|Posted by paul on November 3, 2012 at 7:45 AM|
When we started this Celtics season, we faced two intertwined challenges. One was that, with Ray gone, we had to redefine ourselves as a team. On offense, our team was built around Ray's shooting, and even if he wasn't shooting, the shooting threat he posed was a decoy. Our defense, by contrast, was built to compensate for Ray's lack of defensive prowess, and for the age of our Big Three. We surrendered almost all offensive boards in order to get back on D, and we had prowling Bigs who swallowed up attempts to penetrate by the opposition. Our defensive emphasis was on rotating, not on man-to-man defense.
This scheme worked brilliantly at first, but as the years went by, it broke down. Waiting for Ray, on offense, became more and more like Waiting for Godot. Meanwhile, the team was unable to fully embrace Rondo's growing abilities and skills. Splits and fractures began to develop, and a team loaded with scoring power found it harder and harder to score. On defense, we became over-dependent on Perkins, who was a defensive stalwart, but a poor rebounder and an even poorer scorer; both those things in turn hurt our offense. Then we lost Perkins, and we were unable to replace him with equivalent talent.
Meanwhile we were developing bad habits. Rondo, who is ideally suited to be a high tempo point guard, became used to walking the ball up the floor. Pierce and Garnett got used to setting screens for Allen, and then popping Js if Allen didn't get the shot. Attacking the basket became something we pretty much forgot to do most nights, even though our offense always functioned best when we found a balance between aggression towards the basket and chuckin' the Js.
Fortunately in some ways, unfortunately in the long run, perhaps, we were so talented, we could get away with bad basketball most nights. A team that ran away with the championship its first year together, and seemed poised to win more, found ways to fall short year after year. There may have been no better one championship team, other than the 1967 Sixers, in the history of the league.
The thing is, no matter how deep a hole we dug for ourselves, we could always turn on the D. We had one of the best defensive players in the history of the game in Garnett, and even without Perkins, we could hit a second gear whenever we wanted to ... usually. But, on the defensive end too, though, bad habits were building up. Rondo got used to playing 'free safety', and never really seemed to figure out how to control his opposite number, man-to-man. The higher Rondo rose in the basketball fermament, the more he became a focus for opposing point guards, who began to realize that he could be beat off the dribble regularly. With Perkins gone, this became more and more of a problem. Garnett is one of the best defenders in the league off screens and picks, containing opposing guards as they attempt to attack the basket. Unfortunately, with Garnett playing the five, he is unable to spend time on the perimeter. His responsibility - as a 5 - is more to shut down the paint, but KG is not good at this. If you watch Perkins play defense, his mind is always on controlling and patrolling the paint. He's not a shotblocker. KG is. But the thing is, shot-blocking is a reactive art. Perkins plays a more active role, deflecting penetrators, while creating space for rebounders. He does in the paint what KG does on the perimeter. But now we don't have either Perkins in the paint or KG on the perimeter.
So the defense goes like this. Rondo fails to slow or control the opposing pg. Our first line of defense is a near total failure. Then the second line is typically the power forward. Our power forwards, Bass and Sully, are nowhere near as good as KG at containing the attacking pg. Our second line of defense is a near total failure. Then comes KG. KG is a brilliant perimeter defender. He's probably the best big man in the history of the league at that. KG is also a great shot-blocker, great at attacking the ball. But, as an intimidator in the paint, KG is typically ineffective. He attacks the ball as well as anyone in the league, sure, but that's not what we primarily need from the 5. We used to have what the Thunder now have with Perkins and Ibaka; a center who controls and patrols the paint with a power forward who attacks the ball. Now we have power forwards who aren't very good at attacking the ball and a center who isn't very good at controlling the paint.
Everyone is obsessing, rightly, over our struggle to incorporate all the new players into our schemes this year. We are lacking cohesion. But what no one is talking about is that the old schemes no longer work, because the personnel they were devised for / built around are gone!
