Author: Matt Moore

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Two

Kevin Garnett was explicitly pleased with the fans in Game 3


The Boston crowd is renown as one of the best in the league. And despite some late arrivals in Game 3, the atmosphere was electric and helped carry the Celtics to a win and a slice off the Heat’s series lead. Garnett was always meant to play in front of fans like this, in arenas like this, in moments like this. He’s made for the gladiatorial arenas, for the “jungle” as he calls it here. Minnesota could have been that. They never got the team to make it so.

But at least Garnett does get this time. And if it winds up that he’s done after this year, that he’s walking away, he’ll be bathed in that green aura that has surrounded so many of the great NBA players. It makes you sad for Wolves fans, who genuinely wish KG well, and it makes you sad for Celtics fans, that spent far too many years of the Big 3 era with an incomplete, injury-laden team. But mostly it makes you wonder.

Does he kiss his mother with that mouth?

Thunder-Spurs Game 3: The best defense is… well, a good defense for OKC

Thunder power forward Nick Collison strips the ball away from San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan

You have to fight the Spurs with defense.

OK, I get that sounds remarkably stupid in its obviousness. Please try and hear me out. In Games 1 and 2, Scott Brooks, for reason beyond understanding, chose to go with offensive lineups. Particularly in the fourth quarter of both losses, he went with lineups featuring Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Derek Fisher. The focus on trying to score with San Antonio was a critical mistake, and one he wouldn’t replicate in Game 3, and it resulted in not needing fourth quarter lineups at all as the Thunder blew out the Spurs 102-82.

It was a critical adjustment for Brooks, who went to extended minutes for Thabo Sefolosha, using him to switch onto Tony Parker to contain the All-Star point guard. The Spurs starters scored just .77 points per possession Thursday night, and the more the Spurs’ offense unraveled, the more the Thunder got out and ran for scores, which allowed their defense to reset.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The Thunder decided to pick another poison Thursday night, instead of letting Tony Parker loose, they packed the paint to prevent perimeter penetration, surrendering fifteen shots to Tim Duncan. But on a night where Duncan became the all-time playoff leader in blocked shots, the future Hall-of-Famer only hit five for eleven points. With Manu Ginobili and Parker held to just 17 shots total, the Thunder let the supporting cast try and shot their way back into it. They could not.

It’s a considerable adjustment and reflects a development that began in Game 1. The Thunder defended well until the fourth quarter of Game 1, where the Spurs shot a blistering 75 percent effective field goal percentage. In Game 3, their game-long eFG% was just 46.7.

The Spurs won’t be affected by the loss much, even if they know that it wasn’t just an off shooting night but a legitimate counter punch from their Conference Final foe. They’ll have time to make adjustments before Game 4. But the inherent advantages that OKC has in terms of length and athleticism are not easily solved. All this sets up a monster Game 4, with the series on the line. A Spurs counter-attack ends the series, effectively, while a Thunder win resets everything. The big question will be if the Spurs’ offense can get that edge back in front of a hostile crowd. This is the first time they’ve really faced a team with confidence on the road, and a team that can defend.

Because the Spurs aren’t doing it this series. After holding both the Clippers and Jazz to less than one point per possession, the Spurs are now surrendering 108.6 points per 100 possessions in this series. It’s a tiny sample size, but it’s a trend that’s held. Their defense is not good enough to win this series. Their offense is. Which means that it’s the Thunder who have the control here. The Spurs are not going to defend OKC. If OKC can’t keep up this defensive efficiency, they’re going to lose. If they can, they will. It’s in their hands. Granted, the Spurs can counter-adjust offensively, but two things have stabilized. The Thunder can score, the Spurs can’t stop them. It’s all on the Spurs’ offense vs. Thunder D. Last year, this exact situation played out in the conference finals with another team from Texas.

The Thunder tried to outscore the Mavericks last year. Game 3 seems to indicate that they’ve figured out that’s not the approach to take.

In an all-offense series, it’s become about defense.

RondoWorld and the limitlessness of what we don’t know

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Two

Lost in the nonsense about officiating in a game in which a team that has averaged 97.1 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs scored 118 yet the calls were what was out of place in Game2, there’s Rajon Rondo.

Rondo is, and always has been, a complete mystery, to everyone. It’s taken years for Doc Rivers to unwrap the riddle that is motivating Rondo, years for teammates to understand how he operates. The media? Clueless. They admit it, they accept it, and the most common refrain from guys that cover the team day in and day out is “that’s Rondo, that’s just what he does.” He’ll seem polite one moment and searing the next, he’ll blow off questions, he’ll do charity events, he’s all over the place, and you’re never going to get to understand him because he has decided not to let anyone outside of his inner circle. And that’s completely his right. It’s honestly a little refreshing in the age of stars worried about their brand.

But his game brings questions, too. How can he seem so dominant the next, then so disengaged the next? Is he really the assist machine the stats say he is or is it a product of the Hall-of-Famers around him?How many of his assists are simply routine passes that result in scores as a result of a simple, but brutally effective system utilizing veterans who know how to replicate their success at an 80 percent effectiveness rate?

Is Rajon Rondo the best point guard in the league? Is Rajon Rondo the worst great point guard in the league?

Wednesday night answered none of these questions. But it did provide a glimpse at a world beyond the Big 3, beyond the grind-it-out fight club this Celtics team has to make every game in order to hang. It showed a Rondo that sports fans can dream about, untethered from having to find shots for players that can’t get up and down the floor, no longer having to defer to other players. A Rondo who is free to do what he wants. And a Rondo that can hit a jumper.

