March 26, 2012
Game 49: Boston Celtics (27-22) at Charlotte Bobcats (7-40)
Paul Pierce has the best smile in the business.
A large part of the Captain’s appeal is his easy manner on the court. Few players wear their internal lives on their faces during a game the way that Pierce does. This is not to say that most players aren’t expressive; certainly, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett exude a terrifying intensity that is matched in degree by Chris Bosh’s douchey preening and Jason Terry’s indefatigable swagger. Rajon Rondo’s stone-to-the-bone poker face is expressive in a counter-intuitive sort of way; exaggerated in its Buster Keaton-like solemnity.
What sets Pierce apart is that the likes of Kobe, KG, etc. crack their veneer as a function of or a reaction to their game. Bosh and Terry celebrate emphatic dunks or big shots; Bryant and Garnett intimidate their opponents by donning the masks of killers and psychopaths. Rondo practically is playing poker as he runs the point.
Pierce, on the other hand, seems to be so thoroughly comfortable and self-possessed on the court, not just as a player but as a person, that he applies no tamp to his personality. While he will woof or adopt a laser-hot, half-pissed glare after knocking down a big shot, or twist his face in agony as he lobbies for a foul call, he’ll also exude glee, contentment, sadness, contemplation, real joy or bemusement at various points of a game’s evolution. Sometimes, he can be downright saucy.
After 14 years of watching Pierce play for the Celtics, we thought we’d seen it all. During Monday night’s 102-95 win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Pierce upped the ante by taking his facial expression game to an unexpectedly micro level:
Pierce has had an up-and-down season. After missing all of training camp and the season’s first three games with a heel injury, he struggled as he attempted to simultaneously find his rhythm and play himself into condition. His average Game Score over the course of the first 10 games of the season was 10.18 (14.9 PPG, 38.6 FG%) compared to 14.79 over the first 10 games of last season (21.0 PPG, 50.3 FG%). Though he is still prone to streakiness, he has since appeared more like his old self, averaging a Game Score of 14.88 (20.1 PPG, 44.4 FG%) from game 11 onward.
While his game has generally improved as the season has gone on, Pierce has struggled some with his jump shot. Last year, he shot a career-best 49.7 FG% (all data mined from www.hoopdata.com). He was 44.2% from 10-23 feet and 37.4% from three-point range. The year prior, his overall mark was 47.2%. His field goal percentage from 10-23 feet was at 36.9%, but he shot 41.4% from three, another career best. This season he’s shooting 43.4%; his lowest mark since 2003-’04. His 35.5% from 10-23 feet is his lowest since Hoopdata started keeping track of this stuff in 2007, and his 36.1% from three is his lowest since 2005-’06.
Against the Bobcats, Pierce poured in a season-high 36 points on 10-20 shooting from the floor and a staggering 15-18 from the free throw line. He did so by abandoning the two-point jump shot almost entirely (two attempts from 10-23 feet), focusing instead on attacking the rim. He shot 8-12 from up close, tripling his season average of attempts (3.9 per game) from that range. He took a variety of avenues to get there – running out in transition, back door cuts and good old-fashioned creating off the dribble.
Clearly, this was part of the Celtics’ game plan. The Bobcats’ interior defense is the worst in the league – they allow more at-rim makes (18.7) and attempts (30.1) per game than any other team. This is what smart teams do: find opponents’ weaknesses and exploit them. Off Pierce’s lead, the Celtics went 20-33 at the rim. Their frequent forays into the paint netted them 45 free throw attempts – the most they’ve taken in a regular season game since a 119-117 loss to the Golden State Warriors in 2008 that, coincidentally, we at the Kuts attended in person. The memory of the Celtics’ 46 free throw attempts was erased by the more entertaining memory of the expatriated Masshole in front of us who had insult added to injury in the form of a flying plastic bottle that caromed off his middle-aged, thinning dome immediately after Baron did the Celtics in with a buzzer-beating dagger. Red-faced and pulsing with impotent rage, he wheeled around and gestured toward clambering up the rows of seats to track down and pulverize the culprit.
“Who threw that? Who threw that? Who the fuck threw that?” he screamed. We gently raised our hands in front of us, palms out. “Heeeeey, man, calm down,” we cooed. “Relax.”
“I won’t fuckin’ calm down!” he wailed.
He took off like ten seconds later.
As you can probably guess, you won’t find the real story of the night in this or any other outpost down memory lane. The real story is in your heart, right next to Avery Bradley.
