April 21, 2009
Part of the thing I like best about being afforded the privilege of writing pieces like this for you cats every weekday morning is the chance to try and simplify things when they seem to be at their most chaotic. To try and develop some perspective and context when everything seems to be going in a hundred different directions.
Sometimes, it's hard. Sometimes, you have no rhyme or reason, even when the most obvious batch of answers and explanations are directly in front of you. Sometimes, a kick to the stomach does a bit of damage to the grey matter, and you wander a bit before coming back home.
Boston and Chicago played another classic on Monday, a game that saw a determined Celtic team race out to an early lead, before an undaunted group of Bulls raced back to actually take a halftime lead, while dropping 61 first half points on what is (at full strength, I submit) one of the great defensive teams of our generation.
Then both squads continued to trade bucket after bucket after tough play after determined finish for the next 24 minutes, ending with a Ray Allen three-pointer that was desperately contested by the nearly 7-foot Joakim Noah, giving Boston its final advantage and a 1-1 series tie.
What a game. What happened?
Well, Chicago grew into a lights-out offensive team over the last half of the regular season, they don't defend as well as they should, and Boston's youngsters (Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis; drafted 21st, 27th, and 35th by Danny Ainge over various Drafts) continue to improve offensively to a point that still leaves Boston as a formidable challenge even with Kevin Garnett on the sidelines.
And, while KG isn't the team's best offensive player, he is their best player overall, and his absence allows for things like Chicago scoring 121 points per 100 possessions against Boston in the same season that once saw them score 80 points per 100 possessions in a game early this year. A jump that huge, it's pretty unreal. If you're new to this sort of post, it's like scoring a lone field goal in a loss to the Patriots in Week 2, and then dropping 52 on the Pats during the Wild Card Playoffs sometime in January. That is not an exaggeration.
Buckets were not a problem for the Bulls. Ben Gordon went off for 42 points, and most of the team did a pretty solid job of getting to the line and forcing the C's to keep up. You knew Gordon would bounce back, he works too hard on his game not for things to turn around, and he was brilliant on Monday. That man is an astonishing scorer at times.
Beyond the good, though, were two big holes.
First, John Salmons is a shooting the ball at a rate that needs to be examined. Though he denies that his injured groin is, well, injured, Salmons sure looks the part. And he followed up a slow end to the regular season by needing 33 shots to score 29 points so far in the playoffs. Now, 29 points are nice to have, but in a pair of games that were decided by five points in overtime, and a last-second bucket in regulation, every bit of inefficiency counts.
Secondly, Chicago's power forward play was pretty weak. It wasn't ineffectual, both Tyrus Thomas (six blocks in 20 minutes) and Brad Miller (16 and nine rebounds in 35 minutes) helped in some areas, but they were left hurting the Bulls in others. Thomas missed five of seven shots, and had only four rebounds in his 20 minutes. Pretty bad, even for a guy who is roaming for rejections. Miller whiffed on a few rebounds of his own, but it was those team-leading four turnovers that made a big difference in a one-possession game, alongside some pretty iffy defense.
That's why you have to be wary of that "veteran savvy" phrase and praise. Depends on the veteran, depends on the amount of savvy. I've been a fan of Miller's game since he was in college (he's 33, now), but he's likely done more harm than good in this series despite solid stats. This would seem to be nit-picking, but in two games that were decided on the final possession of regulation, that's what you have to do to determine the difference.
And though Salmons has only recently vaulted into the nation's consciousness (Canada's known about him for years), he is 29. This isn't some youngster trying to make his way. This is a man that needs to listen to what his body is telling him. His groin, particularly. The very mark of a man.
The biggest nit to pick is the fact that the Bulls were left without a timeout in the final seconds of regulation for the second straight game. It's nearly impossibly tough to herd cats and keep your timeouts in check over the course of a pro basketball game -- especially a brutally intense playoff pairing -- but that doesn't mean Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro can't be called out for initiating a whistle blow when it isn't called for.
Particularly the one he called with 1:54 left in the fourth quarter, with Chicago up one, and the ball in their hands. You could tell as soon as the whistle blew, without knowing that Chicago would need a timeout to spare, that this was the wrong move.
Yes, the Bulls got a bucket on the following play, and the play call allowed Ben Gordon the space he needed to work, but it was still an isolation play that resulted in a tough shot BG had to hit over two defenders. Hardly something that needed a timeout to set up.
Listen, it was a tough, close game with 95 possessions and 233 points scored between both teams. And Del Negro (who does have plenty of strengths, despite my constant complaining) coaches a young team. There's a lot to try and keep in order. But at some point you're going to have to trust the players to work it out on their own, running the plays you've been calling since October, and doing what 29 other coaches seem to be able to do quite effortlessly. Well, not "effortlessly," but consistently.
VDN's inability to save timeouts for the final seconds has been a sticking point all season, among many sticking points, and it's hard to understand how in game 84 (plus preseason) it still hasn't stuck. You have to keep one in your back pocket, and that doesn't mean you eschew calling the TO before the final TO. It's the TO before the TO before the final TO that you don't call. You have to learn to let it go, especially with the ball in your hands, up a point, and about two minutes to go.
Back to the victors. Boston played a desperate, fantastic, game. Ray Allen didn't define it for me, though you could see his 28 second half points coming a mile away (more on that in a second). To me, Rajon Rondo set the tone.
