Celts Avoid Disaster, Hang On To Win

This column should start by welcoming Ray Allen to the playoffs – thanks for deciding to play on Wednesday, Ray. But the real story is Boston’s play down the stretch. Holding a 17 point second half lead at home in the playoffs, as much as 12 points in the fourth quarter, the Pistons had no right to even have a chance in the final minute. The Celtics fell apart down the stretch – again. Go to the Atlanta series, the Cleveland series, now against Detroit, each time closely contested game Boston plays in they struggle to finish out the game.In Game 7 against Cleveland they got a few big plays, just enough to stave off Lebron. Last night, they needed to rely on the big cushion they built early, and foul shots down the stretch. The problem: nobody wants to take the big shot late in the game.

Garnett led the way with 33 points, but each time he touched the ball in the fourth the Big Ticket looked pass first. The last few possessions, Detroit was able to lay off him on the perimeter since he didn’t even look to shoot.  Allen did most of his damage early, canning five three’s, none late in the game. Kendrick Perkins provided the big role player performance that teams need to win playoff games. His only contribution in the fourth – a technical foul. Trumping Rasheed Wallace to see who can make the biggest mental mistake as late in the game as possible.

Eventually the lack of mental toughness, that missing killer instinct that the champions have, will catch up with Boston. Surprisingly, it hasn’t yet. But this series is not over. Detroit rides a wave of confidence into Game 6, back at The Palace.

Chauncey Billups was back to his old tricks, 26 points and 6 assists, in a big game. Backup Rodney Stuckey continued to play solid off the bench, stepping up with a big three pointer late – clearly he’s not afraid to take a big shot. Detroit – the king of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – needs to bring the defensive intensity they showed in the fourth quarter, for the entire game. Boston finished over 50% shooting for the game, and dominated the rebounding battle. A vaunted defensive unit, Detroit cannot win giving up 100+ points, they need to play with urgency and intensity for four quarters.

Billups, Hamilton, even Wallace, played solid most of the game on offense. Yet, the sparkplug I keep mentioning, the Pistons equivalent to Ginobili, Tayshaun Prince, still has his head in the sand. Another non-descript performance. He needs to make his presence felt, defensively, offensively, on the glass, in some way. He’s multi-talented, its time to show some of those talents.

Anyone that says they can predict what will happen Friday is crazy. We’ve seen Boston fail to crack 70 on the road, and we saw them steal Game 3 in Detroit. We’ve seen Detroit look unbeatable and unworthy of being a playoff team from a game to game basis in this postseason. With Billups appearing healthy – though Rip Hamilton appeared to injure his elbow late in the game – the Pistons get the edge at home, especially since Boston still looks shaky on the road. If the game is close, or any game here on in is close, Boston has to prove they can hit a big shot and close out a game. Until then, the Celts are walking a dangerous line.


Celtics Become Road Warriors

Venues change, series change, but the recipe to win does not. It’s very basic, the team who’s role players and bench make the biggest contribution, that has a decided three point advantage or rebounding edge, and can hit big shots to stop a run wins the game. Home, away, higher seed, lower seed, MVP, Coach of the Year, no matter what. Boston did all of the above Saturday night in a dominant 94-80 win in Detroit, that elusive first playoff road win.

Boston’s second unit won this game in the first quarter. The Celts started with 11 straight points out of the gate, and led 15-4 at the 5:34 mark of the first. A minute prior to that Kevin Garnett exited with two early fouls, followed to the bench by Ray Allen a minute later, also with two quick ones. Led by Rodney Stuckey, Detroit reeled off 13 consecutive points in a four minute span. Already up against the wall after losing at home in Game Two, facing the pressure of not having won a road game all postseason, with two of its three stars on the bench in foul trouble, having handed away an 11 point lead, Boston easily could have wilted right here. Likewise, Detroit had a chance to stomp them.

Instead, the Boston reserves – James Posey, Sam Cassell, and Glen Davis – led a 10-0 run to close the quarter. Boston led 25-17 and never looked back. Detroit made runs the rest of the game, but right there the game had a chance to either way. Boston not only responded, its role players, who failed to show up in Game Two , responded.

Detroit’s offense played abysmal. Out of sync consistently, the Pistons had chances to cut into Boston’s lead, which bloated to 18 at halftime and stayed in double digits most of the second half, but could not string together good offensive possessions at any point in the game. Billups and Prince killed the Pistons in different ways. Billups, perhaps still hampered by the hamstring injury that forced him to miss a game in Orlando last series, sat for long stretches of the game as Stuckey stepped up and played a great game in his stead. However, when Billups played he hurt the team. Saunders inserted Billups with 5:30 left for a last desperation run. After the Pistons trimmed the lead to 9 and made a defensive stop, Billups immediately turned the ball over. He then missed a 3-pointer and another jumper on two of the next three possessions. That turnover and missed three killed Detroit’s chances. Either possession would have Boston under pressure, something they have not responded to well on the road late in games. Blame Saunders for looking to Billups late in the game after sitting most of the way, blame Billups for not hitting the big shot, and perhaps not looking for teammates that had better nights than he.