Actually, the real story of Sunday night’s game against the Washington Wizards really was Avery Bradley. With Ray Allen (sore right ankle) and Mickael Pietrus (concussion) out of the action, Avery got his first start since February and saw 40 minutes of floor time. As CelticsHub reported (with video) in the kind-of-grossly-titled “Avery Bradley: Death by a Thousand Cuts,” Dr. B. scrubbed up and sliced the Wizards to ribbons, collecting a career-high 23 points via a blend of corner jumpers and those back door cuts that we’ve been raving about. You can check out Avery’s thoughts on the game here, in one of the most furrow-browed interviews you’ll ever see.
Against the Bobcats, Avery got his second consecutive start and once again saw 40 minutes of action. As we described in the Paul Pierce Chronicles above, the Celtics looked to attack the Bobcats at the rim. After Pierce, Avery did the most damage down low, scoring 11 points on 5-6 shooting at the rim (he was 5-10 overall).
Bradley got his first bucket with 9:15 remaining in the first quarter. Throughout the game, the Celtics ran sets that featured Paul Pierce or Avery as the point and played Rajon Rondo off the ball. In many of these, Rondo would post D.J. Augustin on the low block or just above.
In the two images below, we see the Celtics set up such a play: Pierce swings the ball to Avery via Kevin Garnett at the top of the key as Rondo sprints across the court and sets up a few feet off the elbow. Brandon Bass leaves the rim-area for the arc which, as you can see in the second image, clears a huge amount of space around the hoop.
With Augustin denying the entry pass, Rondo calls for a lob. Avery’s pass is a little off the mark and pulls Rondo a little closer to the baseline. The high-arcing pass gives the Bobcats’ defenders time to fill the lane and prevent Rondo from attacking off the catch.
Though there are several defenders in the area of the paint, they leave a wide open lane to the basket. With Gerald Henderson now focused on Rondo, Avery sees an opportunity to slash into the paint unfettered and takes it. Rondo’s pass is on the money and Avery gets the lay-in.
When Bradley first started to demonstrate his aptitude for these types of opportunity-based plays, he would almost exclusively run them in tandem with Paul Pierce. He would set up on the weak side corner or wing and watch Pierce intently, waiting for him to make a move on the basket. Penetration from Pierce would draw the defense and create space on the backside for Avery to get under the hoop for an easy two. With 5:16 left in the first, the Celtics went back to the well for one of these.
In the first two images, we see the set-up and the trigger. Pierce faces down Corey Maggette at the top of the key with Brandon Bass and Rondo flanking him on the wings. Greg Stiemsma is the lone man under the hoop. Bradley sets up in the corner, his man already playing well off him to deter an attack on the basket.
Pierce curls around the screen and drives toward the basket. Maggette fights through/sags under the pick and cuts Paul’s drive off between the elbow and the block. Stiemsma’s man, Byron Mullens, has shifted underneath the hoop to defend on the drive.
At this point, Pierce plants and back-spins. As he does so, Maggette flops, which takes one line of defense out of the equation. All five Bobcat defenders are focused on Pierce. Off Pierce’s spin, Bradley starts to make his move toward the basket.
With Pierce now in the lane, Mullens commits to contesting his shot. It’s unclear what Gerald Henderson is trying to do, but whatever it is, it doesn’t involve keeping tabs on Avery, who arrives beneath the hoop just as Paul elevates. Avery catches Pierce’s pass and flips in an easy two as the entire Bobcats defense looks on.
“Bradley is one of those very aggressive defensive players. He gets up in you, constantly moving his hands, has quick feet. We just saw a perfect example of what he can do.” –Stephanie Ready
During the span of one third-quarter minute, Avery collected five of his 11 points off of two very nice plays. At the 11:43 mark, the Bobcats’ Gerald Henderson inbounded the ball to Tyrus Thomas from the baseline, popped up, collected a handoff, then curled back to the hoop. Bradley hounded him all the way. As Henderson got into the lane and elevated, Bradley simply reached in, snatched the ball out of his hands, put it on the floor and ran it all the way back for a lay-in.
“He’s not gonna stop.” –Stephanie Ready
At 10:47, Avery collected a defensive rebound on the low block. He immediately went into a sprint, blowing past teammates and opponents alike. He cleared half court and got a step past the elbow before elevating amidst a crowd of Bobcats. As he drew contact, he put up a high-arcing floater that bumped off the glass just above the square before dropping through the net. The basket counted, and-one. He drained the free throw.
Here’s Avery’s line from the game:
If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out the first installment of “Down in the Hole: A Season with the Houston Astros,” in which we reflect on the two worst Red Sox teams of our lifetime, and contemplate the adverse of effects of relentless winning and impossible standards on our ability to feel joy. With baseball season on its way, we’ll be taking the Chronicles down to once a week, at least until the playoffs start.