Rondo had his shot blocked five times. And though I just complained about John Salmons shooting when he shouldn't, Rondo's sort of penetration -- even if it results in a missed shot or blocked shot -- absolutely destroys a defense. It's why Tex Winter lists "with an offensive rebound" among his other ways to penetrate the defense. Rondo has the Bulls spinning, and they might react correctly and block his shot, but they're also in no place to try and recover the loose ball. The result? Boston was dominant on the offensive glass.
19 points, 12 rebounds, seven offensive rebounds, 16 assists, five bloody steals, and two turnovers in 40 minutes for Rondo. Who, by the way, gruesomely turned his ankle in the second quarter.
Ray Allen was the man, and it was good to see. Mainly because you like to see a jump shot form that is that perfect be rewarded with a make. But mostly because observers took his Game 1 performance as a sign that he was going to have another rough start to the playoffs, like last year. It was on PTI, even.
What people don't remember is that, last year, Allen was dragging his ankle around. His wheels were shot, and he couldn't get the typical lift needed to unleash that perfect jumper. That wasn't the case in Game 1. He was just off. Happens to everyone, expect a return. Expect more than a return. Expect those averages to even out.
26 and nine for Glen Davis, ably replicating Kevin Garnett's
typical Celtic offensive contributions ... on a good night. 16 and 12 for
Kendrick Perkins, as the C's racked up 26 assists and pulled in 21 offensive
caroms. A gritty, determined (there's that word, again) performance. Expected,
but sometimes living up to expectations is impressive enough. That's why we'll
see just how impressive the Chicago Bulls are when they take it to the United Center
for Games 3 and 4.
They're supposed to win those games. It's not that they need to, we know that they need to. It's that they're expected to win those games. If you prove you can essentially play Boston to the hilt in Boston, then you should win both games at home.
And a tough, close, galling win might be the best thing for those expectations. If Chicago shoots 40 percent and loses by 21, it might be a different story. They could shrug and then get blown out again in Game 3. After this type of loss? Who knows?
We know what to expect from the Celtics. They're the champs. They are something this league should be proud of.
What are we going to get from you, Baby Bulls? I can't wait to find out.
Chicago, Atlanta, Utah, and Dallas are the four worst defending teams currently playing in the postseason; but there is something that sets the four of them apart. Chicago and Atlanta can defend, they have the personnel to dominate defensively, but often choose not to, or are not put in a situation where they can play solid defense due to curious coaching and fundamental choices.
Utah and Dallas? I don't know if they can turn these defensive issues around.
This isn't to say Dallas still isn't my favorite to beat San Antonio, or even the Nuggets/Hornets in the next round. This team is that good enough offensively to make it to the final two. But with that personnel, I just don't see a whole lot of improvement. Sure, the Spurs can miss more shots as the series heads to Dallas, I fully expect that the team's offensive efficiency can and will go down quite a bit, but there will always be a chance at a game like Game 2.
It doesn't help that the Spurs had perfect, unfettered vision from beginning to end.
I mean, I brought up what I thought was the fact that the Spurs couldn't possibly improve upon their effort from Game 1, and boy, was I wrong. What we saw in Game 2 was mental effort. God, I sound like a gym coach.
Every possession was treated with kid gloves. Angry, probing, kid gloves. No matter the Dallas defensive decision, Tony Parker was doing the absolute perfect thing with the ball in his hands, even if it meant pulling up from 20 feet. And because his concentration was so pure, that 20-footer was locked in.
Few teams would have had a chance against San Antonio on Monday. Sure, they would have contested better on the perimeter, or been able to seal off the front of the rim better than Dirk Nowitzki or Brandon Bass could, but San Antonio was winning this game.
Back to Parker. 38 points on 22 shots, tossing in that much even in an 87-possession game (for comparison's sake, that's about how fast the Pistons play, the second-slowest rate in the NBA), while missing both his three-point attempts and hitting 67 percent of his free throws. That's a pretty happenin' mid and long-range game on two-point shots. Eight assists, as well. A constant threat that drew Dallas' attention, game-long, even if the Mavs couldn't do anything about it despite changes in gameplan.
Tim Duncan had 13 points, 11 boards, five assists, and three blocks; sort of a Bill Walton circa-1986 performance. Drew Gooden thankfully took it to the low post, and scored eight points in one stretch over the first and second quarters that helped put the Mavs on their heels. 13 points overall for the late-season addition.
Also, let's not slouch on the San Antonio D. Dallas, usually a hot number on the offensive end, scored about 97 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would be last in the NBA were it averaged through the entire season. By a long shot. 40 percent shooting for Dallas, who only hit a third of their three-pointers.
A few add-ons ...
1. Chuck Swirsky can call a basketball game. Holy cow, that was fun.
2. Read this. It was bugging me all weekend, and I should have put something into either Sunday or Monday's BtB about it. The team that wins Game 1 wins 80 of all series'? Or is it, "the better team wins 80 percent of all series'"?
3. And I have to give Tyler Perry thanks for something.
The man's massive, raging ego, the same thing that tells him to put his name at the front of every sitcom he's created (you know, just like Garry Marshall or James L. Brooks did. Or didn't) allows me to completely and swiftly skip his tripe TV every time it comes on the tube.
All I have to do is look for the man's name. Brand recognition. Thanks, Tyler.