Indicators of Progress to Watch For in New York

Despite being up 2-0 in their first round series with the Knicks, neither the Celtics nor their fans are happy with how the team has played. We were all hoping for the Celtics to punch the Knicks in the mouth during these first two home games, reasserting themselves as contenders for the 2011 title in the process. Instead, they've looked more like pretenders who should really feel lucky they're not heading to New York down 0-2.

With the team preparing to face a hostile MSG crowd and a Knicks team that is gaining confidence by the minute, the Celtics are going to have to start righting the ship quickly if they have any shot of salvaging their title hopes.  Here are some things to look for in game 3 that may indicate they're on the right track:

Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are Pulling Down Defensive Rebounds: Perhaps the most significant takeaway from the first two games is how ineffective the Celtics have been on the glass.  They were outrebounded 53-37 in Tuesday night's game, giving up 20 offensive rebounds on the way to a 24-6 Knicks advantage in second chance points.  So, 24 times the Celtics managed to get a stop, but then gave up points because they couldn't clean the glass.  For a team that prides itself on it's defensive relentlessness, that number is unacceptable.  Obviously, the Celtics aren't a good offensive rebounding team.  They're more focused on getting back defensively.  However, defensive rebounding is so crucial to their success.  First, it leads to easy transition offense, which has been their ONLY offense for about 6 weeks now.  In fact, the way things have gone lately, it seems like all the Knicks really have to do to defend the Celtics is score.  Secondly, it allows them to play their aggressive, high intensity style of defense for 24 second spurts rather than 48 and 72 second spurts, allowing them to sustain their defensive pressure longer into games.  Finally, rebounding has always been a barometer for the effectiveness of Paul Pierce.  We know he's going to score.  But, his best games are always when he has high rebound totals.


Rajon Rondo is Causing Havoc in the Painted Area: Rondo was tremendous in game 2.  I've long felt that nobody was more crucial to the Celtics success than Kevin Garnett.  I now think he shares that burden with Rondo.  When he's getting into the paint, the Celtics get good scoring opportunities.  When he's not, they rely on low percentage shots.  If the Celtics are to go anywhere this postseason, RR needs to be pressuring the defense on every possession.


Shots Are Falling for the Big 3: It seems like decades ago now, but the Celtics were an offensive juggernaut for much of this season.  In fact, coming out of the All-Star break, all 5 starters were shooting over 50% from the field.  That's pretty unusual, and it goes a long way in explaining how they were able to establish such an impressive record despite going through stretches with key injuries.  Surely, Rondo being aggressive and getting them good shots is part of this equation.  But, they also shot the lights out during the stretch when he and Delonte were out (with Nate Robinson starting at point guard).  Most of the Celtics shot poorly in game 2 (remember that Rondo scored 30 points almost exclusively at the rim, so their team FG% is inflated by that).  KG was front-rimming jumpers that are usually automatic for him.  Paul Pierce registered only 2 field goals in the first half.  It sounds simplistic, but if this team's shots aren't falling, they're going to be in trouble.


Ray Allen is Getting Open Off of Screens: Ray Allen was an all-star this year.  Whether or not that should have been the case has been hotly debated throughout the blogosphere.  I would say that certainly there are other guys who could have taken his spot, but nobody in my opinion was clearly more deserving than he was.  Regardless, the important thing here is that he was one.  But, his usage rate took a steep, steep decline during the last month of the season.  Remember, this team underwent a MAJOR facelift.  Allen is a highly specialized weapon, and timing is a big part of how the Celtics use him.  He's been getting more looks since the playoffs began (and his numbers have been much better).  If the Celtics are going to regain their status as contenders, he needs to be running defenders (particularly Dwyane Wade) ragged around multiple screens and getting open looks from downtown as a result.


Glen Davis is Taking Charges and Scoring in the Paint: After watching the Glen Davis segment in episode 5 of The Association: Boston Celtics, I was so happy for all of the success Glen Davis has had this season.  Time and time again, he's provided a huge spark off the bench, playing tremendous defense and scoring in ways that I never imagined he could when he first arrived in Boston.  At his best, Davis is able to put his head down, put the ball on the floor and score tough buckets offensively.  Defensively, he's always in the right spot, and takes more charges than anyone else in the league.  These are the kinds of things the Celtics have been lacking since Kendrick Perkins left.  Not just toughness, but overall frontcourt production.  Glen has been awful in this series.  Offensively, he's been a nonfactor and he's had some major defensive miscues (see huge Jared Jeffries bucket).  Offensively, since March, he's been getting away from what he does best, scoring inside.  It almost feels, many say, as if he's trying to model his offensive game after Kevin Garnett.  CelticsHub had a great breakdown of Baby's shooting numbers, and why he shouldn't be taking those midrange jumpers.  I realize he's made some in big spots (mainly 2009 Orlando game 4), but the numbers tell us that this is not good offense.  I'm counting on Davis to start giving us those quality bench minutes to which we've become accustomed.  I really think this is a guy who understands his importance, and understands what the Celtics need him to do.  Now we need that understanding to translate on the court.


Jeff Green is Looking to Score and Attacking the Glass: He's been brutally awful, but we need him to play more.  I wrote on this extensively yesterday.


'Melo is Taking Lots of Shots and Amar'e is settling for Jumpers: 'Melo has said that he's ready to do it all for the Knicks.  To me, that plays right into the hands of the Celtics.  'Melo was completely unconscious on Tuesday night.  Unstoppable.  A performance for the ages, to be sure.  This happens with great players.  Dwyane Wade did it against the Celtics in game 4 last year.  LeBron did it in game 3.  But, generally speaking, the Celtics do a great job against guys who have to shoulder their team's entire load.  That's good defense stopping bad offense.  'Melo took a lot of heat for hoisting a long three pointer at the end of game 1.  In game 2, when there weren't a whole lot of other good options on the floor (see Jared Jeffries again), he made the sound basketball decision and passed out of a double team.  And, people were upset that he didn't try to score.  Of course he didn't!  After getting killed for trying to be a hero in game 1, why would he try to do it in game 2 (from nearly the same spot on the floor)?  But, the fans and critics are now calling for him to be the man again.  Hopefully, he's ready to try and continue being this team's hero in game 3, because a performance like Tuesday night's is awfully hard to replicate.

Amar'e Stoudemire was killing the Cs in game 1.  In particular, his impressive finishes at the rim are looming large in my memory.  Kevin Garnett was defending him too closely.  KG needs to back off of him a little bit in game 3, and bait him into settling for jumpers.  Amar'e has confidence in himself as a shooter, he's also got a bad back, and the Celtics will be much better off if he's settling.


The MSG Crowd is Living Up to Their Reputation: Paul Pierce is an LA native, so it's no wonder that he has a flare for the dramatic.  MSG has provided him with more than enough drama so far this year, and he has responded well. This Celtics team loves being on the road together, and they feed off of hostile crowds.  March 21st was (along with a road win at San Antonio) one of the few times post All-Star break that we've seen this team actually come alive and look like we want them to.  That game was an intense bloodbath, and as the MSG crowd continued fueling the Celtics fire (with chants of "Boston Sucks") they continued to elevate their game.   I think this atmosphere could really bring out the championship spirit that's been lying dormant in this team.

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