Prince flat out stunk. No injuries, no excuses. Detroit’s equivalent to Manu Ginobili, Prince is a spark plug that can create matchup nightmares for opponents, and cause disruptions on defense. He only caused nightmares for his own team. 2-11 shooting and four rebounds. While role player performance separates teams, its assumed that the stars will play well. Neither Billups nor Prince stepped up.

Credit Boston for hitting a few big shots, and more importantly grabbing six offensive boards in the fourth quarter. Each time Detroit made them sweat, someone stepped up with a big shot – even Ray Allen found the net late in the game. The offensive rebounds though, broke Detroit’s back. When you are trying to come back from a double-digit deficit against a quality team, nothing is more deflating than making a defensive stop and not grabbing the rebound. Getting two consecutive stops is extremely difficult. More importantly, Boston ran more precious seconds off the clock each time.

And how can Piston fans boo throughout this game. The crowd marred a potentially historic night with the city hosting the Stanley Cup Finals, NBA playoffs, and a baseball game simultaneously. Detroit’s performance warranted the boo birds after the game, or late in the fourth, but booing the team in the first half and third quarter, the game still within reach, is unacceptable. A day ago they controlled the series thanks to a big road win. Talk about fickle.

Monday night Detroit is back up against the wall, a familiar position. They trailed Philadelphia 2-1 in the first round before three straight wins. If Billups is hurt he needs to sit, if not he needs to come to play like a star. It wouldn’t hurt if Rasheed Wallace stepped up and called for the ball in a big spot either. He plays good, but not up to his potential. Wallace is capable of taking over a game offensively, what better time than now.

Lebron Needs Help

Classic sudden death playoff games break one of two ways, the game creates a legend or a legend makes the game. Sunday, one legend and one superstar made the game. Forget Bird vs. Wilkins from ’88, go back to Oscar Robertson and Sam Jones in 1963 to find the only other time two players scored over 40 points in a Game Seven. Add Lebron and Pierce to the annals after an epic duel in Boston.

James outdid Pierce with 45 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds to 41, 5, and 4, but the Pierces’ Celtics got the best of the Cavs 97-92 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. In a game featuring two stars at their best, a 38-year-old forgotten role player made the biggest shot, and was the difference in the game. PJ Brown buried an open jumper with 1:21 left to give Boston a three-point cushion. Off a timeout, Delonte West, the only other Cav to show up Sunday, missed a good look at a three, turning the game into a Celtic foul shooting contest for the final minute. Brown, who didn’t even play in the NBA until February this season, finished with 10 points, including six in the final stanza.

He took a few bad shots, maybe fell in love with the three ball too much in the fourth, should have pulled up before his last ill-fated drive to the basket, and as Van Gundy pointed out on the broadcast, missed a boxout on the crucial jump ball late in the game. However, Lebron can answer any criticism levied toward him with a simple question – where’s the help?

The 23-year-old now knows how Jordan felt his first 5 or 6 years in the league, except there is no Pippen on this team. Cleveland stinks. It’s a disgrace what surrounds Lebron. Forget 2010, he may be better off on the Knicks right now, and that’s saying something. Ben Wallace is no longer a rebounding and defensive monster, yet remains an offensive liability. Sczerbiak did not score. Did Ilgauskas even play in the second half? Many people forget the Cavs actually have two former Number 1 draft picks on the team. Clearly the GM who took Joe Smith is no longer employed. Explain to me how Anderson Varejeo and Sasha Pavlovic held out for new contracts before the season. Danny Ferry could dig into the D-League for better talent, or find a sharp-shooter like Boston’s Eddie House in free agency. Though spotty at times, West gave a valiant effort, the only other Cav that actually played like he wanted to win at all costs.

Without help, James almost did it all by himself. Scoring aside, he came up with two big steals in the second half, the second leading to a dunk that trimmed the Celtic lead to 89-88, the closest Cleveland would get. He skied for clutch rebounds after painfully watching former rebound legend fail to box out, allowing Boston to tip back offensive rebounds and maintain possession, forcing Cleveland to get multiple defensive stops.

In the press conference, James intimated the team needs to improve. He handled it with class, shouldering the blame, giving credit to Pierce, critiquing his own game and where it needs to improve. The bottom line is clear, get this man help. Ferry has cap flexibility, he has the biggest star in the world to entice players to come, get it done. At this point, forget finding a Pippen, just improve this make the rest of this team NBA-caliber.

Boston again escaped, this time hiding behind Pierce. Ray Allen was admitted to the Witness Protection Program, only to emerge for a few late-game foul shots. Garnett played decent, but 13 points, 13 rebounds hardly says Big Ticket. If Tim Duncan puts those numbers up in Game 7 tonight, he’ll be killed and the Spurs will lose. To my surprise, Rajon Rondo stepped up with a solid game, enough to keep playoff vet Sam Cassell glued to the bench, though Cassell’s putrid performance in this series also contributed to that.

