Boston Celtics: John Hollinger
The Philadelphia-Boston series may not be an aesthetic wonder, but thus far it couldn't possibly be any more competitive. Two hard-fought, one-point games -- one won by each side -- leave us no closer to having a victor than we were four days ago.
The odds still slightly favor Boston -- teams with home-court advantage have advanced 60 percent of the time after splitting the first two games, and even more often when the split happens with a Game 2 loss rather than a Game 1 loss.
Nonetheless, this one appears to have seven-game series written all over it. And it appears Game 1 -- a 92-91 Boston win -- may be the highest-scoring game. As I noted when previewing the series, Boston and Philadelphia were two of the league's top three defensive teams in the regular season, but both finished below the league average in offensive efficiency. Even during Boston's late-season surge, the Celtics weren't doing much of note on offense; they were just playing ridiculously well on defense.
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The Hawks won Game 5 at home against the favored Celtics, and we might not read much into a one-point home win except for the circumstances. The Hawks have played basically the entire season without All-Star center Al Horford, but he returned last night and invigorated Atlanta with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
The Hawks have shown they can compete in Boston -- even without Horford, two of their three games there this season went to overtime. Also, as I discussed last night, it would be the most Hawks thing ever to win Game 6 in rousing fashion and then come home and lose by 25 in Game 7.
Horford gives them just enough offensive competence to pose a threat to Boston. The Hawks have struggled all year, and really all throughout the Joe Johnson era, against elite defenses. Boston in particular gives Johnson fits. After he destroyed them single-handedly in Game 4 of the first round in 2008, the Celtics basically decided that somebody else would do the damage from now on, and have loaded up on Johnson ever since.
Johnson's slow decisions with the ball and the coaching staff's willingness to iso-Joe themselves into oblivion have helped prevent Atlanta from having much success against the Celtics offensively, but Horford's return (and Josh Smith's return, after he missed the end of Game 2 and all of Game 3) provides hope they can score more consistently.
And they don't need to score a ton. Here's the dirty little secret about the Celtics that most everybody overlooks: They stink at offense. Boston was 24th in Offensive Efficiency in the regular season at 98.9 points per 100 possessions, putting it right between New Jersey and Toronto. Every other playoff team was above the century mark. In the playoffs, against a team with no center (and no bigs whatsoever in one of the five games), the Celtics have been worse: just 94.7 points per 100 possessions.
Thus far they've survived by strangling the Hawks' offense; Boston leads all playoff teams in Defensive Efficiency. But if Horford can make the Atlanta offense merely below-average rather than awful, the Hawks can do this.
Not that they're likely to, mind you: AccuScore gives Atlanta just a 17 percent chance, partly because their model favors Boston's experience. But the Hawks are no strangers to the playoffs anymore, and the franchise's almost supernatural ability to make the second round of the playoffs before flaming out (15 times in 41 years) gives it an odd slice of history in its favor.
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Based on a preliminary view of the stats, the Celtics are in a tight spot without Rondo, both because of his own brilliance and the fact that the Celtics don't have a great replacement in store. Rondo was one of the few offensive positives for Boston in Game 1, slashing to the rim and even hitting a few jump shots to help them get back in the game; his season stats reflect that importance as well. Boston scored 9.01 points per 100 possessions more with Rondo on the court, although the Celtics also gave up 3.80 points more. All of these numbers, however, are distorted by his usage with the other Boston starters. The four Celtics, who started most of the year (Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass), all have very positive plus/minus numbers that more or less match Rondo's, so it's difficult to separate his impact from that of his teammates.
More from Hollinger after the jump (or leap HERE for the full story).
We were warned that this would not be a great season to have an old roster, and early returns have reinforced that trend. Veteran clubs in Boston, L.A., Dallas and Phoenix have struggled mightily, going a combined 1-9 and looking worse than their record; among the older crowd, only San Antonio has shown its usual mojo.
We're only four days into the season, so the usual caveats apply, but watching Boston's game in New Orleans on Wednesday night had me wondering about Boston in particular. It wasn't just that the Celtics lost by 18 points to a team expected to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference; it was that they didn't particularly look like the Celtics along the way.
