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May 28, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Momentum Shift

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Orlando 113, at Boston 92, OT (Celtics lead 3-2)

Tonightís Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals could be a watershed game in the history of postseason basketball in the NBA. Or it could be just another series-closing win for the Celtics. Either way, the contest which looms about 10 hours in the future has a lot more gravity than anyone would have thought. After all, after Boston took a 3-0 lead in the series last Saturday, there was little chance that tonightís game was even going to be played. There are some strange things going on here. In my Game 4 recap, I noted the similarities to what the Magic are doing and what the 2004 Red Sox accomplished in their historic comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS. Many others have pointed towards the most recent 3-0 collapse, another one familiar to Boston fans: the Bruinsí meltdown against the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL playoffs. Seriously, what are the odds of having two 3-0 collapses in the same playoff season? And what are the odds of these collapses happening against teams in the same city?

This is now a new series and the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the veteran Celtics. I know thatís the easy storyline and one thing we pride ourselves at doing in all the various incarnations of Prospectus is not regurgitating the obvious and the easy. Iím sorry, but I canít think of any other way to frame Game 6. The Celtics, who have been running a race against age and injury for two seasons now, are battered. Their three-game lead has shrunk to one. And the Celtics enter tonightís game knowing that if they canít hold serve at The Garden, theyíll have to try to steal a Game 7 before a revved up crowd in Orlando. On Monday, it was difficult to envision the Magic summoning the will to stave off elimination, with the 3-0 deficit and the Celtics enjoying the home floor edge. Perhaps if Paul Pierce could have found a look at the end of regulation that night, weíd be talking about how the Celtics were resting and healing, while the Lakers and Suns were duking it out in the West. But Pierce didnít get a shot off and itís been all Magic ever since. Now, our perception of the series has flipped. It feels like Bostonís last stand. If the Celtics don't close out the series at home tonight, itís really difficult to see them them winning in Orlando on Sunday. That, my friends, is pressure.

Of course, this isnít the Celtics, itís the ďveteran Celtics.Ē That particular adjective has been affixed to Bostonís NBA entrant ever since Celtics general manager Danny Ainge pieced together the teamís current core back in the summer of 2007. Youíd think that would work in Bostonís favor. However, collapse has also been a word affixed to the Celtics, at least this year, when the team made a habit of blowing fourth-quarter leads. Thatís small scale stuff, a regular-season malady which youíd expect to even out in the long run and a problem which hardly appeared pertinent to what has transpired in the playoffs. However, what if that really was a symptom of a disease fatal to Bostonís championship hopes? What if the ďveteran CelticsĒ are simply old, a team that doesnít have enough left in the tank to finish the job? After all, look at what the Magic have done to the Celtics in the fourth quarter throughout the conference finals:

TEAM / GAME   Poss  oRTG  eFG% oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
BOS_4Q_G5      20   84.5  .417  .100  .111  .149  4.35
ORL_4Q_G5      20  144.1  .563  .500  .688  .099  4.13
------------------------------------------------------
BOS_4Q_G4      20   90.1  .406  .444  .313  .300  4.16
ORL_4Q_G4      20   95.2  .433  .273  .400  .250  4.35
------------------------------------------------------
BOS_4Q_G3      20   94.4  .462  .200  .538  .248  3.70
ORL_4Q_G3      20  119.3  .533  .000  .533  .149  3.06
------------------------------------------------------
BOS_4Q_G2      21   80.0  .469  .125  .125  .282  3.94
ORL_4Q_G2      21  103.5  .469  .125  .438  .141  4.27
------------------------------------------------------
BOS_4Q_G1      21   86.2  .400  .100  .400  .192  4.20
ORL_4Q_G1      21  143.7  .571  .364  .286  .048  3.88
======================================================

To be fair, it has to be noted that the Celtics enjoyed comfortable leads in some of those games and the poor fourth-quarter-habit could simply be a result of letting up on the accelerator because there was little doubt who was going to cross the finish line first. Nevertheless, itís still a trend worth noting and if you root for the Celtics, you better be rooting for your team to enjoy a sizable advantage when the third-period buzzers sounds.

Some residual thoughts from Game 5, and whether they may or may not be relevant to Game 6:

Everyone had a good game: The Magic did a terrific job of sharing the ball. It wasnít so much its passing as it was a general recognition of the open areas of the floor and the matchup advantages that were presented. Every Orlando player had a good offensive game except for missing-in-action Vince Carter, who owes his employers some kind of a refund. Can that synergy continue? The Celtics were scrambled a bit on defense in Game 5, partially due to the personnel problems caused by Kendrick Perkinsí ejection, Glenn Davisí concussion and Rasheed Wallaceís foul trouble. Expect all those players to be available tonight, even Davis, who is currently being labeled as a game-time decision. Wallace had some back trouble on Wednesday, but didnít play like it, putting up 21 points in 18 minutes on a remarkable 1.95 points per possession. With all of the key interior pieces in place, look for Boston to lay the hammer down defensively at the outset of Game 6. If Orlando is in the 25-30 point range after one quarter tonight, the Celtics could be in trouble.

