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Celtics notebook: The lure of passing

03.31.12 at 9:23 am ET
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When Ryan Hollins arrived in Boston, he had something he wanted to tell coach Doc Rivers.

“I appreciate the way you guys play,” Hollins said. “It’€™s unselfish, no one cares about the points and you guys play to win. You don’€™t see that in the NBA. If Kevin [Garnett] has five points and 13 rebounds and we win, he’€™s excited. If [Rajon] Rondo has zero points and 15 assists, he’€™s excited. You don’€™t see that. I really appreciate that about the team.”

Hollins has already benefited from the passing culture. He and Rondo have hooked up for three alley-oops in the last two games and his eyes lit up when asked about playing with the point guard.

“I love playing with Rondo,” Hollins said. “The type of player I am, I’€™m going to complement Rondo and he’€™s going to complement me. If I can be at the rim, it opens up all the other shooters. The coaching staff is on me to dive and run in transition. It opens everything up.”

Hollins has played just 28 minutes in five games with the Celtics, but his testimonial lies at the heart of what has helped make the Celtics successful again. Their offensive problems have been well documented but here are the gritty numbers:

They rank 26th in points per 100 possessions, just ahead of New Orleans and just behind Toronto, 28th in free throw attempts and dead last in offensive rebounding. They’re ninth in 3-point shooting percentage, but just 23rd in attempts. While they have been making an effort to push the pace since the All-Star break, they do the majority of their scoring in the halfcourt via jump shots.

While Paul Pierce is still capable as a shot-creator and Rondo can open up space, the Celtics rely on passing and ball movement for open shots. More than 67 percent of their made baskets come off assists — the highest rate in the league — and while Rondo racks up assists, the commitment is team-wide. Pierce averages five assists per game and Garnett’s passing from the high and low post remains a unique facet of his game.

It’s a trait that’s not only contagious, it’s passed along to the new players.

“Great passer,” Avery Bradley said of Garnett. “He teaches Brandon [Bass]. When we’€™re watching film, passes that he makes. That just shows what kind of teammate Kevin is, because somebody could be like, nah I don’€™t want to tell him to help him get better, but Kevin is constantly trying to help everybody get better.”

Wait, no-pass Bass? Yes, no-pass Bass too. The shoot-first forward has a higher assist rate than at any other time in his career. (The Celtics are more than happy with Bass’ play, by the way. They want him to take his shots and he turns it over far less than the other starters, which shows a player who understands his game and his role.)

One of the primary appeals for the Celtics in free agency is the culture they’ve developed over the last five seasons that celebrates winning over individual numbers. That may not be enough to lure the top free agents, but it will surely attract some players.

SPEAKING OF THE FUTURE

It’s as unclear today as it was last December what the Celtics are planning to do this offseason, but Garnett has emerged as a focal point. Both sides have been extremely respectful about the process as Garnett approaches free agency. The Celtics haven’t put any public pressure on him to re-sign and Garnett hasn’t addressed the topic until a candid interview with Mut & Merloni on Thursday.

“I love Doc,” Garnett said. “If I was to come back next year it would be probably for Doc. I don’t want to limit my options or nothing like that. I don’t know what I’m going to do next year. I know our team is changing. I know a lot of the guys when I came here are not even here anymore. That sense of family has been depleted a bit. I will make my decision, and figure out what I’m going to do.”

It makes tons of sense for the Celtics to try and bring Garnett back. He’s not only playing at a high level, he’s also taken to mentoring the younger players. Rivers famously said that KG gives you one chance and if you tune him out you’ve lost him forever, but the flipside is that if you’re willing to listen, he’s more than willing to share his knowledge and he has praised this year’s crop of young players for their attentiveness.

It’s something Rondo has also done with Bradley.

“I try to take him under my wing and give him as much advice as possible, but I don’€™t want to try and act like I’€™m his vet or anything,” Rondo said. “It’€™s just whenever there’€™s a time he needs me to share some advice with him, I’€™ll try to give it to him.”

On the subject of a team in a state of roster flux, Rivers had an interesting reaction when asked about the Jazz this week.

“It’€™s the way to have a team, I’€™ve always thought, if you want to restart a team,” he said of Utah. “You don’€™t do it all young. That just doesn’€™t work. I think the only place it’€™s working is Oklahoma City and they have a guy named [Kevin] Durant that probably helps in that and everybody else follows ‘€“ [Russell] Westbrook, as well.”

One of the benefits of not “blowing it up,” is it allows the Celtics to try and retain their culture as they move from one era to the next. That’s no small thing.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

How good has Garnett been? The Celtics are almost 15 points better, per 100 possessions according to basketballvalue.com, when he’s on the court than when he’s off. That ranks fifth among players with more than 1,000 minutes this season. He also spends a good deal of time on the court with as many as four reserves at the start of the second and fourth quarters. Those lineups have struggled to score, which makes his adjusted plus/minus numbers even more valuable.

Also according to basketball value, Bradley makes the defense almost five points tougher when he’s on the court, the best mark on the team. Bradley’s recent play as a starter for Ray Allen has been a revelation. Yes, he might have a problem with bigger guards, but in tandem with a player like Mickael Pietrus, that can be a devastating defensive combination.

Rondo has racked up double-digit assists in each of his last 12 games. Along with the gaudy totals has been a decrease in turnovers. Over the last six games he has 86 assists and just 20 turnovers. He didn’t get his first turnover until the final minute of the third quarter on Friday against Minnesota when he already had 16 assists.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Beginning with Miami and Sunday and finishing with Philadelphia the following week, this will be the toughest week the Celtics have all season. In between, they play the Spurs, Bulls and Pacers. Those five teams are a combined 170-80, a .680 winning percentage.

The good news is that three of those games are at home and there’s two days off between the Miami and San Antonio games. (There might even be a practice). The bad news is they travel to Chicago for the second night of a back-to-back and visit the Pacers on Saturday, a building that has been very unkind to them this season.

Here’s the breakdown:

Sun vs Miami  3:30 p.m.
Wed vs San Antonio  7:30 p.m.
Thu @ Chicago   9:30 p.m.
Sat @ Indiana   7 p.m.
Sun vs Philadelphia  6 p.m

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Should the Celtics play for homecourt?

The Bench, v3.0

Rondo in rhythm

Garnett hears you calling him old, also makes fun of the media’s hair

Greg Stiemsma’s march to legitimacy

AUDIO

Austin Rivers on D&C

KG on Mut & Merloni

Danny Ainge on The Big Show

Doc Rivers on D&C

Read More: Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo
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