Do I look at their three stars differently now as champions than I did a year ago? Kevin Garnett changed the franchise. Bringing him on board changed everything. Paul Pierce had shown he could not do it in years past on his own. But I thought a lot of Garnett before. All he did was solidify his place in the game. I always liked the way he fully gets behind his teammates and is a locker room voice -- though he's much better when things are good than he was over the final couple of years in Minnesota. When things are bad, he's a pain in the butt. But things were good last year and it was all induced by him.
Pierce has matured a lot. He realized he can be a good complementary player and still step up when needed. He played that role very well. He took the brunt of the bad times in Boston, which is why you've got to hand it to him for letting Garnett step up to the forefront -- and yet Pierce still played hard. No doubt it helped that Garnett let him be the main scorer. Pierce still plays the same style of game as always, with his driving and three-point shooting. But he bought into the defensive focus that was brought on by Garnett, and that was a surprise. I've got more respect for him now because he showed he was in it to win.
Ray Allen had to change his game a lot. He was No. 3 on the ladder, even though he was fully talented and capable. But he deferred to the other two. Even if he didn't shoot as much, he was still a threat who had to be respected, and he brought ball handling and experience to their backcourt. It must have been hard for him to not have the green light like he was used to having in Milwaukee or Seattle. In the playoffs, when each possession counts a little bit more, he wasn't able to get two shots up early and warm himself up as the third option. He always had to be aware of the balance with the other guys. But he showed he could help in other ways with his defense and the ball handling that took pressure off Rajon Rondo the deeper they went into the playoffs.
When they brought in Sam Cassell in midseason, I wondered if they would lose faith in Rondo. But Rondo held up terrifically. The veterans appeared to back him up and help him get better as a floor leader, and I look for him to show even more improvement this year. His quickness gets him over the top and creates room for him to be a distributor. He's never going to be a great shooter, but they've got other shooters and he's able to score going to the basket because of his quickness. They can initiate plays through Allen and Pierce, and they can run offense through Garnett, so they aren't depending on Rondo to be a traditional point guard. What they need from him is to get the ball up the floor fast and to hawk the ball defensively, where he can be a pest. But their help defense covers up his deficiencies -- he's a slight guy who takes a beating out there. Most teams have the ball in the point guard's hands a lot of the time, and that means a little guy like Rondo is getting smacked by the Yaos and Shaqs while fighting through screens in the pick-and-roll. But you always see Rondo getting up, and he's a pretty durable guy.
They're going to miss P.J. Brown and James Posey, first of all for their size. The bigger teams have the advantage the deeper they go into the playoffs, because the refs are less likely to call ticky-tack fouls. On top of that, Posey's ability to make three-point shots in the playoffs made it harder for defenses to pressure the ball. But he was even more valuable as a versatile defender. The Celtics were very well prepared defensively as far as understanding their opponents' sets, and that's a big advantage when you know what's coming and you can make them go to the second or third option instead of letting them execute the play. Posey gave them the option of switching instead of fighting through the screens. Knowing when to switch or fight through is an experience thing that you don't necessarily game plan. Posey and Brown both might have made those decisions instantly based on all of their years of defending, and the Celtics benefited from that.
They're hoping Tony Allen can be the defensive replacement for Posey, but Allen doesn't have the same length. So they may have to make another move to bring in a long, athletic 3 man who can play multiple positions.
Up front, they'll need somebody to step up between Glen Davis and Leon Powe, and they'll probably need more minutes from Kendrick Perkins. Davis doesn't have the length and he seems be foul-prone -- he's more of an offensive player who won't be able to replace the difference Brown gave them down the stretch in the big playoff games. Powe is at his best when the game is going end to end. He's a tough guy who can rebound, and his athleticism gives him a chance to be more of a factor defensively than Davis.
The way the game is being called -- with no hands allowed on the body defensively on the perimeter -- and with offenses spreading the floor, it's harder than ever for a guy like Cassell to survive. It's back to a quick-guards game, which means no holding or clutching or forearm shivers against the cutters and all of that. It's a young man's game more than it used to be.
There's probably going to be a faction that says Doc Rivers is a good coach because he had all that talent. But there are people inside the league who always thought Doc was a pretty good coach who had played for some high-caliber coaches who helped formulate his style. Though he's an ex-player, he's nonetheless a coach's coach. He studies the game and talks Xs and Os with the staff and comes in with a game plan and everything that goes with that. There are other coaches who fly by the seat of their pants game to game, but Doc isn't one of them.
They've got a decent shot at repeating, and if they make an in-season move for a veteran defender, it will help them all the more.
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