And to make matters worse, we've developed a lot of bad habits, and they are not gone!
So it isn't just a matter of blending new players in with old schemes. Our problems are a lot bigger than that. We have to redefine who we are as a team, on the fly, while incorporating masses of new players. We are trying to rebuild/redefine our team, while continuing to contend. And what makes things worse is that we do not even realize how big our problem is yet.
Part of the reason I harped on Rondo's defensive play this summer was that I could see that this was a team that had to revise its defensive strategy. Our old approach was based around the idea that the defensive power center of our team was up front. But that isn't true anymore. Now the defensive power center of our team is on the perimeter. In Rondo, Lee and Bradley, we have three of the best perimeter defenders in the game. Even with Bradley out, it is crucial that our perimeter players make life hard for opponents on the perimeter. We have to ball-hawk. We have to hassle them as they bring the ball up. We have to fight through screens like they are trying to make off with our music collection. We have to block shots. We have to eat up shot clock.
On defense, we have to be a perimeter-oriented team.
On offense, the opposite has to happen. We still have a lot of good shooters, and we can still shoot a lot Js, but the key to our offense has to be attacking the basket. Ray could turn on a dime and throw a knife between the eyes of the opposition. If he was spotted up, you could count the points before the shot left his hands. We don't have shooters like that now. Our closest is Paul, but even Paul's game is based on attacking the basket, only he's forgotten that. We have a bunch of shooters who can be very effective with the J, BUT ONLY IF THEY REMEMBER THAT THE KEY TO THEIR GAMES IS ATTACKING THE RIM.
It's not that we've lost the ability to shoot the J. Even Rondo is a way better shooter than he has shown. But every player we have now is someone whose game is built around attacking the hoop. Yet we are playing (mentally) lazier offensive basketball than ever! We are playing as if Ray were still here, and yet this perimter-oriented offensive scheme was no longer working even when he was here!
On defense we are front oriented, and on offense we are perimeter oriented. We need to turn that around, exactly. We need to be perimeter oriented on defense and front oriented on offense.
To his credit, Rondo has been talking lately like a true leader, like a great leader. The other day he seemed to be the first to point out that the bad habits of the core guys are causing more problems right now than the green-ness of the new guys. After last night's game, he went a big step further. Even though Doc had basically given him carte blanche to slough off on defense, Rondo pointed out simply, bluntly, and without deflection that the team's problem was defense, and that he was the first line of the defense, and that he needed to play better defense on his man, and that this needs to start happening in the next game, tonight against Washington. That was indeed spoken like a true leader, Rondo. But now it has to happen on the floor.
The power center of our defense is on the perimeter. We need to raise our commitment and intensity there, even if it means more rests more often. The power center of our offense is attacking the basket, and playing up-tempo, both in transition and in the half-court. We began to realize last year that we were changing into an energy team, more than a precision team, but old habits are hard to break. We can still play precision and execution oriented basketball, but the bottom line has to be that we are an aggressive team that plays with a lot of energy at both ends of the court. IF we can find the place where we balance precision with passion, speed with control, improvisation with execution, we can become the great team that all of us envisioned this summer.
The problem isn't stumbling and making mistakes, as we've mostly done this year so far. The issue is, what do you learn from your stumbles and mistakes? If what Doc learns is to cut back the rotation and slow the game down, we may be going backwards not forwards. Yes we need to execute. Yes we need to play under control. But we need to play with passion, and energy, and we have to be willing to take chances. The bottom line is that this team needs to evolve, not devolve. Ray Allen is gone. Rondo is here. Ray's personality and skills, Ray Allen's strengths and weaknesses, defined this team more than we even realized. We can see that now. But Ray is gone. Now it's up to you, Rondo. Who are we? In the end, you have to tell us.
We have to redefine ourselves AND we have to blend in a bunch of new guys into a rotation that goes much deeper than we have ever gone before. We have a lot of tough knots to work through. But the reward can be a truly great team.