Celtics-Raptors preview: Getting Pierce to the line


Celtics-Raptors preview: Getting Pierce to the line

BOSTON It has truly been a search-and-discovery mission for Paul Pierce in figuring out his role in the Boston Celtics' revamped offense.

"I'm starting to get a better rhythm, starting to understand where my shots are going to come from in the offense," Pierce said. "We changed a lot of things in the offense this year."

One of the changes thus far has been Pierce spending a lot more time at the free throw line.

He comes into today's game against Toronto averaging 10.6 free throw attempts per game which ranks fifth in the NBA.

Since Kevin Garnett arrived prior to the 2007-2008 championship season, Pierce has finished no better than 14th in the league in that category.

The year before Garnett arrived, Pierce ranked eighth in the league with 8.6 per game. In 2005 and 2006, Pierce ranked 10th and fourth, respectively.

"We all know what the Captain can do," C's guard Jason Terry told CSNNE.com. "When he's attacking, being aggressive out there, it only makes us a better team. And if you can get him to the free throw line, that's easy points for both him and our team."

A career 80.8 percent free throw shooter, Pierce is connecting on 82 percent of his free throws this season.

Getting Pierce to the free throw line as much as possible will indeed be an important factor in Boston's chances of beating Toronto. Here are some other keys to keep an eye on as the C's try to run their dominance at home over the Raptors to nine in a row.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The Celtics have not exactly lit up the scoreboard to start games, ranking 20th in first-quarter points with 23.2 per game. But that could change today against a Raptors team that tends to dig itself an early ditch by giving up 26.4 points in the first quarter which ranks 28th in the league.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Kevin Garnett vs Andrea Bargnani: Garnett and Brandon Bass will likely switch off at times on Bargnani whose length and perimeter-shooting skills make him a scoring threat whenever you play the Raptors.

PLAYER TO WATCH: To the surprise of many, DeMar DeRozan landed an unusually large multi-year extension worth 40 million over four years last month. To his credit, he has put up some decent numbers this season - 20 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.

STAT TO TRACK: The C's have been a decent 3-point shooting team this season, ranking 11th in the league at 36.8 percent per game. That number will likely see a spike today against a Raptors team that has had problems defending perimeter shots all season. Opponents are shooting 41.3 percent on 3s against Toronto, the second-worst 3-point percentage defense in the NBA.

Haggerty: Subban looking more like a 1st-round bust than NHL goalie

Haggerty: Subban looking more like a 1st-round bust than NHL goalie

BOSTON -- Malcolm Subban still believes he can be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.

While that sort of sheer, brazen self-confidence is admirable -- especially after getting yanked from a 5-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild at TD Garden Tuesday -- pretty much all the evidence points to the contrary. Given a shot because of injuries to Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, nearly two years after getting pulled from his only other NHL appearance when he gave up three goals on six shots in St. Louis, Subban was taken out Tuesday night after allowing three goals on eight second-period shots.

He maintained a defiantly confident tone afterwards, a testament to his maturity and mental toughness.

“It sucks," said Subban, who has now allowed six goals on 22 career shots faced in two starts. “Obviously, I’m just trying to finish the game, let alone win one . . . but what can you do now, right?

"Obviously I want to be a No. 1 goaltender in the league. I was a [first-round draft choice] for a reason. I have the potential, and I just have to show it. Obviously I haven’t done that so far yet, but I think I’m getting closer to it. Honestly, I think I can do it right now. I just got to show it . . . I didn’t [do it] today, but tomorrow’s a new day.”

Given the stunningly bad quality of his two NHL starts, combined with a thoroughly pedestrian body of work at the AHL level over the last three years, there is literally zero evidence Subban is tracking to be a franchise goaltender. Meanwhile, a sizeable selection of goaltenders taken after him in the 2012 NHL Draft have proven their worth and advanced to the elite level: Matt Murray. Frederik Anderson. Connor Hellebuyck. Joonas Korpisalo.

Subban was hoping all along to break through this season in Boston, but things went south on him quickly Tuesday in his first chance to do so.

Hampered by a Bruins team not playing well in front of him, the first goal he allowed was a fluttering Charlie Coyle shot that trickled between his glove hand and the top of his leg pad. The third was a softie low and to the glove side, a power-play strike authored by Ryan Suter. Instead of hanging in and giving his team a chance to win, Subban helped put the Bruins in a hole they couldn't escape.

While Claude Julien felt the poor performance "could be a combination" of goaltending and overall defensive lapses, he didn't let Subban off the hook.

“There are some goals -- I’m not going to lie -- there are some goals that we thought our goaltenders should have had," said the coach.

But he also wasn't going to place the blame solely at Subban's feet.

"[I’m] not here to talk about a goaltender -- who’s in one of his first few games -- because he let in a couple of bad goals,” said Julien. “We were terrible in front of him . . .  and that’s the big picture. That’s more important.

“I don’t care who’s in net. I think when you have some injuries you need to be better in those situations and we weren’t good enough tonight. It doesn’t matter if Tuukka is in net and we had injuries up front, or we’re lacking players here or there. You’ve got to let the system take care of the game. If you play it the right way, you have a chance to win. When you don’t, you don’t. That’s what happened [against Minnesota].”

There’s no question the defense in front of Subban wasn’t nearly good enough. Adam McQuaid and Torey Krug in particular struggled to lock things down in the defensive zone. The wide-open shots from the slot -- like the Chris Stewart score in the second period 12 seconds after Minnesota’s opening goal -- are indicative of a hockey club that’s not sticking to the game plan once things start to get a little wonky.

But this is about a player (Subban) who should be entering the NHL stage of his career after being a first-round pick in 2012. Anybody would be hard-pressed to see him as an NHL goalie after his two Bruins appearances. Combine that with the lack of dominance at the AHL level over the last three years, and there’s a better chance that Subban will be a major first-round bust rather than a late-blooming No. 1 goaltender.

The scary part is that Subban and fellow young netminder Zane McIntyre are all the Bruins have for Wednesday night’s game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and perhaps longer if Rask can’t make a rapid recovery from his lower body injury.

Maybe Subban can be a bit better than he’s shown thus far, and, to be fair, the three goals allowed to Minnesota weren't all his fault. The bottom line, however, is that he should be up for doing this job right now. Tuesday was a big chance for the young goalie to make a statement that he was ready for it.

Instead he looked like the same goalie who'd been pulled from two of his first four AHL starts this season, one who's never going to truly be ready for the call in Boston.