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Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Celtics need to push the pace

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Celtics coach Doc Rivers looked like an overzealous traffic cop at times during the fourth quarter of Monday's game against the Miami Heat, his arms flailing as if his suit coat were on fire as he pleaded with his players to keep their collective foot on the offensive accelerator while emphatically motioning to move the ball up the floor.

Here's the trouble: Since injuries have decimated Boston's backcourt depth, Rivers probably would be the best ballhandling guard on the court for the Celtics at any given time. So unless Boston is toying with the idea of a 51-year-old player/coach, the former All-Star point guard can only implore his team to mask the fact that it doesn't currently have a pure NBA point guard by getting into its offense as quickly as possible.

Avery Bradley
With Avery Bradley at the helm, the Celtics kept the Heat on their heels by outrunning them.

Rivers couldn't save his team on Monday. Despite owning a 13-point lead with 8:27 to play, Rivers saw all the warning signs -- walking the ball up the court, sloppy turnovers, terrible long-range jump shots. Three minutes later, the lead was down to four and the champs could smell blood.

By continuing to attack the basket as they had all night, the Celtics might have been able to hold off the Heat. Instead, nearly half of the 20 shots Boston put up in the final quarter were beyond the 3-point arc, and when Paul Pierce's last-second fadeaway heave came up short, the streaking Heat emerged with a 105-103 triumph for their 23rd consecutive win.

"I thought we started to lose our pace," Rivers said. "We have to run, that's who we are. And when we were doing that, I thought we were terrific. When we tried to set things up, we were not."

After the Celtics lost both Rajon Rondo and Leandro Barbosa to season-ending ACL injuries, it seemed reasonable to believe the team would downshift a bit without an experienced ball handler on the roster to direct the offense. But the way Rivers sees it, Boston simply can't be a half-court team. They don't have a quarterback like Rondo, who can find holes in a defense even after it's had the chance to set up.

Instead, Rivers has begged his team to crank up the pace. Turn it up to 11.

"We have to run. We just don't have the ballhandling to play half court anymore, and I tell our guys that every night," Rivers said. "We're just not that team anymore. We can't be. With Rondo, you can do that. Without Rondo, you have to stay aggressive, keep the floor open and try to attack early. The later the clock gets, the harder it gets for us."

With or without Rondo, that's true. According to shot clock performance stats logged by 82games.com, Boston's effective field-goal percentage (a metric that adjusts for the value of 3-point shots) dips steadily as the clock winds down.

For the Celtics, a shot in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock has an effective field goal percentage of 52.1 percent, but steadily drops to 51 percent (11-15 seconds), then 46.9 percent (16-20 seconds) and finally 44.5 percent (21+ seconds).

This isn't an unusual trend; it's pretty standard around the league. But what's noticeable is that Boston actually produces 63 percent of its shots within the first 15 seconds, a relatively high number when compared to some other teams (Miami, for instance, takes 59 percent of its shots in the first 15 seconds).

So it's concerning to Rivers when his team starts to settle for late shots. Especially when those shots are coming 23 or more feet from the basket.

The Celtics are limited enough offensively that they can't further shackle themselves by bogging down the pace, one area they actually can control.

There are some encouraging signs that Boston is listening to Rivers. Before Rondo went down, the team ranked 21st in the league in pace at 93.4 possessions per game. Since Jan. 27, the Celtics are averaging 94.02 possession per game (18th-best in the league).

And with players thriving in a ball movement-based offense, the team's offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) has jumped up from 99.6 (26th in the league) before Rondo's injury to 101.7 (21st) in the 23 games since Rondo went down.

No one is going to confuse these Celtics with offensive giants such as Oklahoma City or Miami. Much of Boston's offense actually is fueled first by an ability to generate stops in the defensive end. But to fully cash in on those stops, the Celtics have to run.

As captain Paul Pierce noted when asked about the dip in pace on Monday, "We've got to be consistent in everything we do throughout the whole game. We don't have a lot of room for error."

Which is why it often looks like Rivers is playing the role of a no-conscience third-base coach on the sideline. The Celtics can't afford to get into their offense late, and Rivers won't let them forget it. Even if it looks like he's two illuminated wands and a yellow vest away from directing planes at Logan Airport.