Wednesday, April 27, 2011
R&R is just what Doc ordered
By Peter May ESPNBoston.com
Of the 16 teams in the NBA playoffs, who needed a sweep more than the Celtics? They did what the Heat, Bulls and Thunder did not do -- and they are reaping the benefits.
When they returned to practice Wednesday, they still didn't have an opponent or a starting date for their next game. But they reported for work knowing:
• They had a two-day break from the practice-session entreaties of Doc Rivers and top lieutenant Lawrence Frank. Mental health days are huge at this time of the season.
• They have a six-day break between actual playoff games, a respite that will benefit all the old hands, including the oldest hand of all, 39-year-old Shaquille O'Neal. Dare we think we might see the Big Achilles in Game 1 at Miami? (OK, I'm going out on a limb here and thinking the Heat are going to take care of the Sixers.)
Ray Allen told his wife that the layoff he had at the end of the season worked wonders.
Meanwhile, as the Celtics gather around the Jacuzzi in Waltham to talk shop, they already have seen what can happen when teams don't take care of business. Miami couldn't close out the Sixers and will have to apply the coup de grace at home Wednesday. That's 48 minutes of playoff basketball (or more) they didn't need to play. The Bulls couldn't close out the Pacers in four games and had to win a Game 5 on Tuesday night with an ailing Derrick Rose. The Pacers made life extremely difficult for the putative MVP in the first four games (35 percent shooting and more than four turnovers per game). His biggest problem in the clincher Tuesday was not his bum ankle, but foul trouble.
Kobe Bryant came up hobbled in Game 4 of the Lakers-Hornets series -- and that one will go at least six games. (Not that the Lakers mind. Their toughest test prior to the NBA Finals last season was the first-rounder with the Thunder.) But Bryant looked fine Tuesday, especially posterizing Emeka Okafor.
Maybe young whippersnappers like the members of the Thunder and the Bulls don't need the extra time -- but the Celtics sure do. Yes, there is a certain comfort in playing every other day, which sort of replicates the regular season.
But the Celtics would take a week of R&R over a Game 5 or Game 6 against the Knicks. Anytime. They've done it the other way with seven-game series in the first round. This group will opt for the rest.
After the Celtics lost to Miami in their 80th game of the regular season, Rivers had a choice to make. There still was an outside chance the Celtics could end up as the No. 2 seed, but Miami would have to lose one of its last two games while Boston would have to win out (admittedly doable against the Wizards and Knicks). Rivers chose to rest his regulars, as Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett all sat out the last two games.
"That rest really helped Ray,'' reported Allen's wife, Shannon. "It didn't seem like it was much of a break, but it turned out to be a week and he talked about how much it helped."
Case in point for Olde No. 20: In the month of April, Allen shot 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point territory while averaging 36 minutes a game. In the series against the Knicks, Allen logged an average of 40 minutes a game. He shot 57 percent from the field and 65 percent from 3-point territory.
There were similar, but not as dramatic, improvements for the other three Celtics who rested for the final two games. Garnett averaged 11.3 rebounds a game against the Knicks; he averaged 7.7 in April (playing 4.7 fewer minutes per game). Rondo shot 50 percent from the field and averaged 12 assists against the Knicks. The numbers for him in April were 40 percent and 9.5. Pierce shot better from the field in April, but was more accurate against the Knicks in 3-point shooting.
OK, it was the Knicks. They actually played defense in the first two games in Boston, lost them both, then returned to New York and collectively said, "Defense? Defense? Who needs defense?" It's probably safe to say that the above mentioned Celtics would not have posted such glossy numbers against any other team.
The one area of obvious concern against the Knicks -- the bench -- didn't really need the extra rest, with the possible exception of Glen Davis. But he played in those last two games (40 and 27 minutes, respectively) and he struggled in the first three games of the Knicks series before re-emerging as TBWAKAL (The Baby We All Know and Love) in Game 4.
Rivers will have at least three days of practice before the start of the conference semifinals. That was after giving the players two days off to begin the week. Then, the fun begins.
Regardless of whose talents emerge victorious on South Beach, the Celtics can't use circuit overload as an excuse. Their minds and bodies should be fresh and clear. There might even be a Shaq sighting. They will be ready to go. What more can you ask for than that?
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.