It's been a strange trend, and a pretty consistent one throughout the now 2 1/2-year reign of the Big Three in Boston. Orlando, Los Angeles or any of LeBron's teams? The C's come through with, at the very worst, a competitive night out. Flip a coin for who wins or loses, but never question Boston's effort. And always give it a good chance to win.
The NBA's lesser lights? That's a different story.
Saturday's loss in Washington was typical of the trend. You wouldn't be blamed for flipping away from the contest (as I did, so please don't), with the Celtics up 15 points in the first quarter alone, and you may have missed the Celtics only scoring 27 second-half points as the Wizards won the thing on John Wall's(notes) Worst Game-Winning Shot Ever.
It turns out the hallmarks of that loss mirrored the mitigating factors of so many other Celtics defeats at the hands of teams that had no business being in games with them, as we saw too many times in the second half of the 2009-10 season. A malaise set in offensively, which made sure the Celtics took poor shots and no amount of defensive determination could overcome it.
With that, there are easily correctable issues for the Celtics. The Wizards loss was a classic case of fool's gold. After scoring 35 points in the first quarter, the offense ground to a halt. The litany of sins included too many jump shots, not enough touches on the post and too little urgency in getting into sets.
Rivers didn't like the pace, but he was quick to deflect criticism from his point guard, Rajon Rondo(notes). By his count there were 10 times when Rondo was up the floor, but had to wait while players walked into position.
The Celtics don't have a lot of players who can get their own shot when the 24-second clock is winding down, so it's imperative they get into their sets quickly and use the time to set up the best possible shot. (You can see how their shooting numbers sink like a stone late in the shot clock at 82games.com).
People often give lip service to the Celtics thinking defense-first, while forgetting just how hard this team has to work to get a good shot on the offensive end. Yes, stars like Ray Allen(notes), Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce(notes) and Rajon Rondo are household names at this point, but name recognition alone doesn't lead to easy looks. Allen often needs a series of screens to get open. Rondo still doesn't shoot from the perimeter consistently. Pierce (though he might be enjoying a career season) is often a step slow, and Garnett (never an orthodox 7-footer) can be pushed out of position down low.
These aren't crippling factors, as Allen, K.G., Rondo and Pierce can all put teams (any teams) away with their offense alone. But things have to go right. Rondo has to have the ball while the defense is at a disadvantage. Allen needs to see that daylight as he peels off a good screen, and the pass has to be perfect. K.G. has to have a half-second to peel that note-perfect 18-footer off. And Pierce? He's often too unorthodox to cover, as he drops 12 in the fourth quarter to put you away.
But Boston has to work at it, and when the work stops or the immediacy tends to float away, the offense suffers. Because even with it mostly going right this season, the 33-10 Celtics are 10th in offensive efficiency overall. Household names, sure, but nothing is ever guaranteed.
The season has spun into its second half, and games will get stranger from here on out. The division title is all but assured for the Celtics, but they'll be working on different goals. Topping Miami and San Antonio for the best record in the league. Dealing with teams that are far out of the playoff race, but are still looking to spoil things. Taking on squads that might be decimated by a trade from earlier that day, or injuries that have led to a hungry roster full of rookies and minor league call-ups. The paper, alone, won't win it for Boston.
This isn't to say Boston takes it easy. It doesn't. Not with that lineup. It's just to say that the team that has had to work so hard, to get this far, and will continue to have to work so, so hard. Especially offensively.