Know Your Enemy: The Boston Celtics

Kurt —  October 10, 2008

Last Year Record: 66-16
Last Year Playoffs: Won NBA Championship
Offensive Rating: 110.2 (ninth in league)
Defensive Rating: 98.9 (first in league)

The rivalry with the Celtics is back. All the way back. I grew up despising all things Celtics (you had to respect Bird/McHale/Parish, but you didn’t have to like them, and I’ve always just wanted to punch Danny Ainge). Maybe that faded a little starting in the late 90s, but it is back with a vengeance now. I want to see the Celtics crushed.

With that out of the way, let’s be honest — they were the best team in the NBA last year. They won 66 games in the regular season and brought an intensity to the finals — particularly on the defensive end — that the Lakers couldn’t match. The Celtics defense was impressive, both in the team’s regular season meetings and the finals. They were aggressive on the ball, overloaded the strong side at times and were lightning quick on rotations. The help was always there. Opposing teams were forced to take 70% of their shots as jump shots, and they hit just 39.6% (eFG%) of them.

They offense was not spectacular, but it was good. Pierce and KG’s games blended well, Ray Allen spread the floor and the turnovers the Celtics defense created led to some easy baskets every game.

The Celtics went into last season with questions about Rondo and Perkins, but both showed that they could be solid role players around the big three of KG, Pierce and Jesus Shuttleworth. This season nobody questions the starting five of the Celtics, in fact in the case of Rondo I expect him to be better, the question is off the bench.

They lost James Posey. Tony Allen will apparently get more time, but he is no Posey. Darius Miles is, um, let’s say in need of a redemption I don’t expect him to find. Rondo has developed into a solid PG (and could take a step forward if he can improve on a poor 42.2% eFG% on jump shots) but behind him is Eddie House, who can shoot but is not a great ball handler or distributor. I happen to like Leon Powe, but for the Celtics to get back to where they want to be he needs to step forward. Big Baby would also need to step forward.

Health is a concern for every team, but with their three core players being older and Perkins coming in off shoulder surgery, the lack of depth could be a real issue around Faneuil Hall. The Celtics need to be firing on all cylinders to repeat.

To beat the Celtics the Lakers (or any team) will need to create turnovers of their own — the Celtics turned the ball over on 16.6% of their possessions last year (only the Kings turned it over more) but they made that mistake less often in the Finals. You can get Rondo (and particularly House and Allen off the bench) to turn the ball over, and that can lead to easy baskets. Pressure and pace are not really Boston’s friends.

You also have to not foul — easier said than done with KG and PP on the floor. Only two other teams in the league got to the free throw line on as high a percentage of their possessions as the Celtics. The Celtics were very good at tough defending without fouling, other teams need to match that.

Enough of my thoughts. Time for some insider perspective from Jeff, creator of the brilliant Celtics Blog:

The loss of Posey has gotten a lot of attention, how serious is it? Can one of the your pickups fill that role?

Oh it is serious alright. I’m tired of hearing about it, but that doesn’t make it go away. The bottom line is that the Big 3 and team defense were what won us the title last year, but James Posey did help, a lot. He didn’t have lights-out stats, but somehow whenever we needed him, he was always stepping up with a huge 3 pointer or taking a charge or making a key stop. One player doesn’t fill those shoes. It takes the whole bench stepping up and doing a little more. We need Tony Allen to give us wing defense. We need Eddie House to give us more 3 point daggers. We need Leon Powe to take charges. We need the rookies to give some old legs some rest. The great thing about Posey was he could do all that himself. Now it just has to be a team effort.

Are their concerns that this team could lose its incredible intensity, particularly on the defensive end? Or will KG just not allow that?

Good question and one I’ve been pondering lately. My first reaction is to say “no.” I mean, have you ever looked at KG’s face when he’s on the floor? I can’t imagine looking at him in person and not running through a wall when he said “go.” However, the only thing that worries me is that every person is wired differently. Some guys are motivated with a stick and some with a carrot. This is where Doc really has to step up his motivational game (so to speak). Last year, “Ubuntu” was the rallying cry that everyone bought into. That was kind of a gimmick, but it worked because the Big 3 bought in hook, line, and sinker. I have a feeling that the team will buy in to the repeat talk because it sure seems like the Big 3 are in again. They have to be thinking about their legacy at this point. They’ve reached the top of the ladder compared to the current generation. Now they’d like to go down as one of the all time teams.

The Celts offense certainly wasn’t bad last year (ninth in the league in efficiency), but what can happen to improve that?

Just playing another year together will help everyone. Wait till Rajon Rondo starts doing what he can do on a more consistent basis. Ray had some lingering ankle issues last year. If fully healed, he could be even better. Tony Allen can’t shoot like Posey, but he’s a better slasher. There’s room for growth on offense, but it all starts from the defense.

What will it take for this team to repeat as champions?

A lot has to happen. Doc has to get them to buy into the legacy/history thing. Young players need to step up. Veterans need to stay healthy. They need to be good and lucky and then good again. It is really hard winning it once, and really, really hard winning it again. Actually, you might be a better person to ask since you watched your team do it more recently than mine. What did your team do to make it happen again?

I think Jeff hit on a couple big keys — health and some luck matter in repeating. But let’s be clear, when it matters (like on Christmas Day) the Celtics are going to be intense and focused. The other day on NBA TV they were showing a Celtics scrimmage, a routine part of preseason camp. And KG was swatting away his teammates hands while trying to get position in the post, intimidating anyone who would drive the lane and fighting for boards like it was the Finals again. In a meaningless scrimmage. KG is not going to let the Celtics lose their intensity.

And with that intensity, and keeping their health, the Celtics will not be an easy out for anyone.