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Back on Track

March 8, 2009

The Big 3

I am glad to see the Cs winning again– especially winning big against the Nets on Saturday. The team’s defense seems to be back on track, and shots are starting to fall more consistently. The Celts of old, are you back? Ok, the Nets and the Raptors aren’t great teams, but neither were the Warriors, Knicks, or Bobcats. All three of these teams had their turn with the Celtics in the last couple of weeks during the part of the season that most of fans would like to forget. At this point before the All-Star break, I think that a win is a win. So many of these teams are injured and tired, including our beloved Cs. And especially for the Celtics, as everyone has been saying, they have a target on their back. Who doesn’t want to take down the reigning champs? Who doesn’t want their crappy team’s season to be turned around by a win against the Celts? For some teams, like the Bobcats and Knicks, beating the Celts will be the highlight of their season. For the Celts, it just helps them learn what they need to do better during this stretch before the second part of their season begins: the playoffs.

I coach a middle school boys’ basketball team. For the most part, I get a few kids that love, live, and breath basketball. Then I get a couple of kids that are just athletic and can’t skate. Then you get a couple of kids that play basketball their friends are playing. Anyway, I think at this level, it is wonderful to start teaching kids the fundamentals of the game that they will eventually lose someday when they see that you don’t make the highlight reel by making crisp chest passes, setting screens, and moving without the ball. What does have a tendency to happen at this level is that kids don’t take too many risks: you can see that in game situations, especially tight games, kids at this level fall back on what they either know or do well– they default on their moves. Kids enjoy routine, comfort, and predictability. On a basketball team, it is no different. They know who can shoot, they know who can rebound, they know who won’t dribble. Kids will eventually break these habits as they get more skilled and comfortable with the game, but for the most part, these basketball genetics stay with them for a long, long time. This phenomenon is ok, though, because it helps develop the chemistry of a TEAM.

Why that story? I think it is the secret to a basketball TEAM’s success. TEAM being emphasized here with the all caps. Whatever combo of 5 guys a coach decides to stick out on the floor, there is really one crucial thing that I see: out of those 5 players, the offense has to go through 2 guys. You probably think I am an idiot at this point at stating the obvious, but stay with me. I am not talking about 2 guys who can score, I am talking about 2 guys that CONTROL the offense. The ball touches at least 1 of their hands on every single offensive possession. These are the guys that can score, draw defenders and dish to find the open man, the guys that you feel safe with the ball. So then what do the other 3 guys do? They’re role players with very specific roles to support the other 2 guys. Keep in mind, this is just a recipe for the offense, not the defense– everyone needs to play defense. It’s that simple.

So the 2 guys. Let’s find some examples. Unfortunately, one of the best examples is from the very team that makes me throw up in my mouth: the LA Fakers Lakers. Kobe ran the show, and nothing happened. They added Gasol, and all of the sudden the Lakers had an inside/out game that was difficult to defend. Why is it difficult? Because Phil Jackson made the team buy into their roles, and these people got damn better at their roles.

Fischer: a great perimeter shooter, can handle the ball if wanting to feed Kobe off a screen
Walton: makes good passes, has a decent touch from the baseline, puts his body on the line
Bynum: rebound, block, make lay ups
Ariza: be athletic has humanely possible (I’d love this guy if weren’t for the yellow/purple– it’s too bad)
Odom: play strong, take it to the hoop
Radmanovic: soft, soft, soft shot from outside the arch
Vujacic: act like a little baby, play annoyingly good defense, spot-up shooter, cry about everything

These guys play into their roles, and they play into them well. When Kobe and/or Gasol aren’t having a strong game, then these guys don’t fill in for Kobe’s or Gasol’s role, they just step up their own role. This is what makes a championship team: no one is filling in for anyone, people are just stepping up in their own role. Like the business world, specialization eats up those who do not. The Lakers have specialized.

The Cavs. Similar idea: Lebron was the only guy up until they acquired Mo Williams. The offense primarily runs through these Lebron and Mo. But, guys like Delonte West, Iglauskas, Varajao, Wallace, Szczerbiack, know what they have to do to support the team. Players have to buy into the fact that they do some things on the court really well, and that is what needs to happen in games. Unlike middle schoolers that default to these moves, these NBA players should embrace their roles and use them with an exclamation point.

