The dominant team of the regular season and the No. 1 seed overall enters Game 6 on Friday in Cleveland as the only survivor yet to win a playoff game on the road. The Celtics' 0-5 record away from home -- versus opponents who had fewer victories at home than the Celtics had on the road this season -- is symptomatic of larger issues listed here. If the Celtics prevail in this conference semifinal and go on to beat the Pistons in the next round, then they'll have overcome these postseason concerns; if they lose, then here are some of the reasons why.
5. Ray Allen's diminished role. Allen is shooting a lowly 39.5 percent and averaging 13.8 points in the playoffs, and he isn't getting enough shots -- only 12.3 per game -- to shoot his way back into rhythm. When I asked last weekend how he has adjusted to taking fewer shots, he admitted: "I don't think I really have just yet. It's just trying to find where my shot is going to come from on a continuous basis. In years past, I've known certain plays, transition with certain guys -- we've run in transition and you take a quick shot, you develop a rhythm. But now we don't run. And then when you've got a defense that's not really helping off me, the result is me not shooting the ball for quarters at a time.''
Boston coach Doc Rivers has spoken repeatedly of trying to find more shots for Allen while encouraging him to be more aggressive with his touches. Allen's response is that the postseason defenses are so well-prepared that they see the plays developing for him.
"I end up passing the ball every time,'' he said, "because they know, He's coming up to do this, deny him. And then somebody's open and I always pass it.
"It can be frustrating out there at times, because I know I can help the team and I know I can take a little bit of pressure off Paul [Pierce] and KG [Kevin Garnett]. It's just a matter of the offense flowing in my direction so I can make it easier on them. It's a fine line because you don't want to be too aggressive if it's not there, but you've got to be aggressive every time on the floor. It's just the way our offense is run -- it just hasn't been there.''
4. Garnett's changing role. Garnett has become the Celtics' go-to scorer for much of this postseason. Notice how the allocation of shots has shifted during the playoffs (chart, right).
But the issue isn't so much the number of field-goal attempts, but rather the way the Celtics have played. It came into focus during the second half of their Game 5 victory over the Cavs when Pierce (29 points overall) took on a larger and more meaningful role than in previous games as he aggressively went to the basket and ate up points at the free-throw line. Point guard Rajon Rondo (20 points and 13 assists) was taking on a bigger role, too, essentially seizing opportunities that might have gone to Allen -- which in this case was OK as Rondo became the third scorer the Celtics have needed for much of the playoffs.
Garnett finished with 26 points while playing off Pierce and Rondo, which was a welcome renewal of KG's role. There has been some grousing that Garnett has not been enough of a go-to presence in the playoffs, but that's not who he is. He is a complementary star who is more useful as a creator than he is as a finisher, and his strengths should be valued. It's much harder to find someone who does the defensive work and makes the high-post passes as he loves to do than it is to find an out-and-out finisher.
One of the problems for the Celtics is that their offense has stagnated so badly -- with Pierce (41.3 percent in the playoffs) and Allen struggling -- that Garnett has been needed to finish in the post more than during the regular season, when Boston was flowing offensively to the strengths of its three stars. There was a stretch during Game 3 at Cleveland when the Celtics ran a series of excellent possessions through Garnett in the post. Instead of milking him and forcing the defense to react, however, Garnett then went several possessions without touching the ball, ultimately forcing Rivers to call timeout to emphasize Garnett's role in the offense.
The Spurs are an example of a team that feeds the hot scorer -- resulting in a big scoring night for Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili -- but their feel for the game is based in no small part on the years they've spent playing together. The key Celtics are still growing used to developing each other.
3. Point guard leadership. Rondo gave the Celtics an exceptional Game 5, and in future years he may provide that kind of leadership more consistently. But for now he is a second-year point guard who cannot take command of the offense every night. The Celtics have needed someone to boss them around, to create plays for the three stars, and Rondo is still learning to do that. He'll have a much better chance of doing it if their defense creates the urgent tempo in which he and his teammates excelled in Game 5.