8-0 at home, 0-7 on the road. No team who played decisive games in the first two rounds ever won the NBA title. The Celtics need to shape up immediately, or this dream season will end. Detroit will get a game in Boston, in fact they will get one of the first two. That’s what the Pistons do. Billups is rested, Lebron is out of the way, Detroit is ready. If Boston intends to advance, the Celtics have to show up on the road. 69 points for a 66-win team is unacceptable, especially in a Game Six against a mediocre, at best, defensive team. Garnett’s legacy is at stake. Rewind before the season, skeptics quietly questioned that none of Boston’s Big Three had advanced to the NBA Finals, and none was known for knocking down the big shot. Well, no need to wonder quietly anymore. Pierce answered the bell, Allen had his bell rung, and the verdict is out on KG. He has not played like a Hall of Famer, has not looked for the ball with the game on the line, and has not stepped up when he had his chance. The season ends in six games unless that changes.

Why Cavs Can Beat Boston

Two or three losses makes you think, at four its a steak, now Boston’s road problems are a troubling trend, following its fifth straight post-season road loss in Cleveland, evening up the Eastern Semifinal at two games apiece. Home-road dichotomy aside, the Celtics find themselves in trouble because they wilt under pressure.

Boston trailed by 3 points after the third quarter. They have three All-Star, superstar players, Cleveland has one, who continues to struggle by his standards. Logic says the Celtic trio steps up, makes big plays, closes the game out, and take control of the series. Yet offensively challenged Anderson Varejao outscored Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett combined in the deciding 4th quarter. Not a tremendous feat considering Allen and Garnett were shutout, attempting only three total shots. That’s Boston’s problem, nobody wants the ball in crunch time. Same situation during Game 4 in Atlanta, reluctance to take the big shot.

The Cavs don’t suffer from that problem. Despite shooting an historically poor shooting performance in the series, Lebron wants the ball no matter how many he misses, and he’s not afraid to the deciding shot, or take it hard to the basket. Like a preying animal, James smelt blood late in the fourth, and sunk his teeth into the entire Celts defense, driving by Pierce and Posey, before giving Garnett – the Defensive Player of the Year – a facial with a powerful, rim rattling signature dunk. A microcosm of the game, Boston on its heels, Cleveland on the attack.

Despite the road problems, Boston has continued to dominate at home, playing like a completely different team. But as the road losses mount, the pressure to win at home builds, and if it comes down to a close game, Cleveland has its go-to guy, but where will Boston turn? Monday night you would not have known KG was even on the floor in the fourth quarter if Lebron didn’t posterize him on that dunk.

All season Boston proved me, and many critics, wrong. Could Rondo run the point, would age catch up with them, can this team play defense? They answered each question emphatically. The last unanswered questions, none of the stars has ever won big in the playoffs and who takes the last shot, may sting Doc Rivers’ squad. Let’s say the Celts are in trouble if Rondo leads the team in scoring again.

Boston Keeps First Round Interesting

All we heard throughout the second half of the NBA season was how the West was wide open, six or seven teams are capable of making the finals, prepare for the most competitive playoffs ever. Well, we’re waiting. After tonight every Western Conference 1st Round series may finish – all in 5 games or less. So much for those classic playoff battles from the start. In fact, only two opening round series are guaranteed to extend past five games, the two least likely when the playoffs began – Detroit-Philadelphia and Boston-Atlanta.

In last night’s Game Four in Atlanta, Joe Johnson did what the heralded Celtics Big Three could not – take over a tight playoff game down the stretch and hit clutch shots. Possession after possession Johnson stepped up while Boston tightened up, finishing with 35 points on the night. Atlanta tied the series at two games apiece by outscoring Boston 32-17 in the fourth quarter.

Initial concerns about Boston this season evaporated during the 66-win campaign, now they may return. Neither Pierce, Garnett, or Allen has ever excelled in the playoffs. No championships, more disappoints and defeats than success. Another question – who gets the ball when the team needs a basket? Last night, nobody wanted the ball. Nobody stepped up. The trio combined for 59 points, but in the playoffs they need to do whatever is necessary to win. If it means scoring 80 combined, that’s what they have to do. In Game 4 they were not prepared. The offense lacked flow in the fourth quarter, settling for long shots, turnovers, no leadership. Sam Cassell, brought in just for these type of moments, when teams need veteran leadership, played only 6 minutes the entire game.

The vaunted defense that dominated the NBA all season,led by Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett, was a figment of the imagination late in the game. Unable to stop Johnson, Rivers called for double teams to slow him down. Late arrivals, and slow rotations led to defensive breakdowns. Inside, uber-athletic Josh Smith continued to put double-doubles, showing no fear of Garnett. Smith and Johnson played so well, Atlanta won without a major offensive contribution from rookie Al Horford, who threw a few verbal jabs toward Paul Pierce after a solid effort in Game Three.

No question Atlanta has talent, Johnson and Smith are All-Star caliber, Horford emerged as a top rookie, Bibby is the veteran leader, along with Marvin Williams and Josh Childress, both capable scorers. Youth, inexperience, and lack of discipline slow this team down. Boston is clearly the better team, even tied at two, the Celts hold an immense advantage with home court. However, if the free wheeling Hawks keep it close, will Boston tighten up under the pressure, and who will hit that big shot?