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Using advanced stats to explain Paul Pierce’s performance 12.31.11 at 12:23 pm ET
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Paul Pierce had a good game against the Pistons. He didn’t play very much — just 23 minutes — and he didn’t put up huge numbers in the box score: 12 points, four rebounds, five assists, in a game that wasn’t close. The Celtics won rather easily, 96-85, against a rebuilding team that isn’t very good right now, so it’s not like this one will go down in the Pierce pantheon.

Still, anyone who watched could tell you that Pierce played well in a game where no one performance really stood out besides Jermaine O’Neal‘s 19 points.

Ray Allen and Brandon Bass each had 17 points. Rajon Rondo had five assists. Nothing really stands out but a look at the regular box score will tell you that five different players had eight or more shots and that no one had more than eleven. They had assists on 25 of their 35 shots and generally looked like the Celtics we’ve known over the years.

Was there a Pierce effect?

“Just having Paul, space is so different,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “It was amazing how the ball moved today again.”

So, having Pierce back in the lineup helped the Celtics play like themselves. That feels right, and just as importantly that’s what the players thought as well. But how much did he really affect the game? This was Kevin Garnett‘s take:

“The scoring overshadows the small things that he does,” Garnett. “He has a very, very high basketball IQ, and he’€™s very talkative on the court. He knows how to play. And he’€™s willing to give the ball up on his own. When you make sacrifices like that, when you’re P Pierce, it impact everybody and that gets overshadowed sometimes by the scoring.”

Garnett didn’t need advanced metrics or wonky stats to reach that conclusion but the numbers back him up. Or maybe it’s the other way around. One of the fun things about writing about the Celtics is that they really understand why they’re successful and that’s what advanced stats reveal the most: Who really played well and who didn’t.

The Celtics aren’t into numbers like points, rebounds and assists. They rarely use them to describe each other’s performances, or their own. You’re often likely to get admonished just for bringing up something like how many points someone scored. They’re also not into statistics like Usage Rate, Assist Percentage and Points Created because they’re old school and don’t need weird terms to tell them what they already know.

We don’t have 15 years experience in the NBA, but we do have Hoopdata’s box score and that may be the next best thing. This is what it tells us:

Pierce didn’t dominate with his scoring. He took only eight shots and six of them were either long-range jumpers or 3-point shots. He drove to the basket once early in the game, which demonstrated that yes, he was back, and he hit a nifty isolation jumper that also proved that his skills were still there.

Pierce was efficient, needing only eight shots to score his 12 points. When you account for his two 3-pointers and two made free throws, Pierce’s True Shooting Percentage was 68 percent, but he didn’t dominate the game with his scoring.

Indeed the Celtics had five different players record True Shooting percentages over 67 percent, which showed they were not only balanced they were highly successful. Pierce was one of the main reasons. He had 39 percent of the team’s assists when he was on the floor, a number that would rank with the best point guards in the league.

While the Celtics racked up 25 assists overall, 12 of them went to long-range jump shots and 3-pointers. That speaks to ball movement and is one of the team’s trademarks, but what Pierce did was play facilitator. He had five assists and three of them led to shots directly at the rim. Another came within 10 feet of the basket and the last one was within 15 feet. In other words, Pierce’s passing led to easy scores for his teammates.

The Celtics didn’t play a perfect game. They allowed 12 offensive rebounds and 17 second-chance points. (They really did play like last year’s team). But Pierce grabbed 24 percent of the defensive rebounds when he was on the floor, the second-best rate on the team behind O’Neal.

Pierce may not have been the best player on the floor, but you can make a very good argument that he was the most effective in his limited minutes. To put it another way, he had a really good game.

Fast Break: Paul Pierce returns, and so does winning for the Celtics 12.30.11 at 9:51 pm ET
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Paul Pierce returned and all is right with the Celtics world. The captain didn’t try to dominate the action in his first game of the season. Rather he turned in a coolly efficient offensive game that saw him score 12 points on just eight shots with four rebounds and five assists in 23 minutes of work as the Celtics rolled to a 96-85 win.

Pierce’s effect on his teammates was evident. Kevin Garnett threw a blind bounce pass to the wing that found Pierce’s hands. He was once again the bailout option on offense and the ball movement and spacing were much crisper than they had been in the first three games. Also with Pierce back in the lineup, the Celtics were able to play a solid 10-man rotation that included Sasha Pavlovic as the backup guard.

