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Celtics vs. Spurs: Speaking with the enemy

01.05.11 at 2:09 pm ET
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The following is an e-mail exchange between myself and Spurs blog Pounding the Rock’s Dale Dye in anticipation of Wednesday’s game between the East-leading Celtics and West-leading Spurs …

Date: Monday, Jan. 3, 6:29 p.m.
Subject: Spurs/Celts Exchange
From: Dale Dye, aka jollyrogerwilco
To: Ben Rohrbach

Kevin Garnett's absence tames the anticipation for Wednesday's Celtics-Spurs showdown. (AP)

Looks like it’s time for the beast in the East to host the best in the West, and I couldn’t be more excited. For some reason, this matchup makes me think about college football. I live in Austin, and like to follow the Longhorns. I didn’t graduate from UT, but I took some classes there after I graduated, so I feel like I’m a nearly  legit fan. Anyway, a few years ago the season began with USC and UT ranked 1 and 2, and they stayed like that all the way through to the championship game.

Perhaps I remember that better because the Horns went on to win one of the most exciting BCS games ever, or maybe my memory is just that good. Either way, I feel much the same following the Spurs this year as I did enjoying the Longhorns success that year. SBNation keeps their Power Rankings split by conference, for good reason, and they’ve had our favorite teams on top of each side of the bracket for a while now.

I suppose this is the place where I would usually start in on the difference between the pace and approach of the teams, how the Spurs have been winning with offense and the Boston defense has been spectacular, while maybe throwing in a stat or two about point differential, etc. But with Kevin Garnett out (like the Spurs game last week against Dallas sans Dirk Nowitzki, and Tuesday’s against New York without Danilo Gallinari) it’s not quite the matchup I was anticipating. He’s just a huge part of what Boston does on both sides of the floor (whether he’s scoring a lot or no) that it’s not at all like playing the Celtics, if he’s not on the court.

So, since I don’t want to make this entire bit about the injury, I’m going to punt this to you at this point, to let you put his absence in context so we can set it aside and move on. Just what is Boston capable of with KG in plain clothes? I don’t mean for the rest of the season, but just for the purposes of this discussion.

Let’s take the official word from the Celts’ front office at face value and assume he’ll be back before the month is out. Which brings the focus onto the rest of the team, now that Rajon Rondo is back on the court. I know that since adding Ray Allen and Garnett, Boston hasn’t had a terrific record in games without Garnett — but what do you expect to see from this year’s bunch over the next few games, and Wednesday’s specifically?

Date: Tuesday, Jan. 4, 10:12 a.m.
Subject: Spurs/Celts Exchange
From: Ben Rohrbach
To: J.R. Wilco

Is Richard Jefferson's improvement the main reason for the Spurs' resurgence? (AP)

Ah, the 2005 BCS championship, how could I forget? It gave us this great interview, highlighted by this quote: ”That crystal’s so beautiful … and it’s coming all the way home to Austin, Texas, baby.” Sadly, I don’t think this matchup between the Celtics and Spurs is going to live up to that. I was definitely more excited for this game before the Celtics lost Garnett and made the Timberwolves look like the Lakers at home on Monday.

The loss of Garnett cannot be understated. As you said, their defense suffers a huge blow, which, in turn, hurts the offense. According to basketballvalue.com, the difference between the C’s with Garnett and without him is 19 points a game. It’s made Glen “Big Baby” Davis try too hard, and it’s given us more Luke Harangody — which hasn’t been a good thing. Basically, they’ve gone from a team that should be favored at home against the Spurs (who’ll be on the second game of a back-to-back) to one that struggles to beat a 9-26 team in the Garden.

Still, the Celtics do get up for games like this. So, what do I expect from them on Wednesday night? I expect them to lose a close one. Over the next couple weeks, they should be OK. They’re lucky to have 9-of-10 games at home in that span, and even luckier to be welcoming the Raptors, Kings, Bobcats and Pistons to town.

But the Spurs are a different story. Speaking of which, how’d they go from a team that won titles scoring in the 80s and 90s to this offensive powerhouse? Because Richard Jefferson decided to play basketball again?

Date: Tuesday, Jan. 4, 10:47 p.m.
Subject: Spurs/Celts Exchange
From: J.R. Wilco
To: Ben Rohrbach

A healthy Manu Ginobili means trouble for the rest of the Western Conference. (AP)

Vince Young is going to be a fantastic analyst someday, maybe the next Chris Collinsworth, and everybody who ever made fun of his Wonderlic scores will be made to wear No. 10 jerseys while standing on one leg and singing … aww, who am I kidding? That’s never going to happen. But you must admit that it’d be hilarious if it did. Not quite as hilarious as a T-Wolves win over the Celts, but side-splittingly funny nonetheless.

Speaking of Minnesota, you may not know this but they played us really close in two games already this year. The first was at their place, and it took a crazy fourth-quarter comeback complete with late-game heroics from four or five guys just to get it into overtime. And the second game in S.A. was almost an exact duplicate, except that their big lead was extinguished in regulation.

