Teams have to learn how to win at the NBA level. How to play to their strengths, how to recognize the mismatch and exploit it, how to go to the counter when the first option is taken away.
Boston knows how to do that — their depleted roster and aging bodies may not let them execute it like they did a few years ago, but they know how.
The Clippers have no idea yet. They will some day but right now they are learning some hard lessons (and you can go ahead and wonder if coach Vinny Del Negro is the guy to lead them past it).
That difference is what it came down to Monday night at Staples Center — the Celtics stayed close by turning it into their kind of game. Meaning chippy and slow. Then when the game was close in the final four minutes they executed and the Clippers didn’t. The result was a 94-85 win the Celtics needed.
“This is lob city and they enjoy the game. You can see when they play they have a lot of fun and we just had to make this game no fun,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
Boston knew exactly how to suck the fun out of the Clippers — at the top of the white board in the Celtics locker room before the game were the two top defensive priorities: no lobs, no threes in transition.
Boston executed that for the most part, they slowed the pace and turned it into their kind of ugly, physical game. There were five technical fouls, guys sprawling on the floor all night and a lot of hard fouls. It felt more like a playoff game.
“This is our kind of game,” Paul Pierce said afterwards.
While both teams had leads at various points this was a tied game, 78-78 with 3:25 left. That is when Boston really showed their experience while the Clippers showed why they have struggled late in games and lost a number of them lately.
Both teams had gone small — Boston by necessity, the Clippers by choice — and that meant the Clippers were playing Bobby Simmons at the four. Bobby “I’m here on a 10-day contract” Simmons. Boston went right at him — Simmons was supposed to guard Pierce but Pierce drew a foul on one possession then got free for a three at the top of the key when the Clippers defense collapsed on a Rajon Rondo drive on the next possession. Then the Celtics ran a pick to force a switch of Simmons on to Kevin Garnett (the Clippers switched everything late). Garnett hit a key fade-away three over Simmons. Garnett finished with 21 points and Pierce 25.
The Clippers could not get a key late stop and the lineup on the floor was one Boston could exploit.
“We talked about putting some more size out there but I felt those guys were in the rhythm of the game…” Vinny Del Negro said after the loss. “I just felt those guys had a feel for what Paul (Pierce) and Kevin (Garnett) were going to do.”
Late in the game in particular but through the game overall the Celtics and Rondo did a good job taking away Chris Paul’s penetration. Do that and the Clippers struggle to counter well in the half court. Boston knows its counter moves — they have years of experience together in the same system. Boston has that it, Los Angeles is still learning.
And learning the hard way.