Update! You can now read my Q&A at Celtics Hub.
Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub was kind enough to answer a few Leprechaun-related questions leading into the Bulls-Celtics playoff series.
1. With Kevin Garnett, the Celtics surrender only 90.8 PPG. Without him, they’re giving up 99.4 PPG and (gulp) 107.5 PPG versus playoff teams. Why can’t they stop people sans KG?
I think these numbers are a little skewed by some games against lesser opponents in which the Celtics either came out flat or were short-handed beyond just missing KG. I’m thinking specifically of games like an early March game at New Jersey (111 points allowed) and the mid-March at Chicago.
When they’ve focused, they’ve shown they can play defense without KG. They held the Cavs and Magic to 94 and 86 points, respectively, in consecutive games in early March. Of course, the defense is less consistent without KG for all the reasons you’d expect — the other bigs don’t rotate down low quite as quickly or show out on the screen/roll as well. There is a level of precision and crispness that is lost without KG and won’t ever be there without him. But there is enough defensive ability left to win in the playoffs, in part because Paul Pierce and Kendrick Perkins have both become elite defenders at their positions.
2. Conversely, without Garnett, they score a little better (103.2 PPG versus 99.9 PPG) and their shooting improves (49.8 comparied to 48.0). Why is that? Are they really a more efficient scoring team without Kevin?
I don’t think the Celtics would put up better offensive numbers without KG over a larger sample size. Other players (especially Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Glen Davis and even Perk) have stepped up their scoring without KG without sacrificing much, if anything, in terms of shooting percentages. It has been a pleasant surprise. But there are more easy baskets to be had when KG’s in the line-up — because of his consistently great shooting and his interior passing. Things just seem like less work, and I think the number, over a full 82 games (or more), would reflect that.
3. As a team, the Celtics withstood KG’s absence better than anybody could have predicted. I mean, how many teams could win 62 games when their best player misses almost a third of the season? But up until now, they had the hope of Kevin’s return to sustain them. How do you suppose the latest news will affect their group psyche?
I think the Celtics are strong mental team, and I think they will come out hungry and eager to prove themselves as worthy champions. Paul Pierce said today that “guys have to be ready to step up” and that “we know we’re still a pretty good team and capable of winning a championship.” Ray Allen has talked about how a championship would be “sweeter” given the KG adversity. This is a proud, proud team — you saw that on Sunday during the Cleveland blow-out and again Tuesday when they beat an amped-up Philly team even without Ray Allen and KG (and with no reason to work so hard). Paul Pierce was screaming at the team in the huddle during the second quarter because the defense was so sloppy.
I think they’ve been preparing themselves for this eventuality for a while. Even Glen Davis has talked often about how he plays with a different intensity when KG is not in the line-up, because he knows he has more responsibility. This team will play hard, and they will truly believe they can and should win every game.
4. The Bulls are, primarily, a perimeter team that relies on streaky shooting and a steady diet of drive-and-kicks. How will the C’s defend that?
If the Bulls get overly reliant on perimeter jumpers, the Celtics should defend them well. The team generally closes out on shooter, and they rarely make mistakes or fall too far behind in their rotations. There’s a reason the Celtics finished second overall in defensive efficiency (and were #1 for most of the season) and were held opponents to the fifth-lowest three-point shooting percentage in the league. They don’t allow a lot of easy jumpers — especially from the most efficient parts of the floor.
That said, the quickness advantage Thomas and Noah have over the Celtics bigs worries me. If Derrick Rose can break down the defense either through one-on-one penetration or screen/rolls, I worry that as the C’s big men help, Thomas and Noah will be able to find the right spots on the floor before Davis/Powe/Perkins can get back to them. I also worry about Rose’s ability to finish around the rim. He’s so athletic, and so good at going around big guys standing straight up.
5. With the possibly exception of Tyrus Thomas, the Celtics seem to have an advantage (at best) or a stalemate (at worst) at virtually every position. Are there any matchups that worry you?
I think I may have answered this question a little bit above. Rose scares me. I think Rondo is a very good defensive player, but I think his ability to keep quick guards in front of him is a little over-rated — it’s why he resorts to trying to poke the ball away from behind so often. If Brad Miller and Ty Thomas are stretching the C’s defense by hitting 20-footers, it will put a let of pressure on Boston defensively.
On the positive side (for us), I don’t see how Chicago can stop Boston consistently. With Salmons hampered by a groin injury and Deng out, I don’t seen anyone who can guard Pierce. I think Rondo will blow by Rose just as easily (if not more easily) than Rose will beat Rondo on the other end, and Perkins, because of his size, has a chance to score 10-12 points per game in this series. Ray Allen should also have an easy time getting shots off when Hinrich is on the bench.
Celtics in 6.