For half a decade, this team has built itself around a defensive identity. They clog the lane, force extra passes, deny second shots and make opponents beat them with deep shooting. Or rather, they used to do all that stuff. Because Wednesday night's 97-79 loss to New Orleans was part of a larger, disturbing trend through three games.
To review, the Hornets are not a good offensive team, and they were missing their best scorer. In their previous game they scored 85 points in 90 trips against a Phoenix team that nobody has confused with the Jordan Bulls.
Yet against the Celtics the Hornets rolled to 97 points in the same 90 trips; a guy named Squeaky even got on the board. More troubling than the result was how it was accomplished. It would be one thing if the Hornets had shot unsustainably well on 3s, or made a bunch of crazy shots, or got some other fluky breaks.
None of those things happened. New Orleans was 4-for-12 from the arc and 13-for-31 on 2-point jumpers beyond 10 feet; if anything, they could have done a bit better from the perimeter. This didn't matter, alas, because the Hornets got so many easy looks close to the rim. New Orleans didn't need to swing the ball or design elaborate plays or do anything else out of the ordinary; trip after trip, they found easy shots with their first option. Boston's once-ironclad defense was utterly befuddled by the pick-and-roll combination of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry.
Hop HERE to read the full story. A little more from Hollinger after the jump:
The 1981 Eastern Conference finals between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers has to be the best of the post-merger era. This one had everything. For starters, both teams won 62 games, tying for the league's best regular-season record. It had the old rivalry between Boston and Philly, going back to the Russell-Chamberlain days. It had the Bird-era Celtics and the Erving-era Sixers, each yearning for their first championship. And the games … oh, my.
Kevin Garnett is the only Celtics player to land on Hollinger's first team, earning the award at the power forward position.
The power forward crop doesn't overwhelm with top-tier candidates this year, but Garnett is a glaring exception. Even if his own numbers weren't off the charts -- for a team that's already great defensively -- one would have to consider KG for the way his manic intensity rubs off on the rest of the team. Throw in his renewed vigor after struggling with bad knees a year ago, and he's a no-brainer first-team pick.
Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo lands on the third team at point guard (Writes Hollinger: "It's hard leaving him out of the top two when he's the unquestioned top dog at this position when he's at the top of his game."), while Paul Pierce is third team at small forward (Writes Hollinger, "Pierce's offense gets all the press, but he may be the league's most underrated defender.")
Hollinger also gives a nod to Glen Davis and Marquis Daniels for their strong defensive play during the 2010-11 season.
--HOLLINGER: THE RACE FOR No. 2 IN THE EAST --
We were duped by Boston's second-half struggles a year ago, so we'll grab a few salt packets with this information, but the league's long-term history bears repeating: Coasting into the postseason hoping to "flip the switch" is a poor formula for playoff success.
Still, both Miami and Boston have a card left in their pockets that the Bulls do not: For both, the redistribution of playoff minutes from scrubs to starters should make them more potent foes than in the regular season. In Miami's case, this is abundantly obvious, as the Heat's top-heavy roster has been one of the season's most heavily discussed phenomena.
Boston? Arguably, the Celtics could benefit nearly as much. Consider this chart from basketballvalue.com. What you're seeing is Boston's plus-minus with various units on the court. At the top, notice that their most common units feature their four All-Stars with any warm-bodied big man; you'll see that regardless of whether it's Glen Davis, Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, Jermaine O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal or Ed O'Neill, the Celtics dramatically outscore the opposition with that group. Meanwhile, some commonly used Boston regular-season units that were trampled -- like "Robinson-Wafer-Daniels-Davis-Erden", for instance -- won't be seeing daylight this postseason.
All of which offers reasons for optimism for fans of each. Yet the big-picture takeaway from the Eastern Conference regular season is that both clubs may have too many fundamental flaws to beat the likes of the Bulls and Lakers in the postseason.
--HOLLINGER: C'S TAKE RISK BY DEALING PERKINS--
Take note, Lakers and Magic fans: The Celtics are effectively betting against you.
They'll never say so in so many words, but actions speak much louder. And today's actions said that when playoff time rolls around, Boston thinks it will need perimeter depth, floor spacing and the ability to play smaller a lot more than they'll need quality low-post defenders.
Translation: Miami is the threat here, not Orlando. And if they survive, it's San Antonio, not the Lakers, whom they now match up better against.
Gone is low-post defensive ace Kendrick Perkins, but coming aboard are versatile wingman Jeff Green and, one suspects, floor-spacing power forward Troy Murphy.
The Celtics had better hope they're right about how the postseason plays out, because they are certainly taking a risk here. For one, they've basically put most of their eggs in a basket labeled, "Shaquille O'Neal and Delonte West staying healthy."
Hollinger also notes: "Nonetheless, one suspects if the Celtics still saw the Lakers and Magic as their two prime playoff threats, they wouldn't have made this deal. The fact the Heat and Spurs have played so well, one suspects, has altered their thinking."
PORTLAND, Ore. -- It was in most respects a fairly perfunctory 88-78 win over an outmanned Portland team for the Celtics on Thursday night, but there is one aspect of this game that has big implications for the season as a whole.
Put simply, Kendrick Perkins was a beast. And if he can return to the lineup as a reasonable facsimile of the Perk of seasons past, it gives Boston another weapon in its quest to regain the championship.
The 6-10 center, who tore two right knee ligaments in Game 6 of the Finals last June and has been recuperating all season, gave the team a big lift off the bench in his second game back from injury with ten points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes. His statistics were good, but the qualitative side was even better. He didn't appear to have issues leaping or running, supplied his usual nails-tough post defense to help thwart Portland's leading scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge, and added healthy dollops of physicality and trash-talking swagger.
So good was Perkins that Boston coach Doc Rivers left him far longer than he'd originally planned in the first half, leaving Perkins weary. But while Perkins said his timing and conditioning are still far from peak level, his knee hasn't been a problem.
"I'm not where I want to be," said Perkins, "but I'm happy where I'm at."
"He was terrific," said Rivers. "I extended his minutes too long, because he was playing so well... I turned to [trainer] Eddie [Lacerte] and said. "Hey, you gotta tell me.' Eddie said he was good, but Eddie was looking at his legs and I was looking at his lungs."
Perkins' return could also come with benefits for Boston's shooters, as he showed with one of his trademark earth-shattering screens that absolutely leveled Portland's Wesley Matthews. While the play was called an offensive foul, it was indicative of the plays he's been making to set up teammates for the past three seasons.
"He and Kevin [Garnett] are clearly our two best screeners," said Rivers. "Ray [Allen] and Paul [Pierce] have really been looking forward to him getting back."
Perkins may not play as much in the Celtics' next game on Friday against Phoenix, both because the Suns sometimes play small and because he's on a back-to-back after a long flight, but he's itching for more activity and is likely to get it soon. With Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal both battling injuries of their own, Rivers may continue finding it troublesome to keep Perk's minutes down.
"Hopefully my body won't ache and I'll be good," said Perkins. "I'm just looking forward to playing. I feel like I've been on vacation for six months."
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From there, things get a little more interesting. Boston is currently projected with a 49.5 percent chance to land the top seed in the East, a 24.8 percent chance to make the NBA Finals, and an 11.8 percent chance of raising Banner 18. Currently, the Lakers (25.8 percent), Spurs (13.3), Magic (12.8), and Heat (12.7) all have better odds at winning a championship. Go ahead and dust off your "no respect" cards.
How does it work? Based on Hollinger's computerized power rankings, the playoff odds computer plays out the remainder of the season 5,000 times each day to see the potential range of projected outcomes. The results reveal the most likely win-loss record for each team -- and what the odds are for each team to make the NBA playoffs, win the NBA title, win the lottery, and so on.
Click HERE for Hollinger's daily playoff odds.
Kevin Garnett's health is obviously first and foremost on the minds of Boston Celtics fans right now. It goes without saying that a long-term injury to the superstar power forward would be devastating to the Celtics' title hopes.