It didn’t click right away but by the third quarter the Celtics had opened up a 25-point lead and looked like a completely different team than the one we saw in the first three games.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Jermaine O’Neal had a much-needed breakout performance, scoring 19 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 29 minutes of work. O’Neal scored in transition and in the half court and more than doubled his point total for the season.

Ray Allen was 5-for-8 and perfect from the free throw line for 15 points. People expect Allen to make every shot and his greatness is sometimes taken for granted, but even for him his first four games have been tremendous.Allen is shooting 60 percent for the season and hasn’t missed a free throw in 14 attempts.

– The third quarter has been the Celtics’ best by far this season and it was again on Friday when they outscored Detroit 36-21 while shooting 71 percent from the field. They have outscored their opponents, 124-84 in third quarters so far this season.

– Offensive balance — a forgotten concept in the first thee games — made its return to the stat sheet as five different players had at least eight shots and none had more than eleven.

– The reserves were also balanced in a way that made sense. Brandon Bass did most of the scoring with 17 points on just 11 shots, but Keyon Dooling did a fine job running the offense and getting everyone involved with four assists. In other words, the reserve players performed their roles.

– The Celtics got to the free throw line 19 times and made every shot, and more importantly, only allowed 15 to the Pistons. To be sure, Detroit helped immensely by jacking long jump shots, but the Celtics had been -15 at the free throw line through three games.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– Young center Greg Monroe had his way with the Celtics, scoring 22 points. He was too quick for O’Neal and too strong for Greg Stiemsma, who will have his issues in isolation situations against some of the better offensive players in the league. This will be a reoccurring theme throughout the year, and it could have been a lot worse if the Pistons didn’t inexplicably do everything but get Monroe the ball.

Celtics vs. Pistons: Stats and trends 12.30.11 at 2:55 pm ET
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It’s way too early to make sweeping statements about the Celtics, but a few items have stood out in their 0-3 start. The big takeaway is their defense has been atrocious. They are allowing 113.1 points per 100 possessions, the second-worst mark in the league, per basketball-reference.

Their interior defense has clearly slipped and they are getting scorched from the 3-point line where teams are shooting almost 50 percent. Their biggest problem, however has been at the free throw line where they have allowed 94 free throws, the second-most behind the Mavericks. The good news is they have been getting to the line at a decent rate themselves, but they are -15 in free throw points.

Oddly, the Celtics have been getting killed in the first quarter at the line where they have allowed 20 free throws and shot just three during the last two games. That’s the biggest reason for the discrepancy because they have been essentially equal in the next three quarters.

The one positive trend for the Celtics has been their third-quarter production where they have outscored their opponents, 88-63 while shooting 63 percent (34-for-54) from the field. This has held constant in all three games beginning with an inspired 35-17 run to open the second half against the Knicks.

Overall, their offense has been performing at a league average rate and what success they have had, is mainly coming from four players: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Keyon Dooling and Brandon Bass.

Allen has posted unreal shooting numbers of .588/.632/1.000 on two’s, three’s and free throws respectively. For those keeping track his .8111 True Shooting Percentage is the best in the league. Bass has supplied 14.7 points per game off the bench and is shooting 50 percent,. Rondo has been to the free throw line 27 times and is shooting an almost-respectable 67 percent, while Dooling has been an offensive energizer with his shooting.

Their biggest issue has been turnovers where they rank 30th in turnover rate. It’s been a team-wide issue from Rondo, Allen and Dooling to role players like Avery Bradley and Sasha Pavlovic. The Celtics are simply giving away far too many possessions.

Enter the Pistons who may be coming along at exactly the right time for a team that desperately needs their first win of the season. Detroit has struggled out of the gate, losing big to Indiana and Cleveland. Here’s how they profile:

DETROIT (0-2)

Offensive Rating: 95.4 (26th)

Defensive Rating: 111.3 (27th)

Pace: 88 possessions (25th)

Probable Starters: Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, Tayshaun Prince, Jonas Jerebko, Greg Monroe

Rotation: Brandon Knight, Austin Daye, Jason Maxiell, Ben Wallace

Who to watch: Jerebko is an active player who gets his points in transition and on the offensive boards. The Celtics will have to account for him. Knight is coming off a 23-point performance against the Cavs.

