March 6, 2012
Game 37: Boston Celtics (20-17) vs. Houston Rockets (21-18)
If you count head coaches, 50% of the NBA’s Kevins took part in the Boston Celtics’ 97-92 overtime win against the Houston Rockets on Tuesday. The Celtics’ Kevin Garnett notched his eighth double-double in the past 10 games with a 13-point, 13-rebound performance. Kevin Martin, the Rockets’ leading scorer, chipped in 11 points on four-of-10 shooting, but mysteriously checked out of the game for good with 3:36 remaining in the third quarter. Former Celtics legend and current Rockets head coach Kevin McHale entertained the crowd by singing the “Vesti la giubba” aria from Pagliacci during halftime.
With the reigning scoring champ/All-Star Game MVP and the reigning rebounding champ/Three-Point Shootout winner at the head of the charge, this is a boom time for Kevins in the NBA, perhaps even a golden age. Not since the 1989-90 season, which featured Messrs. Duckworth, Gamble, Johnson, McHale, and Willis, has the league been so loaded with quality Kevins. To get a sense of how loaded, we put together a very basic statistical comparison. Behold:
Along with the basic per-game stats, we included John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER), a per-minute expression of a player’s total statistical accomplishments (click here for details). We use PER for this exercise for three reasons, two of which Hollinger explains below:
Because it’s a per-minute measure, it allows us to compare, say, Steve Blake and Derek Fisher, even though there is a disparity in their minutes played.
I also adjust each player’s rating for his team’s pace, so that players on a slow-paced team like Detroit aren’t penalized just because their team has fewer possessions than a fast-paced team such as Golden State.
The third reason piggy-backs off the second. Because PER is pace-adjusted, it also allows us to compare players across different eras. This is important because in 1989-90, only one team averaged fewer than 100 points per game: the Minnesota Timberwolves, with 95.2. In 2011-12, the league average for team points per game is 95.2.
Using PER as the measuring stick, the 2012 squad features the two best players on the floor and is superior one-through-four. They have the most dynamic scorer in Durant and the best rebounder in Love. With Martin added to that mix, they have three deadly three-point shooters. Kevin Garnett provides a strong defensive presence and additional outside shooting. We’re not exactly sure who Kevin Seraphin is or what he does.
While this team is loaded with shooters, they have no ball-handler and, outside of Garnett, no real defensive chops or reliable post presence. The 1990 edition has all of these things, featuring a terrific point guard (Johnson) and three post players who range from Hall of Fame (McHale) to very good.
At the same time, they’re weak where Team ’12 is strong; not only do they lack the long-range firepower of the contemporary crew, they feature one too many players who need the ball near the basket to be at their most effective. Even so, we think Team ’90 might have the right mix of size and speed, along with the added advantage of not having the one dead spot on the court (Seraphin) on their team, to eke out a victory over Team ’12.
For the second time this year, the Celtics have gotten themselves a five-game win streak. This one comes off the back of a five-game losing streak that carried the C’s into the All-Star break. Several things have changed between the pre-break slump and now, which have translated into improved results:
- Offensive Rebounding. While the C’s are still getting waxed on the boards quite regularly (the Rockets collected 14 offensive rebounds and 57 overall to the Celtics’ four and 38), the recent trend has been toward increased activity around the offensive glass. During the losing streak, the Celtics collected 15.6% of the available offensive rebounds to their opponents’ 29.6%, for a differential of -13.0. Lately, those numbers have improved to 20.6% and 27.2%, for a differential of -6.6.
- Assists. The Celtics averaged 18.8 assists per game during the losing streak. Their post-All-Star break mark stands at 28.6. More assists generally mean more shots off quality looks, which generally means better shooting. The C’s have indeed shot slightly better from the floor lately – 45.8%, up from 43.1 during the losing streak.
- Points off Turnovers. During the losing streak, the Celtics surrendered an average of 22.8 points off 16.6 turnovers per game. They managed only 14.2 of their own points off of 12.2 opponent turnovers. Since the break, they’ve flipped that around. They still average about the same number of turnovers per game (16.2), but have been able to reduce the impact on the scoreboard, holding opponents’ points-off to 16.0. At the same time, they’ve collected 19.0 points off of 16.6 opponent turnovers per game.
- Pace. The Celtics have played at an improved pace of late, averaging 97.7 possessions per game compared to late February’s 88.0. More possessions mean more shots attempted (86.4, up from 74.2), which generally mean more points scored (101.4, up from 85.2).
All of the above stem from the most important, the most Krucial, of all of the recent changes that the Celtics have undergone. This has been the change in the personnel on the floor and the allotment of minutes.
