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Irish Coffee: When did the Celtics become the Knicks?

04.24.13 at 2:22 pm ET
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Veteran leadership. Superior coaching. Clutch playmaking. Suffocating defense. When did the Celtics and Knicks switch jerseys? In the first two games of their opening-round series, New York has simply out-Celtics-ed the C’s.

Despite establishing halftime leads in their first two meetings, the Celtics failed to execute anything resembling an offense, toyed with head-scratching matchups and generally just crapped their pants after the break. The result is a 2-0 hole and an early NBA playoff exit staring them back in the face. That’s supposed to be the Knicks’ role.

This can’t be how a team led by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett goes out. Can it? Doc Rivers is coaching like a desperate man, and maybe he is. Maybe he knows Garnett’s injuries are worse than we thought, Jordan Crawford is his best option off the bench and the success of the pitbull backcourt was simply smoke and mirrors.

Here’s what we do know: Carmelo Anthony is the best player in this series, and it’s not even close. The only guy who could possibly answer Anthony’s ability to create clutch offense out of nothing is dressed dapperly on the Boston bench. His name is Rajon Rondo, and he’s not walking through that door.

Paul Pierce used to be that guy, but now that his age matches his minutes, he can’t shoulder the load. Maybe on a night or two, but not over a seven-game series. Kevin Garnett was that guy as recently as last year’s playoffs, but cameras caught him clutching his abdomen on multiple occasions and bone spurs don’t disappear from your foot overnight. And Jeff Green may one day be that guy, but not now. Not consistently anyhow.

The C’s needed a collective effort from that trio in concert with a chorus line of contributions from their teammates, and nothing’s changed. That’s still the formula. Whether they can execute it or not is an entirely different matter.

Defensively, they’ve actually done a decent job against Anthony, whose 70 points have come on 53 shots. There’s no excuse for J.R. Smith outscoring the entire C’s bench by double digits over the course of two games. Raymond Felton is really the only other Knick doing damage offensively, and the Celtics are supposed to have the answer in Bradley, who received two first-place votes for NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

Defense hasn’t been the problem, raising the larger issue. The Celtics obviously aren’t better offensively without Rondo, but are they really this bad? Their sub-25 points in back-to-back second halves is the worst such performance of the shot clock era, and their 84.0 points per 100 playoff possessions is 18.5 points worse than their regular season average sans Rondo and 13.8 points worse than the last-place Wizards this winter.

Doc provided his diagnosis after Tuesday’s 32-11 collapse in the third quarter. “If we don’t get stops, then we can’t play,” he said, “because we don’t have the ability to walk the ball up the floor under pressure and run our offense. Our offense today was directly linked to our bad defense in the third quarter, and it changed the game.”

So, why are Jason Terry and Jordan Crawford playing over Courtney Lee? The Celtics need offense. Their offense comes from defense. Terry and Crawford are known deficient defenders. Something doesn’t follow.

In the third quarter, Terry and Crawford missed all three of their shots in a combined 13:41, committing the same number of turnovers as assists (1). Meanwhile, Knicks guards either scored or assisted on eight of New York’s 12 field goals in a 70.6 percent shooting barrage. And Lee didn’t get so much as a sniff of the court.

The pitbull moniker didn’t invent itself. Bradley and Lee’s stifling defense created offense during a 16-9 run through the schedule between Rondo’s injury and Lee’s ankle tweak on March 22, which has seemingly cost him more than his starting job. Despite Lee’s struggles in the final two months of the season, he still shot 40 percent from beyond the arc and gave the Celtics a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in Rondo’s absence. Isn’t that better than Crawford’s 20 percent shooting from 3 and three turnovers against zero assists through two games in the series?

Playing Crawford 25 minutes a night screams of desperation, and it’s not like the Celtics to panic. Then again, these old Knicks might be more akin to the bygone C’s than the current Boston roster.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Courtney Lee, Doc Rivers, Jordan Crawford
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