Despite what people say, I think you still have to be a team-oriented team to win in the NBA. You can have guys that are great closers and can really put up great numbers, but what can the rest of the team do? This is strictly in-line with the situation the Oakland As went through awhile back when they were getting ready to lose Jason Giambi. The GM Billy Beane, as so chronicled in “Moneyball”, brokedown all of the possible statistics that Giambi gave the team an edge in, and attached monetary value to each statistic. So if the As couldn’t get one player to give the team all of those runs, hits, and opps to get on base, they would find several people much cheaper to do the same things so that the team wouldn’t have a HUMONGOUSLY negative net effect. This is what basketball teams that win do: they find the holes, and find people that not only fill them, but fill the holes very well. If you are lacking someone that can defend the perimeter, go out and find him. If you need help on boards, go out and find him. If you need someone that can just kill the other team with cluctch threes (Robert Horry? Roger Mason? Spurs!), go out and get him!!!!

Back to the Celtics.

This is what the Celtics did so well last year: out of 3 big scorers (Pierce, KG, Ray), usually 2 would have great games and the other would settle into another role– dare I even say it, a “supporting” role? During their difficult losing streak in the last couple of weeks, the problem was no one was getting a hot hand besides Pierce, and I feel like no one knew what role to take from that: Rondo tried to become an outside shooter, Ray wasn’t getting the ball when out with the second unit, KG settled on too many jumpers outside of his sweetspot (elbows), Eddie House thought he was getting paid per 3 pointer attempted, etc. The C’s need to get back into the mindset that the Big 3 still need to lead this team. The offense has to run through 2 of them. There needs to be someone calling for the ball when they feel it, which allows others to settle into their roles.Why is this so important? Because it makes it difficult to defend.

The Celts are still the best team in the league in my mind because their “roles” are so different each night, which makes it impossible to prepare for. This is one of the few teams where they have potentially 3 major scorers (The Big 3) and another impact player (Rondo) that can kill you with passing or scoring (when he can take it to the paint). When you play the Cavs, you prep the defense to try and isolate and shut down 1 player, 2 at most. No team is going in saying “How are we going to stop Delonte West or Varajao tonight!??!?” That is never going to be the focal point of how coaches prep their teams against the Cavs. The advantage for the Cs: they have 4 guys that coaches need to prep against: Pierce, Allen, KG, Rondo. Any 1 of the 4 can single handedly takeover a game if they are on. But what I like most thi year is when Ray Allen has one of those games where you know if Doc would just keep him in the game, he’d break 40 points easily. What I love about Pierce is that he is ready to take over a game if need be, like the flip of a switch. PP can also do it in lots of different ways: shooting, taking it to the hoop, from the FT line, whatever. The Truth knows how to get it done. This is what makes the Celts so difficult to prepare for night in and night out: who is the defense going to focus on? There is not a team out there that has 4/5 of its starting lineup ready to defend these guys on a normal night. Cleveland comes close, but that is it.

Celts: let’s get back to finding the hot hand each night, and filling in the roles to make the TEAM stronger.

Rondo! {Nathaniel S Butler/NBAE/Getty}

Rondo! {Nathaniel S Butler/NBAE/Getty}

Sidenote on my boy Rondo:
Rondo’s presence has been strongly accounted for this season: as Ray-Ray even said, “the blueprint” to beating the Celtics is laying off Rondo and making him shoot. Rondo has adjusted well to this: he hasn’t unleashed as a jump shooter, but instead he is just taking it to the hoop quicker, faster, tougher, and stronger. He doesn’t look frightened anymore: if he gets fouled, he gets fouled. If he gets blocked, he gets blocked. Rondo is realizing he needs to put his body on the line in order to create for the other guys.

In the next 5 nights, they have Phoenix, Miami, Orlando. In other words, Shaq, D-Wade, and the team that I fear the most (Magic). TNT for those with cable, GameCast for those without.

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