2. Rivers is learning too. If the Celtics falter in these playoffs, there will undoubtedly be questions about whether Rivers is the right coach to win a championship during the small window of opportunity for Garnett, Pierce and Allen, who are trying to become the first trio of thirtysomethings to lead a team to the NBA title. (No champion has ever had three leading scorers over the age of 30.)
If Rivers isn't the right coach for the Celtics, then who would replace him? There are only three active coaches who have shown they can win a championship: Phil Jackson, who has always won with the league's dominant player (Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and now -- he hopes -- MVP Kobe Bryant); Gregg Popovich, who has always had Tim Duncan with former MVP David Robinson or Parker and Ginobili; and Larry Brown, whom Rivers tried to hire as his lead assistant last summer.
There are no other proven winners. There are a lot of coaches like Rivers who are trying to create the right formula on the fly. Mike D'Antoni and Avery Johnson were still learning how to win a championship when they lost the confidence of their franchises this season. Byron Scott was castigated as a coach who was in over his head after taking the Nets to successive NBA Finals (that was before he was named Coach of the Year this season in New Orleans).
The bottom line for these Celtics is that no overhauled NBA team has ever won the championship in its first season together.
"You're talking about different guys, different personalities from different places, different philosophies, coming together for a month's period to get together and win a championship,'' Allen said. "It is hard.''
What has become clear during these playoffs is that the Celtics are still learning to play with each other while trying to win a championship. Some may say that winning 66 games should have provided enough group experience. The bad thing about the regular season is that everything went their way. They never were forced to overcome any major issues as a group. They kept winning even when Garnett was injured in midseason.
Now there are times when their three main players revert uncomfortably to their old ways, when each starts forcing shots like he's the only star on the court instead of playing off the strengths of each other. In Rivers' case, he went away from his regular-season rotation before returning in Game 5 to high-energy rookie Glen (Big Baby) Davis and Eddie House, who would have played a bigger role if not for Rondo's standout performance.
"We know what we want, I will say that,'' Rivers said. "We believe we're going to do what we want to do this year, I'll put it that way. We have no history. Going into it as a group, we understand that this is a process for us and the key is for us to be successful through the process. A lot of teams use it to get to something later; we're using it to get to it now. And that's the challenge.''
1. They know they can't win a title playing this way. But as bad as the Celtics have looked at times this postseason, they can still figure it out. "That's the beautiful thing,'' Allen said. Obviously, we can go to another level. It just seems like we can be so much better."
Can they improve quickly? "Oh, yeah, it's just a matter of one game getting it done and then you see, OK, this is what we got. Roll with it.''
We'll soon see if the second half of Game 5 was a sign of better things ... or a short-lived half of inspiration.
4. Do you think an international coach with a decent team with no superstars and good players could win in the NBA? I've been reading about some of the international coaches and how they stress team over the superstar and they win that way. Will the NBA ever go to that?-- B. Holt, Roosevelt, N.Y.
European coaches have a few big advantages over their NBA peers: Teams in the Old World are built to win rather than to make money, players are paid based on their winning records rather than on their individual stats, and players don't receive long-term, guaranteed contracts and therefore can be replaced or fired if viewed as losers or selfish. (The same principles apply to coaches in Europe as well, which is why they are fired at a much higher rate than coaches in the NBA.)
Plug a Euroleague champion like CSKA Moscow into the NBA schedule and it could finish ahead of some rebuilding teams that aren't nearly as experienced, versatile or organized. But no team can win in the NBA without stars. This is a talent-based league. As mentioned above, it's no coincidence that the Lakers' Jackson has won nine NBA championships with the world's dominant player, and if he adds to his treasure, then thanks will go to Kobe. The franchises that take a European approach are the Spurs and Pistons, whose level of teamwork is unparalleled in the NBA. But neither team would have a prayer if not for the three or four All-Stars on its roster.
3. Do you think they will ever eliminate hack-a-Shaq and make all off-the-ball fouls intentional and award two shots and the ball throughout the entire game?-- Paul Gaines, Menifee, Calif.
I wish they would eliminate the rule, but why would they? They would be voting out a loophole that benefits most of the teams in the league in opposing Shaq, Ben Wallace and potentially Dwight Howard.
