The best thing that we can say about last nights Celtics win is that a few weeks ago it would have been a loss. Basically, that was exactly the kind of game (non-Washington variety) that Boston made a habit of blowing in the early going. But on occasions like last night, their development is clear. Even if the process has been somewhat subtle.
The bottom line is that the Celtics didnt bring their A game against the Mavs. Not down the stretch, at least. The offense stalled, their defense sprang a leak (the leak was wearing a No. 9 jersey) and they failed to capitalize on so many essential opportunities. But at the end of the daynight(by the time it was over) morning, Boston capitalized enough. Enough to avoid a loss. Enough to ensure that all those extra minutes werent played in vain. Enough to move three games over .500 for the first time this season.
The Celtics now head out on the road for a three-game trip at Houston, at San Antonio, at Chicago with some serious momentum-building (or killing) potential. Of course, either way, its not the end of the world. The Celtics could lose all three or go 1-2 and (short of a horrific injury) there wont be any reason for panic. In the same breath, going 3-0 or 2-1 wont necessarily mean a thing. But it will keep this team trending in the right direction, and at this point, what else you can ask for?
(Oh, what's that? You want another big man? OK, good point. How about Courtney Lee and Jared Sullinger for Marcin Gortat? Would you do that? I'm not claiming any sources on the deal, I just think it's an interesting question. As of Saturday (December 15), all of Boston's free agents are eligible to be traded. At the same time, they've got Avery Bradley on the verge of return. Suddenly, the C's have four shooting guards and only guy (I'm not counting Jason Collins) who's taller than 6-10, and that's KG who can't rebound like he used to, and does most of his damage from 17 feet.
Translation: The Celtics desperately need a big man. They have way too many shooting guards. Come on, Danny. Let's make some memories. Either that or you'll leave me with no choice but to initiate the "Bring Birdman To Boston" campaign.)
Anyway, let's forget about trade rumors for a second, and focus on the big picture.
Specifically, one aspect of the Celtics attack thats been non-existent to this point in the season. One that was on display last night (twice), has the potential to seriously screw with them moving forward.
THE FINAL POSSESSION
More specifically, a potential game-winning final possession. I'm talking less than 24 seconds left on the clock, with the Celtics either tied, down one or down two points. I'm talking one basket = victory. One miss = loss, or another overtime period for a team that's already played too many.
In situations like this, what should the Celtics do?
Before we answer that, let's take a quick look at they've done so far this year, in six previous "game-winning shot" opportunities:
(DISCLAIMER: The following videos are not recommended for those who enjoy good basketball, or for women who are nursing, pregnant or who may become pregnant.)
No. 1: November 7, against Washington
The score's tied at 88, with nine seconds left. The Celtics have possession at half-court, and inbound the ball to Rondo.
The play looks like it was called for Pierce, and even though the Wizards switched, Rondo still could have gotten him the ball. But he made the decision to try and win the game on his own, and that's fine. You just wish he'd try something other than a step-back three-pointer.
No. 2: November 25, at Orlando.
The Celtics grab an offensive rebound (!) with 19 seconds left in a 102-102 game, and reset the offense with the ballgameballgame in Paul Pierce's hands.
Nice defense by Afflalo. Tough look for Paul.
No. 3: December 7, at Philly
Rondo picks off an errant pass with three seconds left in a tie game. The C's inbound at halfcourt (to Rondo) with a chance to pick up a great win, on national TV, against a budding Atlantic Division rival.
This one was Rondo's from the start. As Doug Collins would say: "That play was called 'Give the ball to Rajon, and everyone get the & out of the way.'" And truthfully, there were only three seconds left, there wasn't too much Rondo could do there.
Except to maybe keep moving towards the hoop in order to maybe draw a foul, instead of settling for another off-balanced fade away.
No. 4: December 7, at Philly . . . TAKE 2
Same game. But now it's overtime. Now the Celtics are down one. And this time they inbound it to Kevin Garnett.
The play was called for Kevin, but he thought that Rondo had an angle on a lay-up. And he did. But whether it was a matter of the sprained ankle or just Rondo being Rondo, he didn't take the lay-up.
No. 5: December 12, against Dallas
This is last night. The game is tied at 96, with seven seconds left, and Boston inbounds the ball to Rondo in the backcourt.
The pick-and-pop to Pierce wasn't really there, but I don't think it mattered. It looked like Rondo was pretty damn set on taking that shot. Which, for the third time, ended up being a last second fade away jumper with a man right in his face. And this one barely made it to the free throw line.
No. 6: December 12, against Dallas . . . TAKE 2
Same game. But now it's overtime. The score is tied at 105, and the Celtics isolate Pierce with about four seconds left on the clock.
I guess this one worked a little better than Rondo's, seeing how Pierce's shot made it all the way to the charge circle. But again, not a great look.
So, there you have it. Six game-winning opportunities. Six off-balanced, well-defended jump shots. Zero makes. And that brings us back to the original question: In situations like this, what should the Celtics do?
Honestly, I don't want to make this about a power struggle between Pierce and Rondo, because I think both guys are better than that. In fact, I don't think the "Rondo or Pierce?" question is even all that important. The far bigger problem is that, no matter who it is, the Celtics are getting horrible looks at the end of games. They're not running plays. They're not taking it to the hoop In Rondo's case, maybe he's scared of going to the line? In Paul's case, maybe he can't beat guys off the dribble like he used to? They're just settling.
You also wonder how much that has to do with the fact that the Celtics have been tied in five of these six game-winning situations. When you're tied, the security of overtime takes away a lot of urgency. I don't think that's it's a coincidence that the only the time the Celtics have attacked the hoop (in theory) came when they were down a point in Philly.
That was the best "game-winning" play call that we've seen this season. It may have also been the only game-winning play call that we've seen this season. If not for Rondo slipping, or whatever, that could have gone on the "Doc Rivers Classics" highlight reel.
And for that, I don't think we should ignore the involvement of Kevin Garnett. KG can be a serious threat in these situations. He can extend the defense. He's a great passer. He's the one guy who has 0.00 percent ego when it comes to game-winning shots and will usually (especially in his later years) make the right "game-winning" decision.
But other than that one play in Philly, KG's been an after thought. He's not even in the picture.
Remember the shot he hit to beat the Knicks back in 2009?
I've still yet to see anyone stop this play. Every time the Celtics run it, regardless of the situation, it seems like KG gets that open jumper. At the very least, it always puts the defense on its heels. It creates some semblance of a strategy. It's also been in the Witness Protection Program.
Bring back the PierceKG Pick-and Pop!
Or just do something. Something else. Something at all. The Celtics have the best and most creative play-calling coach in the league on their bench. Doc Rivers stays up all night scribbling skeleton drills on his window like John Nash. It's time to transfer some of that creativity into the final seconds of action.
Either that, or petition the league to move the hoop up to the free throw line.