closer to history and attempt to become the first team in NBA history to go down 3-0 and win a playoff series.
Though five games is an undeniably small sample size, it has certainly been enough to gain some serious insight into the style, character and culture of this battered, but resurgent Boston squad.
With a shot at history looming in an unmissable Game 6 at TD Garden, let's take a moment and reflect on what we've learned about the Boston Celtics in this bruiser of a first-round series.
Boston Clearly Misses Playoff Rondo
For all of his physical talents, regular-season Rajon Rondo can be somewhat hit-and-miss. In big games he is downright electric—a versatile talent capable of racking up absurd assist totals—but he often is less than engaged at times, forcing passes and taking ill-advised jump shots.
Fortunately for the Celtics, every playoff game is televised, and Rondo always manages to raise his level of play. In Boston's 2012 Conference Finals run, he averaged 17.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 11.9 assists on 46.8 percent shooting from the floor.
As well as Boston played when Rondo went down with an ACL injury, his ability to create halfcourt offense is something the team sorely misses. The C's are dead last in playoff scoring at 82.8 points per game, and they are shooting an anemic 41.9 percent from the floor.
Though the offense has looked better in Games 4 and 5 as they posted 97 and 92 points, respectively, the team has still been struggling mightily to execute in the halfcourt without their All-Star point guard.
Avery Bradley is not meant to handle the ball for an entire game, and though Pierce has done a solid job as a point-forward, he is not the dynamic playmaker that Rondo is.
The Celtics did not play great basketball with Rondo healthy in 2012-13, but there is no denying that his presence would be a clear game-changer, as Boston is averaging just 17.6 assists per game, leading only the Knicks among playoff teams.
The JET Lives
Jason Terry's first regular season in green was not a particularly pretty one, as he averaged a mere 10.1 points and 2.5 assists per game on 43.4 percent shooting from the floor. His inconsistent production led Boston fans to wonder if the former Sixth Man of the Year was in a prolonged slump or washed up.
After posting no points and three rebounds in Game 1, it was starting to look like Terry was as hackneyed as any former star in the playoffs not named Tracy McGrady.
However, Terry found his form as the series went on and has posted 49 points over the past three games while drawing some questionable comments from New York's J.R. Smith.
Since Game 3, Terry has shot 9-of-18 on three-pointers and committed just three turnovers while pulling a fair share of ballhandling duties for Boston.
Overall, he is averaging 11.6 points, 1.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists in the postseason while connecting on 41.4 percent of his attempted three-pointers.
With another three-point shooter in the lineup opposite Pierce, the Knicks defense cannot simply clog the paint anymore, since Terry has been making his share of outside shots.
Boston's bench woes (which we'll discuss shortly) cannot be ignored, so having someone to duel Smith has been integral for the Celtics' recent success. If they are going to do what has never been done before, they need Terry to maintain his recent high level of play.
Bench Play Has Been Atrocious
After Jeff Green made the leap to full-time starter, Boston's bench was expected to lose some firepower, but the second unit has absolutely fallen off a cliff in the first round.
Beyond Terry's 11.6 points, the next highest scorer off the pine is Jordan Crawford, who is notching 4.5 points in 14 minutes on 33.3 percent shooting from the field.
In Boston's Game 1 defeat, the bench registered just four points on four Courtney Lee free-throws, with Terry and Crawford not notching a single point.
Doc Rivers has been forced to shorten the rotation significantly given the ineffectiveness of players like Crawford and Lee. He used just seven players in Game 5, with Pierce, Green and KG logging 44, 42 and 39 minutes, respectively.
The Knicks' bench has not been significantly better, but Smith has provided sporadic scoring outbursts while Kenyon Martin has given New York a banger and finisher in the paint with Amar'e Stoudemire out.
While it is impossible to say for sure, it is reasonable to think that this series might look quite different if players like Lee and Crawford were contributing in the manner they were expected to heading into the postseason.
Defense is Still the Team's Trademark
Despite trailing in the series, Boston's trademark defense under Rivers has been quite solid. The team is giving up just 87.6 points to the Knicks on 41 percent shooting, and has hounded Carmelo Anthony into taking difficult, low-percentage shots.
Anthony is averaging 30.8 points per game, but that is coming on more than 27 shots per game and he is connecting on a mere 39.4 percent of them. Anthony is putting up numbers due to sheer volume, but he is not playing the MVP-level basketball he did at the end of the regular season.
The Celtics have also been great at contesting the three-pointer—New York's forte. The Knicks are shooting just 31.7 percent from beyond the arc, as Boston is making sure to rotate out and get a hand in the face of the shooter.
Raymond Felton has scored well, notching 18.4 points on 48.8 percent shooting, but Boston is limiting the Knicks' playmaking abilities, forcing players to score in isolation. The Knicks are averaging just 14.4 assists per game—lowest among playoff teams.
Where the Celtics are hurting themselves is on the defensive glass, as they are allowing the Knicks to grab 9.6 offensive rebounds per game and create easy scoring opportunities.
With their defense as sound as ever, one has to wonder what this series would look like if the Celtics shot a little better in Games 1, 2 and 3, where they couldn't throw a rock in the ocean.
Turnovers Will Be Boston's Undoing
Unforced turnovers killed the Celtics' chances of stealing Game 1, and they have been a recurring problem through this series. Without Rondo's steady hand, Boston is averaging 16.8 turnovers per game and allowing New York an absurd 10.4 steals per game.
The main culprit has been Pierce, who has averaged the same number of turnovers and assists (5.4), and had his pocket picked embarrassingly several times by Iman Shumpert.
He is not the only culprit, though, as both Green and Garnett are averaging 2.8 giveaways per contest—an unacceptable number for frontcourt players. Pierce's turnover rate is ridiculous, but he at least has the excuse of being the team's primary facilitator.
The Celtics' assist-to-turnover ratio stands at an unacceptable 1.05, and that is as much the product of Boston making mental mistakes as the Knicks playing aggressive defense.
This is not a club that gets up-and-down in transition, meaning they must maximize each possession, and coughing up the ball this much is an easy way to ensure an early vacation for the C's.
Never, Ever Count out the Celtics
Someone should have told the New York Knicks that if there is one team in the league you don't pull cheap stunts on, it's the Boston Celtics. Showing up to Game 5 dressed in all black for "Boston's Funeral," the Knicks quickly learned that you never doubt what a veteran team with its back against the wall is capable of.
Even with Rondo out, the offense stagnant and the bench playing so poorly, Boston has managed to fight back and make this series compelling.
The trio of Pierce, KG and Green have simply refused to let Boston roll over. Pierce is averaging 20.2 points and 5.4 rebounds, while Garnett is notching just 12.2 points but pacing the team with 14.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
Green has thrived as a starter in the postseason, averaging 20.2 points, 5.4 boards and 2.6 assists while shooting 47.1 percent from beyond the arc and playing inspired defense on Anthony.
Doc Rivers has also made some crucial mid-series adjustments: moving away from the Pierce post-upheavy offense and shortening the rotation due to the bench's ineffectiveness.
With speculation rampant that this could be Pierce and Garnett's last season together, the pair have made it clear with their play that if the Celtics' 2012-13 season is going to end in the first round, it is not going to end quietly.
Statistics accurate as of May 2nd, 2013.
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