We’ve covered the series from a few different angles already, but there’s always the view from the other side. So in the hopes of gleaning some knowledge from someone that’s seen as much of the Celtics as we’ve seen of the Lakers, I exchanged emails with Zach Lowe of the great C’s blog Celtics Hub and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions (for my answers to Zach’s questions, follow this link). I’d like to thank Zach for taking the time to answer my questions about the C’s and giving us his insiders perspective.
It’s obvious that Rondo has grown by leaps and bounds as a player since the 2008 Finals. He’s an All-NBA performer and a 1st Team All-Defensive member. What do you think has been the biggest improvement in his game?
My fellow CelticsHub writer Brian Robb pointed it out earlier this season: Rondo has become an accomplished scorer from 15 feet and in. He was always a great finisher at the rim, but until this season, he struggled from the runner/floater area between the foul line and the lay-up zone. Check out the numbers at Hoopdata.com: Rondo hit 50.4 percent of his shots from between the rim and the 10-foot mark, one of the best marks in the league for a point guard. In 2009, he hit just 40 percent from that area.
His accuracy on shots from between 10 and 15 away took a similar jump. His progress on these sort of shots has given him the confidence to be a legitimate one-on-one scoring threat this season. Armed with that confidence, Rajon has attacked the paint more aggressively, which of course creates better opportunities for both himself and others.
To pick out one other thing: His sense of the court and his teammates has improved dramatically. Watch him rush the ball up in transition, slow it down when no easy first option materializes, and then, once the defense exhales, hit a trailer or cutter you (or the defense) hadn’t noticed. His feel for timing and angles has become elite.
Speaking of Rondo, he’s likely to be defended by Kobe Bryant in this series. Do you think Rondo is better prepared for for this match up this season? What will he need to do to be successful in this match up?
The Celtics have seen this movie enough times now. A bunch of teams regularly defend Rondo in the style Kobe made famous in the ’08 Finals—by sagging off of Rajon and daring him to shoot jumpers. The Heat did it with Dwyane Wade during the first round. The Knicks have been doing it for two seasons.
Still, I think it remains the right call: The C’s half court offense just doesn’t flow as well when teams defend this way as it does when teams defend Rajon more traditionally.
As for counters, I’ll name three. First: Get out in transition. When the Celtics run, they reach another level of efficiency and prevent teams from using this style of defense. Second: Rondo must remain aggressive. This means taking a 15-footer if he’s in a comfortable rhythm, but it also means driving to the rim even with Kobe chilling out at the foul line. It means calling for multiple screen/rolls, one up high and second at the foul line. Third: Doc Rivers must be creative. We’ve seen him use Rajon as a screener (both on and off the ball) to force switches and get Rondo’s man both engaged and moving. Rondo has also become adept at giving the ball up, moving to the wing, watching his defender rove around the court and then darting to an open area along the baseline.
And since we’re on the topic of Kobe, he’s been playing some of the best basketball of his career of late. Who do you think will guard him and what will be the defensive strategy against him? Do you anticipate the Celtics double teaming him or do you think they’ll just single cover him by rotating the Allen’s (Ray and Tony) and Pierce?
This really depends on how the Lakers use him. Given the height advantage Kobe will have over Tony Allen and Ray Allen (and it will be the Allens doing most of the one-on-one work against Kobe), I expect to see a lot of Bryant in the post. If he sets up there in a way that slows LA’s offense, the C’s will send help—possibly even a true double-team.
On screen/roll, the C’s will probably try a number of different things, but their basic response will be to have Kobe’s man fight over the screen while the screener’s guy slides over to cut off penetration and contest a possible quick jumper. Boston does not like to trap or outright switch, even against star players.
It’s the other sort of action that concerns me—the triangle stuff the Celtics don’t see against any other team. Kobe’s going to cut to the rim, flash to the post and cut up to the elbow to receive the ball in motion. It’s difficult for a defense to help in those situations, particularly if Kobe acts decisively and doesn’t stop the ball. It will be up to Kobe’s man to stay close to Kobe while other defenders nearby make snap decisions about how aggressively they should help.
Luckily, Boston does the help and recover thing better than any team in the league. They will need to be at their best in this series.
One difference between these teams from the 2008 match up is that the Lakers now have Paul Pierce. Does this match up concern you? How do you think Pierce will try to attack Artest’s physical style of defense?to guard
Sure, it concerns me, and it concerns me on both ends. On defense, it is no longer a risk-free proposition to throw Paul Pierce onto Kobe for long stretches, since there is no Vlad Radmanovic (or Luke Walton) to serve as a convenient hiding place for Ray Allen.
On the other end, it’s always a concern when an elite defender—and Artest is still an elite defender when motivated—guards one of your top guys. We know Artest is going to damn near crawl up Pierce’s jersey to stay with Pierce on off-the-ball cuts and contest those mid-range shots Pierce loves so much. We know Artest can absorb the contact Pierce likes to initiate on drives without giving ground or obviously fouling.
To me, the key is for Pierce to be decisive. If he catches the ball on the move, with just a half-step advantage, he’s got to use that advantage quickly by either shooting or driving. Once Artest sets his feet and goes chest-to-chest with you, the odds shift in his favor. If Pierce finds himself in that situation, he’s probably best served looking for a screen or (if the shot clock is running down), taking a step back and trying to drive on Artest.
Stationary shots—predictable shots—and blind drives are not going to get it done.
A major key to me in this series is how the back up big men from each team will perform. The Celtics use a combination of Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace while the Lakers will rotate Odom in with both Gasol and Bynum. How do you think the front lines of each team match up and do you think the C’s back up bigs will have trouble with Odom’s combination of quickness and length?
The front line match-up is going to be fun, isn’t it? So much depends on health and what the Lakers can get out of Bynum. If he and Gasol spend a decent chunk of time on the court together, it will force Garnett to guard Gasol more often than KG did during the ’08 series, when Kendrick Perkins did a better-than-expected job on Pau. An in-his-prime Gasol is the toughest possible test KG can face at this stage of his career.
Bynum’s health and foul issues, though, suggest he won’t play much more than 20 minutes per game—if that many. That leaves Gasol-Odom to soak up a lot of minutes at the two big spots, which means Glen Davis is probably going to have to spend a lot of time on Odom. Of the C’s bigs, only KG and Davis can realistically guard Odom, and Garnett is probably a more natural match-up for Gasol than is Davis. Big Baby looked good defending Rashard Lewis, but Odom is a more aggressive and polished finisher in the lane.
As for Sheed, he has a knack for making superior offensive players work very hard for their points. He may not be strong enough to defend Bynum, but he’ll make Bynum’s life difficult by knocking away entry passes, pulling out the chair and fouling hard when beaten. Wallace will have trouble dealing with Gasol at the elbow, but you’ll be surprised at how tough it can be to finish shots against Sheed at the rim, even when he’s a half-step behind. It’s amazing what Sheed can do when he tries hard.
One last thing about Sheed: That turnaround in the post remains unblockable. He can be a scoring threat in this series.