Weekly Countdown: Sorting out the Celtics' main playoff concerns
5 Reasons for the Celtics' bewilderment
The dominant team of the regular season and the No. 1 seed overall enters Game 6 on Friday in Cleveland as the only survivor yet to win a playoff game on the road. The Celtics' 0-5 record away from home -- versus opponents who had fewer victories at home than the Celtics had on the road this season -- is symptomatic of larger issues listed here. If the Celtics prevail in this conference semifinal and go on to beat the Pistons in the next round, then they'll have overcome these postseason concerns; if they lose, then here are some of the reasons why.
5. Ray Allen's diminished role. Allen is shooting a lowly 39.5 percent and averaging 13.8 points in the playoffs, and he isn't getting enough shots -- only 12.3 per game -- to shoot his way back into rhythm. When I asked last weekend how he has adjusted to taking fewer shots, he admitted: "I don't think I really have just yet. It's just trying to find where my shot is going to come from on a continuous basis. In years past, I've known certain plays, transition with certain guys -- we've run in transition and you take a quick shot, you develop a rhythm. But now we don't run. And then when you've got a defense that's not really helping off me, the result is me not shooting the ball for quarters at a time.''
Boston coach Doc Rivers has spoken repeatedly of trying to find more shots for Allen while encouraging him to be more aggressive with his touches. Allen's response is that the postseason defenses are so well-prepared that they see the plays developing for him.
"I end up passing the ball every time,'' he said, "because they know, He's coming up to do this, deny him. And then somebody's open and I always pass it.
"It can be frustrating out there at times, because I know I can help the team and I know I can take a little bit of pressure off Paul [Pierce] and KG [Kevin Garnett]. It's just a matter of the offense flowing in my direction so I can make it easier on them. It's a fine line because you don't want to be too aggressive if it's not there, but you've got to be aggressive every time on the floor. It's just the way our offense is run -- it just hasn't been there.''
4. Garnett's changing role. Garnett has become the Celtics' go-to scorer for much of this postseason. Notice how the allocation of shots has shifted during the playoffs (chart, right).
But the issue isn't so much the number of field-goal attempts, but rather the way the Celtics have played. It came into focus during the second half of their Game 5 victory over the Cavs when Pierce (29 points overall) took on a larger and more meaningful role than in previous games as he aggressively went to the basket and ate up points at the free-throw line. Point guard Rajon Rondo (20 points and 13 assists) was taking on a bigger role, too, essentially seizing opportunities that might have gone to Allen -- which in this case was OK as Rondo became the third scorer the Celtics have needed for much of the playoffs.
Garnett finished with 26 points while playing off Pierce and Rondo, which was a welcome renewal of KG's role. There has been some grousing that Garnett has not been enough of a go-to presence in the playoffs, but that's not who he is. He is a complementary star who is more useful as a creator than he is as a finisher, and his strengths should be valued. It's much harder to find someone who does the defensive work and makes the high-post passes as he loves to do than it is to find an out-and-out finisher.
One of the problems for the Celtics is that their offense has stagnated so badly -- with Pierce (41.3 percent in the playoffs) and Allen struggling -- that Garnett has been needed to finish in the post more than during the regular season, when Boston was flowing offensively to the strengths of its three stars. There was a stretch during Game 3 at Cleveland when the Celtics ran a series of excellent possessions through Garnett in the post. Instead of milking him and forcing the defense to react, however, Garnett then went several possessions without touching the ball, ultimately forcing Rivers to call timeout to emphasize Garnett's role in the offense.
The Spurs are an example of a team that feeds the hot scorer -- resulting in a big scoring night for Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili -- but their feel for the game is based in no small part on the years they've spent playing together. The key Celtics are still growing used to developing each other.
3. Point guard leadership. Rondo gave the Celtics an exceptional Game 5, and in future years he may provide that kind of leadership more consistently. But for now he is a second-year point guard who cannot take command of the offense every night. The Celtics have needed someone to boss them around, to create plays for the three stars, and Rondo is still learning to do that. He'll have a much better chance of doing it if their defense creates the urgent tempo in which he and his teammates excelled in Game 5.
2. Rivers is learning too. If the Celtics falter in these playoffs, there will undoubtedly be questions about whether Rivers is the right coach to win a championship during the small window of opportunity for Garnett, Pierce and Allen, who are trying to become the first trio of thirtysomethings to lead a team to the NBA title. (No champion has ever had three leading scorers over the age of 30.)
If Rivers isn't the right coach for the Celtics, then who would replace him? There are only three active coaches who have shown they can win a championship: Phil Jackson, who has always won with the league's dominant player (Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and now -- he hopes -- MVP Kobe Bryant); Gregg Popovich, who has always had Tim Duncan with former MVP David Robinson or Parker and Ginobili; and Larry Brown, whom Rivers tried to hire as his lead assistant last summer.
There are no other proven winners. There are a lot of coaches like Rivers who are trying to create the right formula on the fly. Mike D'Antoni and Avery Johnson were still learning how to win a championship when they lost the confidence of their franchises this season. Byron Scott was castigated as a coach who was in over his head after taking the Nets to successive NBA Finals (that was before he was named Coach of the Year this season in New Orleans).
The bottom line for these Celtics is that no overhauled NBA team has ever won the championship in its first season together.
"You're talking about different guys, different personalities from different places, different philosophies, coming together for a month's period to get together and win a championship,'' Allen said. "It is hard.''
What has become clear during these playoffs is that the Celtics are still learning to play with each other while trying to win a championship. Some may say that winning 66 games should have provided enough group experience. The bad thing about the regular season is that everything went their way. They never were forced to overcome any major issues as a group. They kept winning even when Garnett was injured in midseason.
Now there are times when their three main players revert uncomfortably to their old ways, when each starts forcing shots like he's the only star on the court instead of playing off the strengths of each other. In Rivers' case, he went away from his regular-season rotation before returning in Game 5 to high-energy rookie Glen (Big Baby) Davis and Eddie House, who would have played a bigger role if not for Rondo's standout performance.
"We know what we want, I will say that,'' Rivers said. "We believe we're going to do what we want to do this year, I'll put it that way. We have no history. Going into it as a group, we understand that this is a process for us and the key is for us to be successful through the process. A lot of teams use it to get to something later; we're using it to get to it now. And that's the challenge.''
1. They know they can't win a title playing this way. But as bad as the Celtics have looked at times this postseason, they can still figure it out. "That's the beautiful thing,'' Allen said. Obviously, we can go to another level. It just seems like we can be so much better."
Can they improve quickly? "Oh, yeah, it's just a matter of one game getting it done and then you see, OK, this is what we got. Roll with it.''
We'll soon see if the second half of Game 5 was a sign of better things ... or a short-lived half of inspiration.