2. I'm sure that I'm not alone in being frustrated with the excessive flopping that has become the norm the past few years. While I can only bear to watch the Celtics-Cavs series in short bursts (it's just plain terrible), whenever I tune in it seems that LeBron goes to the hoop, gets hit on the arm and goes down clutching his face. When will the league crack down on this acting? I don't want to single out LeBron, but he seems to be a chief culprit. In soccer, if a referee determines that a player is overacting to draw a foul, the ref can give that player a yellow card. What would you think of a similar rule in the NBA, but perhaps with technicals?-- Stefan van den Abeelen, San Luis Obsipo, Calif.
Referees have enough to do already; to force another controversial judgment call upon them doesn't seem practical. One rule change that might respond to your concerns would provide officials with instant replay to analyze all potential flagrant fouls. This enhancement may be considered after the season, NBA executive VP of basketball operations Stu Jackson told me last week, and in those settings I can imagine that replay eventually could be used to punish the flopping actors as well as the aggressors.
1. Why is it that winners of the Coach of the Year are those who have turned teams around rather than coaches who, year in and year out, have done great things for their teams? Coaches like Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson never seem to be considered for the Coach of the Year. Is it because some people don't see consistency as a basis for good coaching?-- Raul Tanchoco, Manila, Philippines
Excellent point there. The award usually goes to someone who turns a loser into a winner -- it's almost like a most improved award. In fact, the best performances are usually by successful coaches like Popovich, who uses the regular season to build a championship foundation, or Jackson, who integrated Pau Gasol while holding the Lakers together after their summer of malcontent. The fact that Sloan has never won the award further diminishes its credibility.
3. The system is corrupted. The best college players see millions of dollars waiting for them in the NBA, while in the meantime they earn millions more for their schools and coaches -- and yet they aren't allowed to receive a penny on top of their scholarships. And then everyone gets upset that a few thousand dollars were reportedly funneled to Mayo.
Compare the thick rule books of the two biggest basketball leagues in our country. The NBA rule book, otherwise known as the collective bargaining agreement, exists as a vehicle to funnel the majority of basketball income to the players. The NCAA rule book exists to prevent money from going to the players, so that its rule makers can keep it for themselves.
Star players who take money are not criminals. Rather, the system is criminal.
2. Agents pay players? Mayo's agency, Bill Duffy Associates, insists it did not offer money to Mayo or his handlers before he turned pro. But it has long been rumored that agents do so to procure players. It would be a natural response to the hypocritical madness created by the gross financial success of the NCAA tournament.
1. The NBA won't intercede. Commissioner David Stern has been working with NCAA president Myles Brand on a plan to keep players in college for two years before they can turn pro. I asked Stern last week if he ever scolded Brand for refusing to share income with players.
"No, we never reached that, that was never part of our discussion,'' Stern said. "That's for some other body to consider. I know their argument is that the scholarship and all the other benefits are a payment of type. That's something I specifically have chosen not to involve myself in. I'm looking for things not to be involved in, and this is No. 1 on that list, OK?''
As expected, much mail was generated by my recent suggestion that James -- by winning five playoff series and reaching an NBA Finals by age 23 -- has accomplished more with less than other stars in the NBA. Response was divided unevenly among the dissenters and the affirmers.
2. Those who believe LeBron is overrated.
You wrote about LeBron, "Imagine what James would accomplish with ... David West and Tyson Chandler in New Orleans." Chandler has been a perennial disappointment and West is just now coming into his own as a player. Would either of them really have been the players they are now without Chris Paul? Isn't Paul responsible for David West and Tyson Chandler becoming David West and Tyson Chandler?-- Chris, Greensboro, N.C.
Of course Paul deserves -- and universally receives -- credit for bringing out the best in his teammates. But the point remains that James hasn't played with an athletic shot-blocker like Chandler or an array of shooters like those who surround Paul.