The following table shows the Celtics’ 15-man roster and the total number of minutes that each player logged during the losing streak, sorted from most to least:
The Celtics were absent Brandon Bass for all five games (injury), Kevin Garnett for three (personal reasons), and Rajon Rondo for two-and-a-half (suspension). They relied on more minutes than they probably would have liked from Mickael Pietrus, Avery Bradley and JaJuan Johnson. Eleven players averaged double-digit minutes per game. Johnson and Greg Stiemsma had to take Chris Wilcox’s minutes so Wilcox could take over Garnett’s. This is not an ideal rotation.
The next table shows the minutes logged by each player during the current winning streak.
With Garnett and Bass back in action, the rotation has stabilized, and Doc has been able to go back to giving the most minutes to the best players on the team, allotting them in a way that’s role-appropriate. He’s shortened the rotation to nine regulars. Bradley and Pietrus stay in, but on minutes suitable for a still-developing, defense-first reserve point guard and a fire-starting madman who lives to play tough perimeter D and jack up threes all day long. Ray Allen plays less in order to get more in-game rest, preserving his legs for the fourth quarter. JaJuan Johnson returns to the end of the bench.
Another significant rotation change has been the “loss” of Jermaine O’Neal. Jermaine has held down a starting spot for much of the season, “contributing” 5.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.2 personal fouls over 22.8 minutes of action per game. To compensate for his indefinite absence (wrist sprain), the Celtics have moved Garnett to center and inserted Brandon Bass into the starting lineup. Since doing so, well, they’ve gone on a five-game winning streak and averaged over 100 points per game.
The Rockets’ Luis Scola had a nice game, scoring 18 points and collecting 14 rebounds. Most importantly, he gave us occasion to blow the dust off this Krucial Kut:
With 35 seconds left in regulation, Ray Allen hit a three-pointer that put the Celtics ahead 84-82, then tried not to smile as he ran back down the court. This made us feel closer to Ray; to this day, we struggle to suppress a smile when we hit two consecutive shots during a pickup game.
The real story of the night, however, wasn’t about former Celtics, current Kevins, or the Jokerman font in MS Word (note to self: do the next Chronicle entirely in Jokerman). It certainly wasn’t the gruesome end of the Celtics’ losing streak (103-71 at Philadelphia), which we just found out about before we set to writing this paragraph. The real story, as always, was Avery Bradley.
In the last two episodes, we discussed Avery’s improvement in various aspects of his offensive game: mainly, making better passes and demonstrating an actionable understanding of how to fit into the offense. One thing we didn’t discuss is his newfound preference for getting the ball up the court as quickly as possible, especially off opponents’ misses. This doesn’t always translate into results – it’s common to see Avery sprint the ball up the court and then stop somewhere between the perimeter and the paint to wait for the rest of his teammates to catch up – but it is a positive nonetheless. With time and experience, we expect to see those transition drives take him closer and closer to the basket, until he’s either finishing at the rim, or finding a way to get the ball to someone who can.
At the 11:04 mark of the second quarter, we saw a good example of Avery’s speed in the open court. Kevin Garnett rebounded a Courtney Lee miss and underhanded the ball to Avery. His foot firmly on the accelerator, Avery was at the rim within four seconds, blowing past three Houston defenders on his way to an easy lay-in.
Unfortunately for Dr. B, Tuesday’s game was more about the things that didn’t go right than the things that did. With 9:00 minutes to go in the half, Garnett again triggered the action, swiping a bad pass from Lee and shoving it off to Avery. In transition, Avery zipped a low bounce pass from the half-court line to Chris Wilcox up ahead at the elbow. The pass was a beaut; it sliced through a gap between two Houston defenders on its way up the court. Wilcox, however, fumbled the ball away, which luckily clipped Goran Dragic on its way out of bounds.
Thirty seconds later, an odd play occurred. With Avery set up on the wing, Keyon Dooling, Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox momentarily clustered in front of him and positioned themselves as screeners. It was difficult to tell if the C’s were field-testing some controversial, highly-volatile new set which keyed off a triple screen above the perimeter, or if the parties involved all had and executed the same idea at the same time.
With Bass and Wilcox laying down their picks, Dooling abandoned his and popped out to the top of the key. Though he was standing perhaps six feet away, Avery decided to throw him a chest pass. As you can see below, he made this decision just as Goran Dragic popped over the top of Wilcox’ pick. For Dragic, it was an easy matter of sticking out his hand, slapping the ball away, and taking it all the way back for a dunk. As he did so, the courtside microphones picked up a fan yelling, “aw, come on!”
With 9:03 left in the game, Garnett held the ball just off the elbow, facing up on Samuel Dalembert. Bradley took off from the top of the key through an opening in the center of the lane. He took a step toward the weak side, then popped across the paint to the low block nearest Garnett. KG took a dribble and dumped the ball in to Avery, whose shot missed everything, sailing over the rim and into the hands of a defender on the other side.
Here’s Avery’s line from the game.