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March 8, 2009

Five Thoughts: Boston-Orlando

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 3:55 pm

BOSTON – I’m in Beantown (for the next couple of hours) for yesterday’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (recap forthcoming). The timing was fortunate, with the Celtics also playing a pair of huge games at TD Banknorth Garden against Cleveland and Orlando. Friday’s matchup of the East’s leaders was too popular to get into, but I was credentialed for today’s afternoon affair against the Magic, a potential preview of an Eastern Conference Semifinal series. It was my first chance to take in a game in Boston, and for that matter anywhere in the Eastern Conference. Here are my five observations from the affair.

1. Boston missed Rajon Rondo.
This is the kind of unique insight you will get only on Basketball Prospectus. The Celtics’ point guard sat out with a sprained right ankle sustained in Friday’s win over Cleveland, leaving Doc Rivers to start newcomer Stephon Marbury at the point. Without Rondo, Boston’s ball movement suffered. In the first 17 minutes of the game, the Celtics had just two assists–and one of those was dubious scoring at best. Everything was isolation plays for Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, and that simply won’t work against a team as capable defensively as the Magic. In 48 first-half possessions, Boston mustered but 33 points–68.8 per 100 possessions. Yikes. The Celtics were sharper in the second half, but even then it had little to do with players creating for each other and a lot to do with Allen (23 second-half points on 8-of-17 shooting). So I don’t want to hear anyone telling me about how Rondo is just a product of the Boston system or his teammates.

2. Marbury isn’t ready.

The Celtics missing Rondo was exacerbated by how poorly Marbury played during the first half, when he had two points on 1-of-3 shooting, no assists and two turnovers in 15 minutes of action. In the first quarter alone, he passed up a layup opportunity for a kickout to a defended Pierce and committed an unforced turnover when he caught the ball standing out of bounds. I understand Rivers’ logic in starting Marbury, figuring that the chance to play with the team’s veterans would allow him to get up to speed in the Boston offense more quickly. However, Rivers should have pulled the plug and gone with Eddie House earlier in the game, as the Celtics were outscored by 14 points with Marbury on the court. The question I can’t yet answer with any certainty is whether this is to be expected given Marbury’s layoff of more than a year or whether this is indicative of the type of player he is at this stage of his career.

3. Celtics fans, Marcin Gortat.

The largely obscure reserve Magic center offered his introduction to Boston fans in a big way. With Dwight Howard in foul trouble, Gortat played more than 23 minutes during the first three quarters and offered a credible impersonation of Howard’s production. Orlando was +13 with Gortat on the floor, tops on the team. Gortat is a solid defender with lateral quickness that belies his size and strength. The box score had him down for two blocks, but I counted at least one more, and Gortat was a factor contesting shots at other times. Then a rested Howard came back in to play big down the stretch for the Magic.

4. Orlando’s offense struggled down the stretch.
The Magic wasn’t quite as bad in the second half as the Celtics were before halftime, but 35 points in 43 possessions is problematic in its own right. Orlando was 4-of-19 from the field in the fourth quarter, with go-to players Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Tukoglu combining to make three of their 11 shot attempts. The Magic usually likes to go to pick-and-rolls with Turkoglu in those situations, but Boston defended those well and Turkoglu ended up taking multiple off-balance shots. Certainly the Celtics’ defense deserves a lot of credit, and the other time I watched Orlando in person the Magic executed brilliantly to rally from a good-sized deficit late to win in Portland. Still, it’s worth noting Orlando was not even close to perfect in what was for the team an important win.

5. Boston wasn’t awake for the early start.
Before the game, Rivers was asked his opinion on the number of matinees the Celtics have played recently, and he said he would rather not play them at all. Then his team went out and offered a credible reason for Rivers to be anti-matinee, starting extremely slowly. I was also surprised how quiet Boston fans were during the first quarter. Granted, there wasn’t much action to cheer, but the Garden was more silent than I’ve ever heard this season at the Rose Garden for much of the early going. After halftime, team and crowd both came alive, the fans offering some additional energy by getting loud at the earliest hint of a comeback. Come the stretch, the atmosphere was as loud as I expected from Boston fans.

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