Cleveland's problem has nothing to do with its supporting staff and all to do with the style of offense. If the Cavs let the offense flow through the point guard instead of LeBron, then they are very dangerous. The Cavs stumble when the offense is virtually all run through LeBron. Did you watch Game 3? That is what the Cavs do when Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, Joe Smith and Zydrunas Ilgauskas are allowed to play instead of watch.-- Drew, Cleveland
But who is the point guard? The Cavs have been seeking one for years to take the ball out of James' hands. That's why he wanted them to acquire Jason Kidd this year.
How come no one asks how OVERRATED LeBron is? You article is completely right in that LeBron has made a lot with nothing. But let's stop the suck-up train that is popular media. LeBron does a lot of things poorly. He's a bad defender and an atrocious shooter. He slashes very, very well, and is a beneficiary of today's league. Until he learns to shoot, teams will continue to allow him to shoot and just clog the lane. LeBrick needs a jumper.-- Jeff, Bangor, Maine
James is doing OK for a 23-year-old who is still the second-youngest player on his team. Jordan and Magic Johnson didn't get around to improving their jumpers until they were much older than James. I just can't buy into the argument that he's overrated; here's a guy who was hyped more than any player ever before entering the league, and he has actually exceeded expectations.
Isn't it quite obvious that LeBron is overrated? Isn't quite obvious that he --- not his teammates -- is missing his layups, jump shots and free throws? Isn't obvious that his teammates almost won Game 1 with him shooting 2-for-18? Isn't it obvious that he actually has solid teammates in Big Z, Ben Wallace and Wally Szczerbiak (all former All-Stars)? Isn't obvious that you never wrote an article like this about Kobe when he was playing in the West with the talents of Kwame Brown and Smush Parker? Isn't it obvious that you are bias?-- Steven Joshu, Cincinnati
Isn't it obvious that you have never read anything I've written about Kobe Bryant for the last several years? Quite.
Regarding LeBron doing more with less ... there are two sides to the coin. When you are expected to do everything, you are going to have better numbers. It's why guys like Gerald Wallace went from being a nobody on Sacramento to a star on the Bobcats, for example. LeBron is in a similar situation. Combined with playing in the Leastern Conference, that makes it not entirely clear if he is underrated or not (given how good everyone thinks he is already).-- Ga'ash Soffer, New York
It definitely helps James to play in the East, where the road to the Finals is less encumbered. It's also true that his scoring numbers would shrink if he were surrounded by better teammates. But all I was referring to was his ability to lead an unimpressive Cavs roster to five playoff series victories and a Finals before his 24th birthday. His performances last year in the conference finals against Detroit cannot be considered a fluke.
1. Those who believe LeBron is underrated. There weren't nearly as many who agreed with me, but that's not all that unusual. Here is one such response:
I could not agree with you more. Look at his supporting cast throughout his time in the league: Eric Snow, Sasha Pavlovic, Anderson Varejao, Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden. Now I could name one thing that each individual player does well, but ask me for two things and I would struggle. Since he entered the league, his most talented teammate has been Big Z. But Z is limited in that he cannot create his own offense. The only player on the Cavs' roster since LeBron was drafted who is able to create his own offense has been LeBron. No one really has brought this up before and I'm glad someone finally did. He may not be the best player in the league (seems like a consensus for Kobe), but if Kobe and LeBron switched places, the Cavs would certainly struggle to get out of the first round, and LeBron's Lakers would be rolling to their first title since the Shaq era ended.-- Doug Eastman, Youngstown, Ohio
You had me in agreement until your over-the-top statement about Kobe. It would be interesting to see what James could do in the West, but I can't agree that he would've had a bigger impact on the Lakers than Bryant in previous years. For one thing, Bryant was a much better defender than James in that time.
1. No player is more nitpicked. I've touched on this before, but isn't it becoming more obvious that Bryant's "maturity'' has as much to do with his learning to be a passer as with his having teammates worthy of being passed to?
Anytime the Lakers lose, there are questions about whether he tried to do too much by himself or whether he didn't do enough while deferring too much to his teammates. There always has to be a reason why things go badly for the Lakers, which in a way serves as a compliment to Bryant's overwhelming talent. All of this looking-over-his-shoulder is going to end when he wins another championship, at which time he will instantly earn the benefit of the doubt. Until then, he'll be second-guessed to the highest standard.