But a more insidious foe also might be a factor for them in the final two-thirds of the season: the law of averages. Statistically, it will be very difficult for Boston to maintain its offensive performance, even allowing for the fact that it has been short-handed on several nights.
It's an odd conclusion to reach because Boston isn't primarily an offensive team; the Celtics are only 10th in offensive efficiency. It's their top-ranked defense that has carried the mail for them in their torrid 24-6 start.
Nonetheless, the offense perhaps bears greater scrutiny as we test whether the Celtics' play can continue throughout the season's final 52 games because, in one respect, Boston has been flukishly amazing.
Let's start at the top. The Celtics are one of the league's most unusual offensive teams: They take fewer shots than nearly everyone else, and they make a higher percentage of them than everyone else. In fact, their field goal percentage of 50.2 is more than 2 percentage points higher than that of any other team this season; what's more, it's the second-best shooting percentage of the past decade.
On the flip side, although the Celtics have lowered the obscenely high turnover rate of seasons past, their lack of second shots remains phenomenal. Despite enviable size, Boston ranks last in offensive rebound rate. The Celtics claim only 21.0 percent of their missed shots, and, as a result, only the woebegone Charlotte Bobcats attempt fewer shots per possessions. (I define "shots" here to include free throw attempts.)
That's just par for the course so far; Boston was last in the NBA in shots per possession last season.
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With the Boston Celtics on the verge of a stunning sweep of the Orlando Magic on Monday night, let's address a question I've received in one form or another for the past few days: Does the Celtics' playoff success invalidate the regular season? Can veteran teams just blow off the regular season and turn it on come April?
The Celtics of this season have drawn comparisons to two other teams. The most common is the veteran-laden 1994-95 Houston Rockets, who won a second consecutive title after limping home to a 47-35 regular-season finish. In a stirring coincidence, they swept Orlando in four games in the Finals.
"I remember them very well. Way too well," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who was on the San Antonio Spurs team that those Rockets upset in six games in the Western Conference finals that season. "But as far as history, we stay in-house."
When you have 17 NBA championships, you can do that. Internally, just two years removed from the Celtics' most recent title run, their barometer has been the veteran-laden 1968-69 Boston team. That club won 48 games, was a defending champion and, like this year's squad, was the East's No. 4 seed entering the playoffs. Nonetheless, it gritted out the final title of the Bill Russell era by beating a top-seeded Philadelphia team in a surprisingly easy five games in the first round before meeting the Lakers in the Finals and prevailing in seven games. Is this sounding familiar yet?
Rivers said he had talked about that team with the Celtics a bit during the regular season just to let them know the history, but some players -- such as Kevin Garnett -- had locked on to it more than others.
Nonetheless, only two teams are reference points, and it takes us back to the question of whether teams can rely on ditching their regular-season persona in the playoffs.
Let's look at history to help us. In the past half century, do you know how many teams that had the fourth-best record or worse in the conference made the Finals?
Of 100 conference champions, only six of them could blow off the regular season (landing outside the top three in the conference) and still ramp it up come playoff time. Of those, only two won the title.
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Drive to the basket: Boston's defensive game plan against the Magic was simple: stay home. The Celtics wouldn't leave Orlando's shooters to help in the paint, and they dared the Magic perimeter players to beat them off the dribble and drive to the cup.
Get Dwight Howard on the move: Orlando's star center had a brutal offensive game Sunday, shooting 3-of-10 and committing seven turnovers. Too often he was facing up against a stationary Kendrick Perkins and trying to overpower him with spins in the paint, which played right into Perkins' hands.
Play Ryan Anderson: Orlando went with a huge lineup during the five minutes that Rashard Lewis sat, playing centers Marcin Gortat and Howard together. There was a historical basis for that, as the rarely used Gortat-Howard combo keyed a 16-point comeback in a win over Boston on Jan. 28. (For a hilarious bit of reading, check my report from that game. Yes, things have changed a bit over the past four months.)
