NBA Basketball Column: Free Throws with Andrew Damelin
Heat's main threat: the Boston Celtics
As of Sunday in the National Basketball Association, the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Charlotte Bobcats and Philadelphia 76ers all sat ahead of the Boston Celtics. But no team among this group can provide as big a challenge for the Miami Heat in the playoffs as Boston.
Boston coach Doc Rivers understands how to pace his team through a regular season grind. Last season, with a rickety core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and a condensed 66-game schedule, the Celts coasted to the fourth seed in the East. Rivers refused to push the knees and ankles of his Big 3 to get home court advantage after the first round.
And it worked out. Boston reached the Eastern Conference final, and had a home game to oust the heavily favoured Heat. The Celtics ended up going down in seven games, but it was clear that Rivers had squeezed every bit of potential out of his team.
It’s tenuous to assume Garnett and Pierce will be healthy when entering the post season, but Rivers will manage their minutes accordingly. On top of that, the rest of the team is better than last year’s.
The Celts have the East’s best point guard - Rajon Rondo (that’s right, Deron), who is improving every year. TNT analyst Kenny Smith defines the best point guards as those that control the pace of the game, and there’s no one better than Rondo. In the half-court, he has the patience to wait for his teammates get to their spots, and the speed to drive by his man and create off the dribble. But what makes the Celtics better than last year is the infusion of youth and a running game, something Rondo couldn’t utilize with aging veterans alongside him previously.
Rondo can kick the pace up with this year’s additions. Jason Terry, though 35, is still lightning quick and can hit any shot in transition. Jeff Green, who missed all of last year with an enlarged heart, is a beast in the open court. Guards Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa offer two more quality fast break options. And if Avery Bradley can return to full health, the Celts have added not only a decent finisher on the break, but more importantly, a shutdown defender who can guard LeBron and Wade.
A word of caution – you won’t see Boston play to its capability every night. The schedule is unforgiving; ugly losses will be conceded. But on some nights you will see brilliance. One such night – last Friday, against Oklahoma City.
The Thunder came out on fire, grabbing an early eight-point lead mostly off contested jumpers from Westbrook and Durant. Rather than get demoralized, Boston roared back with a steady dose of Rondo magic. Rondo dished out 16 assists, setting up Pierce (27 points) and Garnett (18 points) in the post, and his new wingmen on the fast break.
On D, every shot was accompanied by a hand in the face. Boston also limited OKC in transition, winning the fast break point battle 14-9.
Though the Thunder mounted a late comeback, cutting a 14-point deficit to three, Boston was the deserving winner. The team showed it has the talent, grit and experience to score with one of the league’s best offences. It showed it can defend the league’s top scorers. And unlike the past five years, it showed it has the speed to get easy baskets.
The Boston Celtics may finish the regular season with a midling record, but watching Friday’s impressive effort,they are most definitely a leading threat to take down the Heat in the playoffs.
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