CELTICS (0-3)

Offensive Rating: 102.7 (16th)

Defensive Rating: 113.1 (29th)

Pace: 93.8 (10th)

Probable Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Sasha Pavlovic, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal

Rotation: Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels, Brandon Bass

Injuries: Paul Pierce (Heel, questionable), Chris Wilcox (Shoulder, questionable) Mickael Pietrus (Knee, out).

Who to watch: Pierce, if he plays. Garnett should have a matchup advantage with Jerebko, but he will have to keep up with Jerebko’s energy.

Fast Break: Slow Celtics get stung by Hornets 12.28.11 at 10:34 pm ET
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There’s no sense worrying about the schedule because it’s not going to slow down anytime soon. There’s no use pining for Paul Pierce because the last thing the Celtics need is for him to be bothered by his bone bruise all season long. This is the Celtics’ reality and right now they are 0-3 after a dispiriting 97-78 loss to New Orleans.

Their legs may be tired after playing at warp speed against Miami on Tuesday, but the Celtics barely resemble their teams of recent vintage. Their offense was stagnant (16 assists and 37 percent shooting) and their defense was slow and lumbering.

The unfortunate symbol of their lethargy was Kevin Garnett who was outplayed by Carl Landry one night after getting worked by Chris Bosh. Garnett had no lift, scoring just eight points in 26 minutes and was often caught behind the play on pick and rolls. Garnett was far from the only offender, but on a night when the Celtics needed something from their All-Star forward, he didn’t have the legs to deliver.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel with games against Detroit, Washington (twice) and New Jersey next on tap. Three of those are at home beginning Friday night against the Pistons but they will once again be playing three games in four night and four in six.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– The Celtics one again had a huge free throw discrepancy in the first half as the Hornets went to the line 15 times to the Celtics’ seven. Boston didn’t shoot a free throw until the 4:04 mark of the second quarter. The Celtics haven’t received many favorable whistles, but their rate of putting opponents on the line is troubling and indicative of an older team that has failed to rotate defensively.

Ray Allen picked up three fouls in the first half and played just 13 minutes. The Celtics desperately needed his shooting in a half in which they missed 30 of 45 shots.

Keyon Dooling can do a lot of things, but running the team isn’t one of his strengths yet. When Rondo was out of the game, the Celtics offense had no rhythm or flow and it was difficult to tell if they were actually running any kind of an offense besides high pick and rolls that went nowhere. It’s not entirely Dooling’s fault. With so many new players, continuity is a major issue, but the Celtics have really struggled when Rajon Rondo is out of the game.

Jermaine O’Neal was just 1-for-6 in 19 minutes. In 58 minutes played this season, O’Neal is 3-for-12 and has scored just eight points.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

– Welcome to the NBA, Greg Stiemsma. The former Defensive Player of the Year in the D-League wasted no time asserting his shot-blocking ability as he rejected a shot on his very first possession as an NBA player. Stiemsma finished with six blocks and provided a shot-blocking presence that the Celtics simply haven’t had.

– Rondo and Allen continue to do the majority of the work offensively. The duo made 10-of-18 shots and scored 28 points. The rest of the Celtics were 19-for-60.

Sasha Pavlovic had his best game by far, scoring seven points and grabbing four rebounds. Faint praise, but it’s a start for the maligned swigman.

Fast Break: Heat burn Celtics 12.27.11 at 11:07 pm ET
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The Celtics almost pulled off an amazing comeback against the Miami Heat, rallying from a 16-point third quarter deficit behind a small lineup and an effective zone defense. A Keyon Dooling 3-pointer sliced Miami’s lead to three points with just over two minutes remaining, but the Heat answered after a crucial Boston turnover in a 115-107 victory.

Without Paul Pierce (bone bruise, right heel), the Celtics didn’t have an effective defensive counter for LeBron James. They also didn’t learn their lessons from last year’s playoff series as 15 first-half turnovers led to 23 Miami points.

Their defense was absolutely shredded as Miami shot 56 percent and put on a clinic in the open court. James scored 26 points and Dwyane Wade added 24 and the Celtics had no answers for either of them.

For all the concerns about the Celtics’ ability to score points, it’s been their defense that has let them down. Coach Doc Rivers hit upon an effective strategy midway through the third quarter when he went zone. That, plus a small lineup of shooters somehow got the Celtics back in the game, but they couldn’t complete the comeback.