The pick-and-roll: In Game 4, the Magic installed a staggered-screen set which forced Bostonís Rajon Rondo to fight through multiple picks being set for Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson. In that game, Nelson made the Celtics pay by being aggressive off the dribble. In Game 5, the Celtics began aggressively blitzing Nelson and it was Dwight Howard, slipping out of one of those high screens, who torched the Celtics until Boston returned to a more moderate defensive philosophy. It really felt like Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy anticipated the adjustment the Celtics were going to make and had his team ready with a few adjustments of their own. The Celtics need to get back to the approach of the first three games, which was to play Howard in single-coverage in the post and to stay at home against Orlandoís three-point shooters. The Magic will no doubt run the pick-and-roll that much more, but at the outset, Boston can forgo switching on the screens and have Rondo go under as he fights through the traffic. The Celtics need to keep Nelson out of the lane and really need to keep from allowing Howard to come open on the slip-screen. The final option is to allow Nelson the outside look, while staying at home against everybody else and rotating grudgingly. If Nelson starts to burn them from the outside, then you can adjust again, but you have to take away something. I ended the Game 4 recap by noting how Orlando could be due for a ďmomentumĒ game, when the three-point shots come in droves. Thatís what happened, but Orlando is capable of extending that to multiple games because they are one of the best three-point shooting teams in NBA history. Boston has to stem that tide from the beginning. It almost felt like Boston overcompensated in its adjustments from Game 3, a game in which Orlando was better on offense, but not exactly good.

On dunking: No relevance to Game 6, but was I the only one surprised to see Rondo raise up and really throw one down? Maybe I just always miss his dunks, but it seems like he always lays the ball in, no matter how open he gets. Itís not that I didnít think he couldnít dunk Ė according to 82games.com, 2 percent of his shots this seasons were dunks. I was just taken aback. Rondo can dunk! Speaking of dunking, Dwight Howard was just an athletic marvel on Wednesday, appearing several times like he had jetpacks in his legs. Itís the kind of energy Boston was able to take away from Orlando for most of the first three games of the series, and it would behoove them to keep Howard from looking like one of the Monstars from ďSpace JamĒ in Fridayís game.

Officiating was terrible: Nothing is more aggravating than when officiating becomes a key storyline in the game, but that was the case in Game 5. The ejection of Kendrick Perkins was an absolute joke and the NBA did the right thing in minimizing the damage to the integrity of the series by rescinding one of his technicals and thus sparing him from being suspended for Game 6. The league would do well to quietly drop official Eddie F. Rush from its rotation for the remainder of the playoffs. In general, I thought the game was called too close. Tonightís crew is Monty McCutchen, Mike Callahan and Ken Mauer. Mauer is often too quick to assess technicals, but as a group, these officials tend to let teams play. That will help the Celtics, if in fact that turns out to be the tenor of the game.

BOS           Poss  oRTG  eFG% oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  22  120.7  .575  .091  .200  .045  4.22
Second Quarter 22   99.3  .417  .100  .389  .135  4.85
Third Quarter  22  120.6  .500  .167  .625  .139  4.90
Fourth Quarter 20   84.5  .417  .100  .111  .149  4.35
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     45  110.1  .500  .095  .289  .090  4.54
SECOND HALF    42  103.2  .456  .125  .353  .144  4.63
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 5         86  106.7  .479  .108  .319  .116  4.58
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 4         92  100.0  .454  .238  .303  .174  4.79
GAME 3         84  112.4  .507  .175  .274  .108  5.03
GAME 2         88  107.5  .493  .257  .297  .170  4.81
GAME 1         89  103.1  .486  .189  .270  .179  4.92
SERIES         88  105.8  .484  .194  .293  .149  4.83
REG. SEASON    89  111.0  .522  .228  .248  .157  5.21
======================================================
ORL           Poss  oRTG  eFG% oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  22  138.6  .639  .250  .444  .179  5.84
Second Quarter 22  117.3  .611  .222  .222  .181  4.65
Third Quarter  22  125.2  .647  .286  .294  .186  2.67
Fourth Quarter 20  144.1  .563  .500  .688  .099  4.13
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     45  128.0  .625  .235  .333  .180  5.25
SECOND HALF    42  134.3  .606  .300  .485  .144  3.34
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 5         86  131.1  .616  .313  .406  .162  4.32
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 4         92  104.3  .514  .229  .270  .206  4.86
GAME 3         84   84.9  .431  .077  .231  .203  3.26
GAME 2         88  104.1  .444  .256  .408  .158  4.67
GAME 1         89   98.6  .448  .326  .247  .202  3.68
SERIES         88  104.7  .490  .240  .312  .188  4.16
SEASON         90  114.3  .536  .246  .246  .152  4.79
======================================================
NOTE: second-half stats include overtime

Data from My Synergy Sports was used to compile this report..

Follow Bradford on Twitter at @bbdoolittle.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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