Following Collapse, Celtics Say Lesson Learned
WALTHAM - The rigors of the NBA schedule barely allow for practice time, let alone teaching opportunities. But with the Celtics all but officially out of playoff contention, Doc Rivers gave his young players an important in-game lesson against the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday night.
Paul Pierce took a permanent seat on the bench after taking a poke in the face in the third quarter, and he was probably better off covering his eyes than watching the fourth quarter collapse.
Rather than go back to his starting unit early in the fourth quarter when his bench started to lose what was once an 18-point lead, Rivers left his reserves on the floor to play through it until they'd actually surrendered the lead completely.
The Celtics lead 69-51 with 3:42 to play, just after Paul Pierce had been poked in the face and left the game. Rivers started subbing in his reserves over the next few minutes, and by the time the quarter was over the Celtics' lead had been cut to nine points, 71-62.
You know how it ends; the Bobcats went on a 20-3 run over the next 8:27 and the Celtics dropped a 92-84 decision.
So Thursday's practice started with a review of 11 minutes of game footage from Wednesday night's fourth quarter collapse, but it turned into a 45-minute give-and-take review between the coaches and players.
His players saw defensive breakdowns, missed rotations and too many one-pass shots. Rivers said that instead of constantly stopping the tape and berating the guys again this morning about their poor performance, he let the players illustrate his points for him when they saw their failings revealed on video.
"A lot of guys had some good things to say because I tried to talk less," Rivers said.
His approach seemed to work for Paul Pierce, who admitted that while he wanted to get back in the game last night, he felt it was a good lesson for his young teammates. Still bruised under his right eye from the poke he took from Gerald Wallace, Pierce noted that he didn't address the media after the game because his eye was puffed up from the injury and his mouth was still sore as well.
"It was a good learning experience for them. These are the guys who want the playing time. We're seeing who are the guys who are going to get playing time for next year," Pierce said. "It's just a tendency from young players. They see a big lead, they get relaxed, they have a tendency to say, 'let me try to go out there and get my numbers and get my shots up' instead of thinking about what you need to do to win the ballgame."
Nine years of experience in the league tells Pierce that while the lesson may have set in today, it may be an experience that young players will have to suffer through more than once.
"Hopefully they take something from it. When you're a kid, you get in trouble for one thing, you get in trouble for the same thing, you're getting constantly punished until you eventually learn," Pierce said. "Sometimes you've got to take the training wheels off. You've just got to go out there and ride."
Rivers had similar thoughts about the impact of his object lesson.
"I think they are understanding it. I don't think you get any message when you are this young, in one day," Rivers said. "[Delonte West] made a great point, when you've got an 18-point lead, you don't come in the game to score. If you get three more stops in a row the game's over. And they came in the game to add points, 'we've got an 18-point lead, let's see how many points we can get now', instead of thinking stops."
As for the Celtics starters, Rivers let them know in the early stages of the Bobcats run late in the third quarter that they wouldn't be going back in to the game. With a night to reflect on his decision, Rivers says he felt it was a good time to send a message, and if he could do it all over again, there is one thing he would change. He wouldn't have brought back Al Jefferson and Delonte West at all in the later stages of the fourth quarter; they returned to the game once the Bobcats took the lead but the damage had been done.
In the meantime, those who were on the floor when the lead evaporated seem to get the point, at least for today. Leon Powe talked about the fact that his unit is usually on the floor when the game's already been decided, and they probably needed a wake-up call to learn how to handle a situation when the game is in the balance. And they also need to learn that in professional basketball, no lead is safe.
"In college, you see it sometimes. But in the NBA, you see it every single night. I don't care if they are down by 20, 25, they're going to make some kind of a run," Leon Powe said a day after being singled out by Rivers as being the only reserve who gave the required effort in the fourth quarter. "You've just got to put an end to it. But if you keep letting them push and push then they confident and everything starts falling."
The point wasn't lost on Allan Ray, who only recently has been getting some regular minutes.
"Being in the second unit, it's our job to keep a lead like that," Ray said. "There was a point in the game where we couldn't score, we were getting shots but we weren't knocking them down. I think everybody started getting the urge that we've just go to score instead of looking at it like, we've got to get some stops on defense."