Two Teams Pass in the Night
Denver sliding, Boston rising.
by Colin Powers
The Nuggets were in Boston last night hoping for a bit of redemption after being dropped by Toney and Danilo & Co. in the Mecca on Tuesday. Unfortunately, things didn’t look much better for them in the town of Pink Red Sox Hats and 2 a.m. bar closes. With George Karl receiving treatment and some much needed rest before the Playoffs, this Nugget team continued their disinterested and incongruous play of recent weeks. The absence of Kenyon Martin was glaring, and the vacuous hole on the court without the former Cinci man really forces you to appreciate a lot of the understated things he does every night to make this team into a contender. At times I think he’s gone a bit over the top with his tough guy bravado, but nights like last night prove how central he is to hopes in the Mile High City.
Without K-Mart, the team defense was nothing short of atrocious. Any Celtic who was able to beat his immediate defender off the dribble was able to advance to the basket unsolicited , with absolutely no fear of physical reprisal for challenging the Denver domain. Paul Pierce had one drive in the second half where he what could best be described as ‘sauntered’ nonchalantly to the basket and yet was totally unimpeded, finishing the play with a light finger roll. For all the pub occasionally bestowed upon the Birdman and Nene, this Denver team looked exceptionally soft without Martin. Carmelo balled hard, relentlessly attacking the bucket (especially in the 3rd quarter) and exploding toward the basket with such force it looked like the Celtics defenders got the worse of a lot of the mid-air collisions which sent Anthony to the line. Nevertheless, he was alone out there, as Chauncey looked listless and ineffective against the far quicker Rajon Rondo and the constant double teams/helpside presence the Celtics D applied, particularly off pick-and-rolls.
Now, some credit should be given to this Boston team that looks to be rounding into form at just the right time. Rondo was masterful, completely controlling the tempo and perfectly executing every transition opportunity afforded to the Celts. That said, the problem hasn’t been with Rajon this season; he’s been the team’s most valuable player. No, beyond the constant of Rondo’s excellence, what the team should be excited about is the recent resurgence of The Truth. Self-professed as healthy, he appears to genuinely be so and once again capable of combining all those hesitations, step-backs, and post moves that make him one of the more complete and practiced scorers in the League. Not that PP’s ever been a high flyer, but he’s got just a little more lift right now than he’s had for the past few months, and that’s all he needs to complement his trademark guile and swag.
Is this Celtics team re-emerging from its winter hibernation as a contender? Perhaps. As loony as he is (and as anti-the Celtic way as his game is), Nate is a necessary evil for a squad that has often drifts into stale ineptitude offensively with its 2nd unit. He’ll continue to hoist some absolutely horrendous shots, but Robinson is capable of creating and getting in the lane (for himself, and occasionally others), a dynamic missing all season off the bench. Mike Finley’s a nice piece if only for his elder-statesmanness, but I think he’d better serve the team if he had just a pinch more of grey in that beard. The big issue is the Big Ticket, of course.
His aerial prowess is gone, I think that much is a given. More damaging for the Celtics and for KG’s career, however, is the loss of lateral quickness. His game has been built on the unprecedented athleticism God gifted him at 6-11 along with all the tireless work he has done in the gym, running beaches, and howling at pedestrians in the street.. He also refined a post-game and became a very accurate and dependable jumpshooter. But Garnett has never mastered the angles, nuances, and cerebral components of the defensive end as his less athletic contemporary Tim Duncan has been required to (a point admitted by GM Danny Ainge). The Celtics were a dominant force in 2008 because of the aggressive paths KG could take to the dribbler on pick-and-roll D, forcing them out wide and away from the basket. He could scramble from man to man, pick up perimeter players, pressure shooters, and always have the unbelievable recovery speed to catch up when beaten off the bounce and challenge the shot at the basket. In the aftermath of his assortment of knee injuries, he can’t play that way anymore, but he’s yet to adapt to his current form. He continues to try and chase guards of screens and pressure wings at the 3-point line, but now he leaves Thibodeau’s D vulnerable because he doesn’t have the speed to make up for his over-zealous mistakes. Without the omniscient defensive presence that was KG, the Celts are a good deal more ordinary on that end of the court.
Maybe he/they will figure it out and ride their veteran know-how to another Playoff run. They are competing at a very high level right now, and KG is still getting use to his body. Without everyone completely on the same page and fulfilling their defensive roles as intelligently as possible, though, they’re just not good enough individually to pull it off anymore. We shall see.