Better transition D: The Celtics had 20 fast-break points, in part because of the 18 turnovers committed by the Magic, and that was Orlando's one major misgiving at the defensive end. The Magic have generally defended Boston extremely well, which has allowed them to overcome Perkins' generally masterful work on Howard at the other end. But on Sunday, Orlando made "mistakes we weren't making in preseason," according to one staffer.
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The Orlando Magic are putting together one of the most dominant late-season runs in history, and perhaps it's time we started paying attention. Monday's 98-84 win over Atlanta in Game 4 didn't just put the finishing touches on a laughably one-sided four-game sweep, or keep the Magic's playoff record a perfect 8-0 against two overmatched teams.
No, this goes much deeper. Orlando is on a torrid hot streak and nobody seems to have noticed.
Want to guess the Magic's record in their 30 games since March 1?
Would you believe 27-3?
Yes, 27-3. That's not a typo. That's their mark in a slate in which 18 of the 30 opponents were playoff teams. And before you dismiss the most recent opposition so easily, remember that the Hawks team they handled so easily won more games than Boston, San Antonio and Portland and as many as Denver and Utah. In fact the Hawks beat all of those teams at least once, as well as the Lakers and Suns, and swept Boston 4-0.
So the Magic have beat a lot of good teams. Actually, that's an understatement. They aren't just beating people -- they're killing them. Twenty of the 27 wins have been by double figures, and many were one-sided beatdowns -- such as the wins by 43 and 30 over Atlanta in Games 1 and 3. Monday's win, by a mere 14, barely moved the needle on their average victory margin.
See if you can wrap your heads around this one: Orlando has outscored opponents by a whopping 421 points over its past 30 games. To put this in perspective, the Lakers, Suns and Celtics -- who could be the other three teams left standing when the conference finals start next week -- didn't outscore the opposition by 421 points over the entirety of the 82-game regular season, much less in the final 30 games of it.
That's an average of 14 points per game, which simply isn't done over long stretches -- nobody else in the NBA had an average margin even half that size during the regular season.
This isn't run-of-the-mill good, people. This is blow-your-doors-off, hide-the-women-and-children level domination. The Magic are so good that Stan Van Gundy is in danger of running out of things to worry about.
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Throughout history, the second round has produced a much greater advantage for home-court teams than have the conference finals or the Finals. In 168 best-of-seven quarterfinal series, home-court teams have won 78.6 percent of the time, and dismissed their opponents in five games or fewer in nearly half of those series (37.5 percent). Underdogs have managed a similar feat only 11 times.
As a result, history says the Jazz, Spurs, Celtics and Hawks each face some long odds, and on average we can expect only one of them (or perhaps none) to advance to the conference finals.AP Photo/Tony DejakThe Celtics aren't paying attention to the stats working against them.
Wait, it gets worse. Because Utah and Boston already lost Game 1 over the weekend, their odds are even longer. Teams with home-court advantage that win the first game of the second round are an astounding 114-15 (88.4 percent), meaning the Cavs and Lakers already have one foot in the conference finals. Based on the historical data and the two weekend results, there's nearly a 50-50 shot (48.3 percent) that all four home-court teams will go through to the conference finals.
The good news for this weekend's losers is that home-court teams that win the opener often lower their guard in Game 2 -- they have only a 67.4 percent success rate in Game 2s after winning the opener.
The bad news? Only 12 of the 42 road teams (28.6 percent) to win Game 2 after a Game 1 loss went on to win a second-round series, which doesn't bode well for Boston or Utah, even if they win Game 2. The numbers for the road team don't improve much if you include all best-of-sevens, at just 29-64 (31.2 percent), although that figure includes two teams (Utah and San Antonio) that managed that feat in this year's first round.
Moreover, if Utah or Boston wants to win the series they had better win Game 2. It sounds weird to say, but the Celtics are facing a must-win game a day before the Hawks and Magic even tip off. Road teams that don't leave with at least a split are a ghastly 3-84 (3.5 percent) in the second round, and 11-187 (9.4 percent) in all best-of-sevens.
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