So, all of that to say that being taken deep into the game by the Timberpuppies isn’t as embarrassing as you’d think. They have two decent big men (well, at least Darko Milicic played legit in the first game against us) who board like crazy and have legit post-up games. Michael Beasley‘s a headcase, but he can go off on a moment’s notice. Ditto Corey Brewer. Luke Ridnour isn’t awful. Ok, I ran out of steam. Suffice to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if they turn into the team that everybody thought Portland was going to become before Portland turned into the NBA’s infirmary.

But enough about those guys, we have a different injury to put into perspective. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, it’s just that I refuse to admit the possibility that Garnett is going to be out for an extended period with serious injury. That would not please me. San Antonio fans still feel that the 2008 Finals against the Celts was stolen from them because of Manu Ginobili‘s ankle injury that hobbled him so badly that the likes of Peja Stojakovic and Sasha Vujacic were able to stay in front of him.

And after two years in the NBA wasteland (first-round exit in ’09, second-round swept in ’10) the Spurs are back among the NBA elite, and KG goes down right when we were about to see how these teams matched up against each other. Not fair!

And really upsetting if he’s out for the season, or comes back a shell of himself. I don’t want to make it through the minefield of the Western Conference playoffs, only to meet Mr. James and the LeBroneers. We already played that game in ’07. And I’m not getting my popcorn ready for Orlando either. That team had their chance to win me over and disintegrated in multiple fourth quarters with the Larry O’Brien on the line. None of those teams will do.

If (and yes I am talking in the hypothetical) the Spurs make it to the Finals, I want them to play Boston and no one else. And I want both teams to be at full strength. Is that too much to ask?

Now, because of the injury, this game is another of what Coach Gregg Popovich has called a “lose-lose” situation. If the Spurs win, well, KG was out and it wasn’t a real test of both teams, but if Boston wins, then they beat the team with the best record and didn’t even need KG to do it. Ugh. Makes me upset just thinking about it. But there’s nothing else for it but for them to play and us to watch. And since you say that the Celtics get up for games like this, then I’m going to be ready for a barnburner.

And so you’re wondering how San Antonio went from being a defense-first team, to having the top-rated offense in the league? Well, you asked about whether it’s b/c of RJ2.0 and his re-discovered ability to play basketball. Well, the answer is not quite as simplistic as that.

And while I’ll admit that Jefferson’s renaissance certainly hasn’t hurt, it turns out that he’s not the main difference between this year’s team and last. One of my writers recently did an awesome piece examining just what has changed, and she expected the numbers to show that it was just what you thought it was, but it turns out that it’s mostly Tony Parker. Weird, huh?

Date: Wednesday, Jan. 5, 8:34 a.m.
Subject: Spurs/Celts Exchange
From: Ben Rohrbach
To: J.R. Wilco

Has Tony Parker's divorce from Eva Longoria affected his performance? (AP)

Strange, indeed. That’s a fantastic piece on Parker. I’d honestly wondered if he’d gotten a renewed focus on basketball since the whole divorce story broke. Hopefully, it doesn’t he fall apart in the wake of the news that Eva Longoria is dating Penelope Cruz’s younger brother.

This game is definitely a lose-lose one for the Spurs — unless it’s a San Antonio blowout, but I don’t see that happening. It should be interesting to see how Shaquille O’Neal gets up for a game against Tim Duncan, who Shaq said is “the only guy I’m competing with. If Tim Duncan gets five rings, then that gives some writer the chance to say, ’Duncan is the best,’ and I can’t have that.”

Shaq’s never had The Big Fundamental’s skill, but they do both have four rings, and a 2011 NBA Finals matchup between the Spurs and Celtics would have that drama. But I’d be lying if I said Celtics fans didn’t desperately want a Finals rematch against the Lakers.

Of course, the C’s hope KG, Shaq, Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Delonte West all make it to the postseason in good health. That has been — and will continue to be — the biggest question facing this team going forward. As Perkins said, “In seven games I don’t think we can be beat by any team.”

When the starting five plays together, they look nearly unstoppable. But I guess injuries are always the question for veteran teams, and that’s certainly been the case for the Spurs over the last couple years. Must be nice to have Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Jefferson all in good health. Are the Spurs doing anything special (i.e., limiting minutes) to maintain their health?

But the Spurs aren’t without their share of young guys, too, many of whom Celtics fans probably aren’t too familiar with. Tiago Splitter is the most intriguing guy to me, but maybe that’s because his name is so awesome. Who among the young Spurs are fans most excited about?

Oh, and one final question: Is Matt Bonner the San Antonio version of Brian Scalabrine, only better? C’s fans have a borderline scary love for Scal, and considering Bonner is a New England guy I’m sure they’d love to see him in Green.

