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Friday, October 31, 2014

Celtics Are Playing ‘No Mas’ Defense

In sports, the question is often asked after a game whether one team won it or the other team lost it. The negative viewpoint through which we see the world often leads us to point out flaws and say teams lost games more frequently than they win them. Because there’s no right or wrong answer to this question, I’ve coined the term “sportadox” to explain the puzzling nature of the issue. This weeks sportadox concerns the Boston Celtics.

The Celtics knocked the Cavaliers out of the playoffs in six games, frustrating them to the point that the fans booed the poor effort in Game 5 and I criticized them for quitting in Game 6. Much of the focus was on the ways the Cavs screwed up. Here’s a sample of what people were saying bout the Cavs: they didn’t have enough heart, they played the wrong personnel, they quit, LeBron isn’t a winner — there were tons of proposals for why the Cavs lost to the Celtics. The last explanation for most people was that the Celtics were simply a better team that played stellar defense, making the Cavs look inept and confused. This is a point Stan Van Gundy noted and lamented because it was overlooked by most of the fans and media.

A week later and it’s Van Gundy’s Magic team getting the treatment from Boston’s suffocating defense. In Game 1, Orlando struggled mightily to get to the basket and the only player they could only rely on to get decent shots was Vince Carter. In Game 2, Dwight Howard played well but the Magic couldn’t make a shot from the outside. In Game 3, Orlando was embarrassed every bit as badly as Cleveland was by the Boston Celtics. The same things that were said about the Cavs after the Eastern Conference Semis are now being said about the Magic: they don’t have any heart, they’re not playing with passion, they’re not going with the right matchups, and they’re being out-coached. Before another breath or word is wasted on criticizing the Magic and trying to discover what’s wrong, allow me to clue you in: the Boston Celtics are that much better than both the Cavs and Magic.

Boston’s defense is so tough and so suffocating that they’re not allowing opposing teams an inch. They bring passion to the defensive side of the ball and they’re out-hustling teams to loose balls and rebounds. They make you work for every basket and they take you out of your game. They frustrate you to the point where the stuff you normally do to win games offensively no longer works. They get you to the point that you’re ready to quit and say “No Mas.” Do you really think the Cavaliers were that flawed as a team? Do you really think LeBron didn’t play well? Do you really think the Magic stink or that there’s something wrong with them? Spare me. Both the Cavs and Magic are excellent teams — they had the top two records in the NBA — so it’s not about them, it’s about the Celtics.

Do you want to know why the Celtics beat the Cavaliers in six games? It’s because they targeted the Kevin Garnett/Antawn Jamison match up and allowed KG to dominate in the series. Check the numbers — Garnett averaged a playoff high 18.8ppg, 16fga, and he made 52% of his shots as he abused the smaller Jamison in the post. The other main reason the Celtics beat the Cavs is because they targeted the Rajon Rondo/Mo Williams match up allowing Rondo to run circles around Mo. Check the numbers — Rondo averaged a playoff high 20.7ppg, 14fga, and he made 54% of his shots against the inferior Williams. The Cavs losing to the Celtics isn’t about what LeBron didn’t do, it’s about the Celtics targeting two mismatches and exploiting them. They also happened to play really good defense and make life difficult for the Cavs on offense.

The Celtics haven’t specifically taken advantage of match ups against the Magic the way they did against the Cavs. Rather, it’s been Paul Pierce scoring consistently, Rajon Rondo contributing in stretches, and the bench trio of Rasheed Wallace, Tony Allen, and Big Baby Davis stepping up that’s been the keys for Boston offensively. Defensively, there’s one reason to explain why the Celtics have taken the Magic out of their game: they’ve been able to play man-to-man defense on Dwight Howard successfully. Kendrick Perkins has bodied up Dwight quite well, and he’s been relieved by Sheed and Baby. Orlando’s offense is predicated upon teams double-teaming Dwight down low, leaving their shooters free to bomb open threes on the perimeter. Boston is one of the few teams in the league that can successfully single cover Dwight and that allows them to play stellar defense on the perimeter and shut down the Magic’s three-point shooting game. Check the numbers — Orlando’s only 22/70 on threes in the series (29%). In the regular season, they shot 38% from long range. The explanation is clear: it’s Boston’s defense holding them down.

I’m glad we’ve cleared that up because I’ve heard so many misinformed people talking and writing over the past few weeks. Either they’re taking the shortcuts because criticizing teams (even if it’s misplaced) is more controversial than complimenting them or they’re misinformed because they’re making conclusions without actually watching these games. If you have been watching the playoffs, then you know the one factor in common with the Magic and the Cavs is that the Celtics defense has shut both of them down.



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