Rondo will always look back fondly on this run with the Big 3. What he learned from Kevin Garnett, about how to shut out the media and siphon his energy into his play. What Pierce taught him about leadership and taking charge of a game. What Ray Allen taught him about work ethic and execution. But there’s also a future ahead of Rondo. His career is just getting started.

Some believe that Rondo will crumple once this safety net is gone. Once Kevin Garnett is reflecting in California and Doc Rivers is enjoying life in his home in Florida. When Rondo is on his own, surrounded by players that can’t dominate, that can’t punish. There’s an idea that he’ll turn back into a pumpkin, that he’ll be just another temperamental guard who once was great when surrounded by greatness.

To that I ask, “Are you nuts?”

Rondo’s game Wednesday night is not the perfect game to measure him by. To be honest, he hit the jumpshot better than he may ever hit it again. (Note: Rondo has improved considerably in the past two years at the mid-range jumpshot. He’s just not that good.) But his control of the game is. He knew when to jet past the defender and slip to the rim. He knew when to freeze on the drive, post, pump-fake, and kick out. He knew how to find easy buckets, how to find open looks, how to get past what is honestly one of the best defenses in the league. That is not some “product of the system” crew he got past with speed. It’s a smart, tough, hyper-athletic, hulking monster crew of defenders that attack relentlessly.

And Rondo shredded them.

44 points on 24 shots, 10 of 12 from the line, eight rebounds, ten assists, three steals, three turnovers.

31.7% Usage rate. .751 TS%, 41.7% Assist rate.

Mastery of basketball. Total and complete mastery.

Boston lost, despite this performance, and that’s a whole other conversation (or screaming rant if you choose to break it down to one missed foul on Dwyane Wade). But the fact it was in a loss almost makes it more epic. It shows you what was needed from him. That there was no way Rondo could have done less and Boston could have survived. He showed what could be for his future, what a future in Rondoworld looks like. It’s like some sort of mixture of “Cool World” and a post-apocalyptic arena like “Mad Max” or the video from “California Love.” It’s a world where Rondo’s singular hatred of everything in his way is translated into accuracy and brutality, where a cerebral player that can’t control his emotions uses that energy to outwork, out-execute, and out-perform whatever is in his way.

It makes you wonder what it would be like if he had athletes around him, if he could run, if he wasn’t trying to drag the game into the mud so his teammates could get a stranglehold on the opponent. And this way? It’s going to win more often. We’ve seen that. That’s proven.

But the future of Rondoworld? It’s still enough for you to marvel at. The future is now, and it’s amazing.

Thunder-Spurs: The life and times of Kevin Durant in Game 1

Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs - Game One

Momma said there’d be days like this.

Kevin Durant had a pretty bizarre Game 1 vs. San Antonio. He couldn’t get it going in the first half, shook loose in the third quarter, and then was bottled up by San Antonio in the fourth. He hit free throws, a result of the Spurs’ defensive approach on him, but was just 0-2 from the field. Forget the percentage, Kevin Durant got two field goal attempts in the fourth quarter. Is that going to cut it? Obviously not, as the Spurs won 101-98.

Of the many things the Thunder needed in Game 1, Thabo Sefolosha on the floor in the 4th, more control and patience from Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Manu Ginobili to vanish from the Earth suddenly in an alien abduction, they also needed a smarter game from Durant. 27 points on 19 shots is perfectly efficient for Durant, but it could have been more. Truth be told, the Spurs had no real answer for Durant’s length. Stephen Jackson dug in. Kawhi Leonard pestered. But if Durant managed his offense better, he could have had more.

But can you pin this loss on Durant? No. He gave them 27 on 19, and that should be good enough.

However, Durant is going to have to take the hardest assignment. He did it in Round 2 vs. Kobe Bryant. He’s going to have to do it in the WCF against Manu Ginobili.

The Thunder have no one to even slow down Ginobili. Harden is wholly outmatched. Westbrook has his hands full with Parker. Thabo Sefolosha can help, but he should honestly be guarding Parker. Durant needs to use his length and lateral quickness to guard Ginobili. Cut off the angles, limit the penetration, contest the shots. Sefolosha needs work on him. Durant needs work on him.

Are there tangible things Durant can do better? It’s hard to say. Should Westbrook or Harden improve? Undeniably.

But Durant has the most advantages, as usual, more than usual. It was clear from the start. Durant is going to have to be more than just a scoring machine. He has to be dominant in every area, making a difference on every level. That’s how good the Spurs are.

Rondo is not lacking confidence about beating the Heat

Rajon Rondo

Rajon Rondo was asked Saturday night about how the Celtics feel about their chances. From Fox Sports Florida’s Chris Tommasson:

Rajon Rondo believes Celtics can beat Heat: “We feel we can beat Miami. Obviously, we got to this point. There’s no doubt in our mind we can. We got to go down there and take care of business.”

via Chris Tomasson’s post on Miami Heat | Latest updates

Now, there’s nothing shocking here.What’s he going to say? “Oh, no, we’re doomed. We can’t beat them. Have you seen them? Have you seen us? We had to win a Game 7 behind me hitting jump shots. No chance.” No, of course he’s going to say they have to “take care of business.”

But here’s what’s interesting. How things look inside that locker room is so dramatically different from how things look on the outside, and that actually matters a ton with the Celtics. In 2009, they knew that without KG, they were not going to last. And you could tell it impacted them. There was always that little bit of hesitation, of concern. In 2010, though, despite facing a Miami team that was arguably better, a Cavaliers team that was certainly better, and a Magic team that was certainly better, Boston’s confidence in its ability to beat anyone they step on the floor with was what helped them out-execute superior teams.

Winning the mental game isn’t just about what you do to your opponent, the doubt you instill. It’s about what you do to put yourself in a position you don’t think you can lose.

And the Celtics are masters of it.