On Wednesday night, after the Boston Celtics were run out of their own building by the Brooklyn Nets, Celtic coach Doc Rivers called his team out, saying that they were soft and had no toughness in his postgame press conference. It seemed to rally the Celtics over the weekend as they squashed the "soft" talk with an emphatic blowout over the Portland Trailblazers, winning 96-78 on Friday at the Garden before falling to the Milwaukee Bucks 91-88 in Milwaukee the following day. It was definitely a step in the right direction for the Celtics as they played some of their best basketball over the weekend despite being without star point guard Rajon Rondo who was playing out a two games suspension. Coming out of the weekend with just a 1-1 record has to feel like a disappointment given how well Boston played, but the fact that they played well enough to win both games is an encouraging sign.
Two Steps Forward
Sure it was against the Portland TrailBlazers, who aren't exactly an offensive powerhouse, but the Celtics have struggled to stop anyone from scoring this year so holding Portland to 78 points on 35 percent shooting is a huge victory. The Celtics are supposed to be a defense-first team and this was the first game of the year that they actually looked like one. The only Blazer to have any success on offense was LaMarcus Aldridge, who happens to be one of the best low post players in the game and, unlike most bigs in the NBA, has actually been relatively successful in his matchups with Kevin Garnett. The Celtics forced Portland in to 23 turnovers and held them to just 3-15 from beyond the arc, an area that has killed Boston this year. The only thing that kept Portland in the game early was free throws, as they shot 37 to just 20 for Boston. However they did themselves no favors by missing ten of them, so even that didn't save them. The Celtics seemed about to follow up their new found defensive mastery on Saturday when they held the Bucks to just 11 points in the first quarter, but it didn't last.
One Step Back
As good as the Celtics were on defense against the Blazers they were even better in the first quarter against Milwaukee, jumping out to a 17-0 lead and limiting the Bucks to just 11 first quarter points. However for some reason the C's defense just evaporated in the second quarter. The 11 points was the lowest quarter total for any Celtics opponent this year. The 36 the Bucks scored in the next frame was the highest. Part of the problem was that the Cs were without Chris Wilcox due to illness and instead had to go with Jason Collins as the first big off the bench. Collins did his best, but he's much better suited to defend half court teams who try to pound the ball down low. Against fast teams like the Bucks who feature hybrid bigs like Ersan Ilyasova he struggles. Ilyasova and Larry Sanders gave Collins and the Celtics all kinds of problems off the bench versus the Bucks, Milwaukee's offense got going, and Boston never really slowed them down again. They did only manage 44 points in the second half, but the damage was done when they wiped out Boston's 17 point lead.
Late Call Dooms the Cs
For all the talk about Boston blowing a big lead early the Celtics were still well positioned to take home a win in Milwaukee. They were on the second night of a back-to-back without their best player, but they still had an 88-85 lead and the ball with 1:19 to go in the fourth quarter. As the clock ticked toward one minute Jason Terry cut to the basket for a layup that would have given Boston a five point advantage. Then Garnett was whistled for a phantom offensive foul. He barely even touched the Buck defender who was shading over to try and contest Terry's layup. It was the kind of play that happens 100 times every game but for some reason Marc Davis, who has a history of hitting the Celtics with game altering calls, decided to blow his whistle. Even Brian Scalabrine, who was calling the game for ComCast instead of the famously biased Tommy Heinsohn, thought it was a bad call. Larry Sanders went in for two on the other end and, after Paul Pierce missed a jumper, Brandon Jenning buried a dagger three to put Milwaukee up two. Terry got an open look at a three that would have put Boston back up but it rimmed out, and after Sanders hit 1-2 at the line the Celtics were unable to tie in the closing seconds. The Cs still had chances to win after that foul, but it was the play that changed the game. Players always argue that late in games the players should decide the outcome. Marc Davis doesn't see it that way.
Green Finding His Way
Almost a quarter of the way into the season Jeff Green has been a microcosm of the Celtics – inconsistent to the max. Sometimes he is dominant. He comes off the bench and seems unstoppable, completely taking over the game and changing its' direction. On nights like this the Celtics generally win. On other nights however Green looks completely lost, unsure of when to shoot and when to pass. He drifts through these games and the Celtics have to find bench scoring from somewhere else. It is very clear to anyone who has seen one of Green's good games just how good the Celtic forward can be. What the Celtics are begging for is consistency and from that standpoint the weekend was a big step in the right direction for Green. He he put the game out of reach in Boston's win over Portland, scoring 12 of his game high 19 points in the second quarter. He followed it up with 18 points on 8-11 shooting on Saturday. Green seems to finally be figuring out how to get himself going off the bench. He doesn't come in and just start launching jumpers. He starts out by heading to the hoop and getting a few easy shots to go down. As his confidence builds and he gets more into the game he fades to the perimeter (he was 2-3 from 3pt range on Saturday). The story for Green this year has been one good game followed by a bad one. Seeing him put together two strong performances in a row is great sign for the Celtics.
Time to Get Lee More Minutes?
The Celtics have struggled on defense this year. A big part of the problem is their inability to stop penetration and a big reason for that is the absence of Avery Bradley, Boston's best perimeter defender. The Celtics have been making due thus far with Terry, who despite his excellence on offense leaves a lot to be desired as a defender. He is at his best as instant offense off the bench. Knowing this the Celtics planned to use Courtney Lee as their starting two guard until Bradley returned, but Lee struggled to find his feet amongst the veterans forcing Rivers to go with Terry early in the year and he has remained the starter ever since. However in two starts over the weekend while the Celtics waited for Rondo's suspension to be up Lee seemed to get a lot of his mojo back. He was simply marvelous against the Blazers putting up 10 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and three steals, and was pretty good against Milwaukee as well. Lee is not Bradley from a defensive standpoint, but he is probably the closest thing the Celtics have until Bradley gets back. Now that he seems to be settling in amongst the Celtics veteran it may be time to try him with the starters again. His perimeter defense is something that the Celtic starters sorely need.
While they came out of the weekend at just 1-1 there was a lot more positive than negative over the weekend for the Cs. They played well enough to win both games despite being without their best player. They get him back on Wednesday when they face the Minnesota Timberwolves and try to build on their latest strong performances.
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