Date: Wednesday, Jan. 5, 12:04 p.m.
Subject: Spurs/Celts Exchange
From: J.R. Wilco
To: Ben Rohrbach

Matt Bonner is pretty much Brian Scalabrine, only much better. (AP)

All I’ll say about the Parker/Longoria drama is that the only time his personal life seemed to really affect his play was a couple of weeks after the story broke, and the two of them met in L.A. before the Clippers game. He stunk that game, and Pop sat him the entire fourth quarter of a Spurs loss — their only loss to a sub-.500 team. The rest of the season, he’s been, as that story showed, quite good — understatement intended.

As a fan, my angle on the whole lose-lose deal is that I like W’s. When looking at the Spurs record, I prefer to see a very large number first, and a really tiny number second. There’s nothing the team can do about the health of their oppenents, besides take advantage of every matchup that presents itself.

The issue is that the team playing without its star often has a number of advantages due to being forced to play a different style than usual, one that the other team has no film or scouting on. And then there’s the lets-pull-together-while-the-star-is-out syndrome. All of these factors make beating the Celts tonight like trying to tame an injured lion: no, he’s not afraid of the whip, and no, he’s not going to let you put your head in his mouth. So coming out with a victory is all that I care about.

As for Shaq vs Duncan … I’ll cross that bridge should I come to it. The less Shaq in my life, right now, the better. Although his reaction to being fined was pretty funny.

And now we come to the health issue since, as you pointed out, that’s such a huge issue for veteran teams. Yes, I’m very happy, pleased, ecstatic, overjoyed (pick your synonym of choice) that Manu seems to have fully recovered from the ankle woes that had beset him, and Tony looks to be as quick, hale and hearty as ever.

Duncan, when Pop has let him play, looks to still be Duncan. He’s his age, no doubt about it, but his decline in numbers is due to usage, not ability — and that’s also the answer to the limiting minutes issue you raised. When a team is in the top-two in point differential (as the Spurs have been with Miami lately) then you’re going to have your share of blowout wins. And Duncan’s lack of fourth-quarter minutes even became a source of joking when we went several games without any.

Manu and Tony have been rewarded with rest as well, just not as early and often as Timmeh. Aside from that, and letting the offense run through our backcourt, there really isn’t much more to it.

But the backcourt is where this year’s intriguing young Spurs reside. Yes, finally getting Splitter on the roster has been a relief, but he was injured just before training camp (and some since) and so never really got his feet wet with the Spurs system. It’s been pick-up-what-you-can for him ever since, so he’s been getting limutes.

James Anderson, on the other hand, was shooting great (before he broke his foot) and showing the ability to actually play small forward in a back up role — something S.A. hasn’t had in years. But the real revelation has been Gary Neal. He shoots the three, he’s comfortable driving when chased off the 3-point line, he’s got the floater, he’s got a pull-up J, he hustles on defense and he crashes the boards well for a guard. Anytime a rookie has four or five regular nicknames this early in the season, all of which seem to be sticking, then you know he’s playing well.

As for Bonner, I suppose your description of him as S.O.B. (Scalabrine, only better) seems fair. He seems to be always adding something to his game, or getting a bit better at different skills. This year he’s leading the league in 3-point percentage, of course, so that’s the big story, but he’s been playing much better defense, and he went almost a third of the season before he had his first turnover. Boston fans can drool over him all they want, but they’re not going to get him, because he has a new contract and appears to be comfortably installed in Texas for a while to come.

Date: Wednesday, Jan. 5, 12:45 p.m.
Subject: Spurs/Celts Exchange
From: Ben Rohrbach
To: J.R. Wilco

Paul Pierce and the rest of the Celtics have played with a chip on their shoulder. (AP)

The problem with this year’s Celtics is that they can’t seem to step on the pedal when they need to. They get up by double-digits on just about everybody at home (although I’d be surprised if they do Wednesday), but they find a way to make it at least a little scary in the fourth quarter. That’s put an added burden on the starters, as Rondo, Allen and Pierce are all averaging more minutes than anybody on the Spurs — while KG and even Big Baby have clocked more minutes than Duncan this season.

Of course, last year’s Celtics had the issue of not putting forth the effort in a ton of regular-season games, so I guess it could be worse. This year’s Celtics have a chip on their shoulder from last season’s Game 7 loss to the Lakers, Pierce in particular, as our own Paul Flannery described. And I’m sure the Spurs do, too, from being knocked out early each of the past two seasons. That should make for an entertaining game tonight. After all, it’s not every night that both teams play hard in the NBA.

Even without a KG-Duncan showdown, there’s a ton of intriguing individual matchups as well: Big Baby and Blair; Manu and Pierce (or Allen); Rondo and Parker. None of those existed for Celtics fans five years ago, when if you told me the offensive-minded Spurs would be coming to Boston to take on the league-leading defense in a potential championship preview I probably would’ve thought you were talking about some futuristic international soccer league. It’s good to have them both on top.

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