Texas Triangle Primer
Posted Mar 16 2008 10:34PM
NBA.com's John Schuhmann is in Texas, following the Boston Celtics as they travel through the Texas Triangle.
SAN ANTONIO, March 16, 2008 -- The Boston Celtics have the best record in the NBA, 4 1/2 games better (five in the loss column) than the next team, the Detroit Pistons. With just over four weeks remaining in the 2007-08 season, it would take a minor miracle for Detroit, or any Western Conference contender, to overcome Boston in the standings. So, they're very likely to go into the playoffs with home court advantage throughout.
But in the minds of many, including the person typing these here words, the Celtics are not a clear favorite to win the 2008 NBA Finals. They're not even a clear favorite to get there.
There are a few reasons for this. But the thing that may be most likely to hold them back is experience, or lack thereof. While Boston is led by three veterans with a combined 32 seasons of NBA tread and who have each reached the Conference Finals at one point in their career, they have not gone through a postseason together. As a group, they are untested when it comes to the playoffs.
Chuck Klosterman has a great quote from Doc Rivers in this Play Magazine piece about the Celtics:
"Fifty wins, 60, 45 ó it does not matter. All I want is to be the best team we can be when the playoffs start, and I know that we can be better than the team we are now. There are teams that have a huge advantage over us, and we can't make that advantage up. We have to make it up in other ways. San Antonio, Detroit, Dallas ó they've all been to the finals, and two of those teams have won it all. They've been in Game 7s and in team fights and in team controversies. We've haven't been in any of that. We've been in nothing, and we can't catch up to them in that regard. So chemistry kind of becomes everything for us. We never practice for the next day. We practice for the playoffs."
Detroit is about as tested as they come. They've been through the postseason fire many times, and with basically the same core as they currently roll with. Cleveland went through a significant roster overhaul, but their one-man core of LeBron James took them to the Finals last year, and no one would be too surprised if he did it again. Out West, there isn't a more tested group than the reigning champs in San Antonio.
So, we come to San Antonio (and then Houston and Dallas) to see how the Celtics measure up. Do they have what it takes to win playoff games? If the answer is yes, why? And if the answer is no, why not?
They have conceivably passed the Detroit test, taking two of three from the Pistons, including one at the Palace of Auburn Hills. They haven't handled the Cavs as well, splitting the four games and dropping both at the Q. And now, they are heading to the Texas Triangle, about as tough as a three-game span as you can get. Each game is a potential preview of the NBA Finals, and each should be a terrific test of the Celtics' playoff readiness.
So, as we head into the Triangle, we have a few questions that we'd like to see answered over the next three games. We'll address these same questions again after the Celtics leave Dallas, and we may come up with more in the meantime.
Question 1: How do they perform down the stretch?
The Celtics are 8-8 in games determined by five points or less. That's not terrible, right? But if you eliminate the teams that are not currently in position to make the playoffs, you take away five of the wins and none of the losses.
So, against teams that are in position to make the playoffs, the Celtics are 3-8 in games determined by five points or less, with a 1-3 mark against Detroit and Cleveland. That's pretty interesting.
Defensively, the Celtics are the best team in basketball. But against good defensive teams, their offensive can have a tough time getting key buckets. In their Dec. 19 loss to the Pistons, they scored just 33 points in the second half and Paul Pierce missed a jumper on their final possession. And in their Feb. 5 loss to the Cavs, they went scoreless over four straight fourth-quarter possessions, allowing Cleveland to extend their lead from two to eight.
Hopefully, a couple of these games will come down to the wire, and we'll take note of who the Celtics give the ball to on key possessions. It would be valuable to gain some confidence with clutch buckets against good teams.
These guys are late to the party, but they may end up being the most important guests. While no team can match the veteran-ness of the Celtics at the two, three and four spots, their starting point guard, Rajon Rondo, and center, Kendrick Perkins, have a combined five years of NBA experience and a grand total of 28 minutes (Perkins in 2005) of playoff experience.
Will Doc Rivers call on Cassell when his team needs a key bucket down the stretch? He could go offense/defense with Cassell and Rondo, but that theory could get you caught with the wrong guy on the floor at times.
Neither Cassell or Brown played in Friday's loss at home to the Jazz, but a day later, Doc Rivers decided, with only 18 games remaining in the season, his new vets needed floor time. So, Cassell was the first man off the bench in Milwaukee on Saturday night and each played 23 minutes, obviously a season high for Brown, who spent the first four months of the season at home with his family.
"We don't have enough games to wait," Rivers told reporters. "So we're just going to do it and hope that it doesn't throw us off too much. If it does, it does. But, it's worth doing it."
Question 3: How fragile is this team?
Kevin Garnett missed nine games just before the All-Star break with an abdominal strain. Ray Allen has missed the last game and a half with a foot injury. When they were brought together last summer, the prevailing thought was that one key injury could bring them down. Of course, the same applies to every other team in the league, but Allen's foot is something to keep a close eye on here in the Triangle.
Question 4: How will the role players handle the pressure?
In addition to Rondo and Perkins, the Celtics have a few other youngsters who will be asked to hold their own come playoff time. Some of that is alleviated by the presence of Cassell and Brown, they also have James Posey, who won a title with the Heat two years ago, and so far this season, you have to be pretty impressed with how guys like Tony Allen, Leon Powe and Glen Davis have performed. But the questions will remain until they come up big in the postseason.
So, how much of a drop-off there is when two of the big three go to the bench is another issue we'll keep an eye on.
Question 5: Is Doc Rivers a good coach or a bad coach?
There's no denying it. Doc Rivers was the coach of a 24-58 team last season and at the time, not many people thought he'd still be employed by the Celtics a year later. But the quality of the players can certainly determine the quality of the coach. Just ask Pat Riley. So a few additional things we'll be looking at are: