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Twelve minutes to make it count

02.08.09 at 5:40 pm ET
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Ray Allen knew what to expect days before playing the San Antonio Spurs.

‘€œIt comes down to a fourth-quarter battle,’€ he said on Friday. ‘€œThey’re not going to come in and make small mistakes. They’re going to operate their offense. Defensively they’re going to know what they’ve got to do.’€

Allen was exactly right. On Sunday, the Celtics entered the fourth quarter with a two-point lead and were outscored 31-23 by the Spurs. They lost 105-99 (RECAP HERE). It was the second time in two games the defending champs fell in the final 12 minutes. Last week they started the fourth quarter up by four on the Los Angeles Lakers before losing 110-109 in overtime.

‘€œWhen you play the top teams in the league it comes down to the little things,’€ said Paul Pierce. ‘€œAnd I just thought last couple of games at home it was one or two-point games. It’€™s the little things — defensive transition late in the game, covering for one another, one possession. It’s like the playoffs, one play can kill you. Every possession counts and we got to understand that when we play against the top tier teams like the San Antonio Spurs and the Lakers.’€

The Celtics have hit cold streaks in their last two losses. Up six with eight minutes to go against the Lakers, the C’s failed to build on their lead. The Lakers went on an 11-5 run during a five minute stretch to tie it up, eventually winning in OT.

On Sunday the Celtics allowed an 11-4 Spurs run in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. Later in the game they watched a 93-90 lead slip away to a 101-93 deficit.

‘€œYou’ve got to get stops, everybody’s got to be on the same page,’€ said Kendrick Perkins. ‘€œBesides getting stops, on the offense you’ve got to execute, you’ve got to throw the extra pass when guys are open. Usually a team like San Antonio, you can’€™t beat them with the dribble. You’ve got to beat them with the pass. You can’€™t turn the ball over at all against San Antonio. So I just thought in stretches we played together and stretches we didn’€™t move the ball and that was the key.’€

The Celtics have allowed a total of 215 points in their last two games at home. It is an overwhelming difference for a team who has held their opponents to just 92 points per game over the season. Nonetheless, head coach Doc Rivers was able to see a silver lining in the losses.

‘€œWell it tells me that we’€™re really good, because we’€™ve not played with our A-game, as Tiger Woods would say, I guess,’€ he said. ‘€œAnd we still had a chance to win both. Both games we had the lead and gave it up. Gave up points, which is not like us. In a sick way I guess I’€™d rather be down and not be able to score than up and give up baskets, because we’€™re a defensive team. But we clearly have to improve. Our bench has to be more consistent. They gave up an 8-1 run to start the fourth. You know, that hurts you. It’€™s tough to recover from that.’€

The Celtics will have two days to regroup before facing the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday. They are aware of their mistakes; now it is a matter of fixing them.

‘€œIn general, you can’t turn the ball over,’€ Allen said. ‘€œYou have to execute on both ends down the floor in the fourth quarter.’€

The Celtics know what to expect down the stretch. Lucky for them, there’s another 12 minutes to prove they can take care of business.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Doc Rivers, Kendrick Perkins, LA Lakers

Let’s do it again this spring

02.08.09 at 5:34 pm ET
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There were about 20 seconds left in the game when Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan emerged from their respective huddles and began eying each other down. Garnett, slightly frantic as always, was talking to himself about something. More than likely he was berating himself about his 20-footer that rimmed out and gave the Spurs an opening. Duncan, slightly bemused as always, said nothing.

They came together near the elbow. Fourteen feet or so of NBA Hall of Fame basketball talent ready for one more skirmish. The superficial approaches couldn’t be more different–kinetic vs. cerebral, Rated R for language vs. a silent movie–but deep down Garnett and Duncan and the two teams they represent are like fraternal twins.

As it turned out, it never got that far. Manu Ginobli made a huge play to intercept Ray Allen’s inbound pass and Paul Pierce got called for a clean path foul, which effectively meant this one was all over.
(Click here for a recap).

It’s a shame, really, that this one didn’t come down to a final possession and a final shot, but as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “It’s a 48-minute game, and in the NBA things can change very quickly.”

The Spurs defy change. Oh they have rolled with personnel moves over the year–neatly transitioning from the David Robinson era to the Duncan years, incorporating Tony Parker and Ginobli into star roles and moving from Big Shot Bob Horry to Unstoppable Matt Bonner. At least yesterday anyway when Bonner torched the Celtics for 23 points.

But for the 10 years since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls, the Spurs have been the gold standard in the NBA. They are accused so often of being boring that it’s become their preferred trademark. They like being called boring. It saves them from answering questions about themselves.

“They have great players and they have great character,” is how Doc Rivers put it. “Everything is about winning.” If that’s boring then sign the Celtics up for boring. What the Celtics have been able to accomplish in one and a half years might be the envy of the league right now, but what the Spurs have done for a decade is what every franchise aspires to become.

The parallels between the two teams are striking both on the court and off. There is rarely, if ever, any controversy coming from anonymous corners of their respective locker rooms and the matchups are compelling because they are similar in many ways, but also different.

“Kevin is a very different player than Tim Duncan,” Popovich said. “Manu and Ray Allen are different players. Paul Pierce and Tony Parker, they’re just different.” And that’s what makes it all so interesting.

Way back in November, I called for a Celtics-Spurs Finals and while it might not be great theater, it would be great basketball. The difference between a Celtics-Spurs Final, as opposed to say Celtics-Lakers, would be roughly the same as the difference between the Red Sox playing the Angels, or the Yankees. On the one had you’d get terrific baseball. On the other, you’d get a psychological melodrama in seven acts.

What it would lack in terms of age-old blood feud would be more than made up for within the matchups.

Rajon Rondo vs. Tony Parker

Outside of having a celebrity wife, Rondo and Parker are eerily similar. Both are fast. Both are great decision-makers. Neither is known as a great shooter.

“They both have a great proclivity for finishing near the rim,” Popovich said. “They both work on their jump shots all the time. If either shot 40 percent from three, they’d be impossible to guard. Hopefully our guy learns how to do it before the other guy does.”

Early in the Spurs run, Parker’s inability to make jump shots consistently forced Pop to use players like Speedy Claxton to finish off games. It’s the same sort of thing with Rondo where everyone fears that at the end of a game he will become a liability because of his shot.

But both players have learned to be effective without a reliable jumper. Against the Spurs Sunday, Rondo got the better of things with 16 assists and only one turnover, as compared to Parker going for seven assists. Neither shot the lights out–Parker went 3-for-12, Rondo went 3-for-11.

Both are the catalysts for their teams. The difference might be on the bench where the Spurs have settled on rookie George Hill as the primary backup, while the Celtics are still weighing their options. Oh, and Hill? The Celtics really liked him coming out of the draft and Rivers made note that if he were still available the C’s might have gone that way. Even their scouting is similar.

Ray Allen vs. Manu Ginobli vs. Paul Pierce vs. et al

There is simply no one in the NBA like Manu. A lefthanded slasher with a good shot, Ginobli needs just a sliver of room to get it off. He is quick and agile where Pierce is strong, feisty where Allen is smooth and controlled.

Although he comes off the bench, Ginobli is the Spurs second-best player behind Duncan. He is the one they go to at the end of games when they need a score, much like Pierce is the Celtics best one-on-one option and Allen is the designated end-of-game shooter.

Where the Spurs have flexibility, and Popovich is great at this, is mixing and matching Ginobli with players like Roger Mason, Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen. Depending on who is with him on the floor, Ginobli can play off either Pierce or Allen. While matched up with Pierce, Ginobli was able to frustrate him defensively, but he had a better time of it offensively against Allen.

The bench is the biggest edge the Spurs have against the Celtics.

Tim Duncan vs. Kevin Garnett

Kobe and LeBron may be more visceral, but for the last 10 years there has been no more intriguing philosophical matchup than Garnett and Duncan. To most, this is a no-brainer. Duncan has won more championships and more MVP awards, and his back-to-the-basket game is more reliable than KG’s jumpers and fadeaways.

Of course, Duncan has had far better teammates in his career than Garnett had before he came to Boston. Depending on whichever kind of analytical study you prefer, Garnett routinely comes out slightly ahead of Duncan. Kevin Pelton at Basketball Prospectus recently concluded that over the last decade KG came out ahead of Duncan based on his number, WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player). David Berri, author of the Wages of Wins, raised his first eyebrow when he concluded the same thing with his numbers.

It’s close enough that you can make an entirely credible argument for Duncan based on his superior career achievements, but the truly interesting thing is that the two players are head and shoulders above their peers.

On Sunday, Garnett rarely matched up with Duncan. The Celtics preferred to have him on Matt Bonner, who is more of a perimeter player, and Bonner routinely burned the Celtics, and Garnett, on high pick and rolls when Garnett rolled to help on Parker. It’s the same dynamic when the Celtics play the Lakers and Garnett takes Lamar Odom instead of Pau Gasol and Kendrick Perkins takes the low-post player. (That was something Doc Rivers fretted about before the Laker game when asked about Andrew Bynum’s absence. Yes, it removes a tough low-post defender, but it also spreads the floor).

And, of course, Duncan and Garnett couldn’t be more different in terms of temperament. Garnett, who sometimes seems to be living on the edge of sanity while he is on the court and Duncan, who rarely betrays anything. Yet Duncan’s legacy has suffered from the lack of a true kindred spirit in the Finals. He has not a had Magic to his Larry or a Wilt to his Russell.

That is what he would get with Garnett in a Finals matchup. For one 20-second stretch Sunday it was denied again. It would be a shame if it didn’t happen in June.

Celtics-Spurs Game Blog: Fourth Quarter

02.08.09 at 2:55 pm ET
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At the start of the fourth quarter … Celtics 76, Spurs 74

– Doc’s starting the fourth with Pierce and the second unit on the floor. This game is looking like it will come down to the wire, so Garnett (27 minutes) and Ray Allen (30 minutes) are conserving their energy til later down the stretch.

– George Hill is holding his own for the Spurs. When I first caught up with Hill at the 2008 Las Vegas Summer League, he was a wide-eyed rookie anxious for the chance to get playing time behind Parker and Ginobili. Injuries made it possible for him to get minutes early in the season and this afternoon he is showing no signs of first-year jitters late in the game.

– How do you bring 18,000 fans to their feet on a Sunday afternoon? KG made it look easy with a game-tying dunk with four minutes to go.

– Surprisingly there is more of a playoff atmosphere today than against the Lakers. Hardly anyone is sitting down and the entire Celtics bench is on their feet. Tony Allen’s towel waving was another flashback to June.

– And that’s why he’s in the Three-Point Shootout. Roger Mason drained a trey with 20 seconds left to give the Spurs a two-point edge. That was only Mason’s third bucket of the game.

– The life was sucked out of the Garden when Pierce was called for a clear path foul, sending Ginobili to the line to hit the free throws. It doesn’t seem fitting that such a tough fought match would end at the line.

- Final score … Spurs 105, Celtics 99

Celtics-Spurs Game Blog: Third Quarter

02.08.09 at 2:19 pm ET
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Can’t anyone stop Matt Bonner? The big redhead from New Hampshire lit the C’s up in the first half as the Spurs ran high pick and rolls again and again (and again). Look for an adjustment or three in the second half. On the other hand, the Celtics seem just a step slow this afternoon.

Whatever the reason they will need to put together a much stronger defensive effort in the second half. Offensively, they’re fine, although the Spurs have aggressively defended the 3-point line, which is such a big part of the Celtics game. This promises to be a very interesting second half.

THIRD QUARTER WRAP: More energy, better shots, more running. That was exactly what the Celtics needed. Now the bench needs to give them four good minutes.

Third Quarter Observations

— The Celtics clearly have more life to start the second half. Ray Allen chased Roger Mason over and under two screens to bother him on that last jumper.

— Love KG’s aggressiveness to start the half as well. The Spurs pack the paint as well as any team with their defense, but they’re not doubling on Garnett (at least not yet). The driving lanes just aren’t open for Rondo and Pierce, which puts the onus on KG to generate some offense.

— Quick number. Fast-break points: 12 (combined for both teams). That puts those shooting numbers into some perspective. Almost everything has been in the half-court which is simply execution. They are also likely to drop just a little.

Tony Allen is doing the ML Carr towel-waving bit, by the way and this place is as loud as it has been at any point during the regular season.

— Bowen’s on Pierce. That should be fun.

— Remember when you were in high school and your coach told your big man to run up the floor and he would get rewarded with layups? That’s exactly what Garnett is doing right now.

— When Pierce does his Gumby routine, you just can not stop it. Of course when Matt Bonner goes glass from 23 feet you can’t stop that either.

— A few minutes earlier I referenced that there were 12 fastbreak points. There are 22 now.

— OK so with Garnett out for the next six minutes or so this is the big stretch for the Celtics. They have very admirably gotten back in the game, but they can’t lose that momentum.

— Great call by Ronnie Garretson getting Bowen for kicking his leg out. I wish more guys called that. Oddly enough, the Spurs radio guys are beside themselves with that call. It’s all perspective.

Celtics-Spurs Game Blog: Second Quarter

02.08.09 at 1:37 pm ET
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  • Leading Scorers: Bonner/Duncan: 16 points
  • Leading Rebounder: Duncan: 7
  • Leading Assists: Rondo: 7
  • Points in the Paint: Celtics 32 – Spurs 24
  • Fast Break Points: Celtics 8 – Spurs 4
  • Free Throws: Spurs: 7/7 – Celtics 5/8
  • Minutes: Pierce/Rondo/Duncan: 19

At the start of the quarter … Celtics 23, Spurs 22

For Paul’s first quarter recap, click here.

Second Quarter Observations

– On the court at the start of the 2nd … Celtics: Powe/Davis/T. Allen/R. Allen/House … Spurs: Hill/Finley/Bonner/Ginobili/Thomas

Ray Allen has the hot hand for the Celtics this afternoon, scoring 12 points (5/8 FG) in the first 16 minutes.

– Even with Tim Duncan on the court, the Celtics are outscoring the Spurs 22-10 in the paint.

– There always seems to be a fan favorite red head at the Garden. With Brian Scalabrine out (concussion), New Hampshire native Matt Bonner is getting the cheers today. He is the game’s leading scorer with 13 points.  Scal is in the building but is not watching the game on the sidelines.

– With two minutes to go Rajon Rondo (6 points, 7 assists) has the edge over Tony Parker (5 points, 5 assists) in the battle of the point guards. Both have only hit one shot outside of the paint.

– The controversial calls continue at the Garden. Perkins was whistled for a foul late in the second against Tim Duncan. The boos from the fans rivaled the jeers from Thursday’s game against the Lakers. Perkins doesn’t get much love around the league, either. He tied for first in the Sports Illustrated Player Poll: Which NBA player thinks he’s a lot better than he really is?

- At halftime … Spurs 60, Celtics 52

Celtics-Spurs Game Blog: First Quarter

02.08.09 at 12:56 pm ET
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We are live from courtside on a Sunday afternoon for the Celtics and the Spurs. Unlike Thursday’s epic showdown with the Lakers which brought out some 15 LA media members and a handful of national NBA types, the mood here is decidedly tame. That’s in perfect harmony with the legacy the Spurs have carved out during the Tim Duncan era.

They have four championships, or one more than the Kobe-Shaq Lakers. They have the respect of everyone in the league, or at least those that know basketball, and they are a model of a well-run, efficient professional organization. In other words, bor-ing.

Well, maybe. But I’ll take Spurs-Celtics on a Sunday afternoon any day.

FIRST QUARTER WRAP: For two teams that made their bones playing defense, the first 12 minutes were a clinic in half-court offense. Both teams are shooting about 50 percent and have executed their offenses fairly well. Good start to this one.

Jess has you covered for the second quarter.

First Quarter Observations

— KG is on Matt Bonner and vice-versa. Like everyone else I’d love to see KG and Duncan battle for 35 minutes today, and no doubt they will see each other quite a bit. It would be interesting to see what would happen in the Finals if these two teams meet.

— Ronnie Garretson is working today’s game. Let’s just say from an experience standpoint that is an upgrade from the crew who worked Thursday. Doc Rivers was fined 15 grand for saying the refs lost control of the game. Talking about it before the game it seemed pretty clear that Doc considered it money well-spent.

— If you were scoring this as in a boxing match, you would have a draw in the first round. Lots of little interesting things going on, but no big punches thrown or landed yet.

— Pierce is matched up with Manu, which is a really fun combination. They are different players, to be sure, but both know every trick in the book. On the opposite part of the spectrum, you have Manu’s speed and quickness versus Pierce’s strength, but both are hellacious competitors.

— Here’s the big difference between the two teams. San Antonio’s bench is deep and versatile. Part of that is having Ginobli as a Sixth Man where he plays starters minutes. But Kurt Thomas is the kind of experienced tough big man teams are always looking for (especially the Celtics), and Bruce Bowen hasn’t made an appearance yet. Also keep an eye on rookie George Hill. The bench gives Gregg Popovich all kinds of options and scenarios.

— Perkins can get that little jump-hook off a post-up whenever he wants it because no one is going to double off Garnett, Pierce or Allen to stop it. If he can develop confidence in that move he can take the next step as a player.

— Versatility example. Pop brought Michael Finley back to deal with Pierce and force the Celtics to put Ray Allen on Ginobli, which is a much better match up for them.

Who needs Marbury?

02.07.09 at 12:06 am ET
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NEW YORK — There is a fur-lined coat and baseball cap hanging in Stephon Marbury’s locker. They don’t belong to Marbury, though. Al Harrington is using the empty space for storage. Many of the Knicks don’t need Marbury or his belongings in their locker room. In fact, they aren’t sure who needs him either.

‘€œIt’s hard to say,’€ said Jared Jeffries. ‘€œThere’s a lot of ‘what ifs.”€

There is no question Marbury is a talented point guard, his teammates don’t deny that. He is a two-time All-Star with a career average of nearly 20 points and eight assists per game over the course of 11 years. These are numbers that rival premiere point guards like Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, and Chris Paul.

‘€œObviously Steph is an experienced guard,’€ said David Lee. ‘€œHe’s been in the league a long time. He’s been through the battles in the West and the battles in the East. He’s a guy that’s obviously a very skilled player.’€

Jeffries concurred.

‘€œHe’s definitely a talented player,’€ he said. ‘€œHe’s a big guard, he’s a really good scorer, he’s scored a lot in this league. He’s a good point guard, he really is talent-wise. He’s a really good point guard so any time you have a talent like that you could use that.’€

Yet the Knicks don’t want to use that talent. The experience and stats are there, but is the potential to help a team win it all? While rookie Anthony Roberson praised his mentorship off the court, his teammates are indecisive about what he has to offer anymore.

‘€œI don’t know,’€ Lee said of Marbury’s abilities to help a team in the running for the title. ‘€œI’m not sure if he’s ever been to the Finals. I could be wrong. It’ll be interesting to see and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Steph and New York and if he does get released or if he decides to go to another team. I heard them talking about that during the TNT game against L.A. the other night. That should be interesting.’€

What’s more interesting is the fact that Lee has been Marbury’s teammate since 2005 and he can’t form a decisive opinion. But teams like the world champion Boston Celtics have still expressed interest in Marbury, dramatics and all. So why, if a team of that caliber is willing to take a closer look at him, can’t his teammates who know his game best speak to his value?

Don’t ask Nate Robinson. Even though he entered the NBA as Marbury’s back up, he no longer feels comfortable commenting on the issue. The one thing the Knicks are certain on is their choice of point guard this season. Chris Duhon leads the floor without the drama, an asset they’d take any day.

‘€œHe’s a guy that really knows how to play the game,’€ Lee said of Duhon. ‘€œBut we are very happy with what Chris has done this year. I’m not sure you could ask for any more than Chris has done. Steph’s a great guard, but we’re very happy with Duhon.’€

The fur-lined coat and baseball cap still hung in Stephon Marbury’s locker after the Celtics banned together to beat the Knicks on Friday night. They won with a fourth quarter push fueled by communication and chemistry. It’s the type of victory may not have been possible if Marbury’s belongings were hanging in a Celtics locker.

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