There’s no rest for the Celtics with their first back-to-back on tap Wednesday in New Orleans. The last time they started a season 0-3 was 2006-07, the year before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– James abused Sasha Pavlovic and got Marquis Daniels in foul trouble almost immediately. Rivers rode with Daniels for as long as he could but he picked up his fourth foul in the second quarter, forcing Rivers to play three guards at times

– No matter how many times it’s been said, you can’t turn the ball over against Miami because it’s almost a guaranteed two points. The Celtics have no chance of keeping up with the Heat in the open court and they were burned time and time again.

– The Celtics were forced to trap James and Wade, which left James Jones open and he did what he always does, going 3-for-3 on 3-point attempts in the first half.

Chris Wilcox played only eight minutes and left with a bruised left shoulder. X-rays were negative but a thin frontcourt can’t afford to lose any of its top four players.

– There were a handful of calls that didn’t go the Celtics way and they wound up shooting eight fewer free throws than Miami. Both Rivers and Rajon Rondo were given technical fouls.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

– Allen did his best to keep the Celtics in the game, knocking down four 3-pointers in the first half in only five attempts and finishing with 28 points on 8-for-12 shooting. The Celtics vaunted floor spacing and passing has been off in the first two games without Pierce and Allen was forced to attempt hurried off-balance shots. Still, no one does it better.

– Rondo continued to be aggressive, earning 11 free throw attempts. He’s going to have to make them consistently and even then teams will continue to foul him, but that’s the best sign of the early going.

Keyon Dooling had a strong game off the bench. Except for a brief stretch when Avery Bradley was in the game, Dooling handled all the backup minutes at both guard positions and was on the floor with Rondo and Allen when the Celtics went to a smaller lineup that was very effective.

Inside the matchup: Celtics vs. Heat 12.27.11 at 12:10 am ET
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For most of the 2010-11 season, the Celtics were confident in their ability to beat Miami. They beat them on opening night in Boston and did it again in Miami less than three weeks later. The Celtics won again in February with just six healthy rotation players.

Everything changed in April when the Celtics were blasted on South Beach, losing 100-77, and the dynamic was completely reversed during the playoffs when the Heat won in five games.

With their first meeting this season on Tuesday, it’s the Celtics that are trying to prove that they can handle the Heat, who have won five of the last six meetings.

It won’t be easy because they’re not likely to have Paul Pierce, who is resting a bone bruise in his right heel and new addition Mickael Pietrus isn’t expected in the lineup until they return home on Friday. That leaves the underwhelming combination of Sasha Pavlovic and Marquis Daniels to handle LeBron James, fresh off a 37-point Christmas Day showing against the Mavericks that equaled the 37 Carmelo Anthony dropped on the Celtics.

The Celtics have always had great respect for accomplishment and hierarchy — that’s the reason they gave the Magic more respect than LeBron’s Cavs — and coach Doc Rivers has been reinforcing the notion that these Celtics haven’t won anything in a long time.

They did get a reprieve of sorts with word that Kevin Garnett escaped both a fine and a suspension after his one-arm shove of Bill Walker after time expired on Sunday. The Celtics didn’t lose three straight games at any point last season but with a back-to-back looming the next night in New Orleans that could suddenly become a stark possibility.

Here’s a closer look at the matchup:

What’s new with Miami: Shane Battier was the Heat’s big free agent acquisition, but a more important addition is one who never left: Udonis Haslem.

The veteran forward played in just 13 regular season games before tearing ligaments in his left foot. Haslem saw less than three minutes of action in the Celtics’ series, but returned to form later in the playoffs and grabbed 14 rebounds in 32 minutes in their opener against Dallas.

Haslem is part of a three-man frontcourt rotation with Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony that’s on the smaller side. Not coincidentally, the Celtics have adjusted their frontcourt with Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox, who should be able to provide a much more balanced matchup with Miami.

The other important addition is rookie point guard Norris Cole, who split duties with Mario Chalmers in the opener. That’s a major upgrade in terms of youth and athleticism from Mike Bibby, who had major problems with Rajon Rondo last season.

Can Avery Bradley offer defensive support? The Celtics clearly missed defensive stopper Tony Allen in last year’s playoffs and Dwyane Wade took full advantage, scoring 151 points in their five games. Bradley remains a liability on offense, but if he can give the Celtics 5-10 minutes of defense on Wade, that would help take some pressure off Ray Allen. The Celtics need something from Bradley because the alternatives are Rondo and/or Keyon Dooling.

Key matchup: Kevin Garnett vs. Chris Bosh

Garnett had a brilliant performance in Game 3, the only game the Celtics won, but was otherwise either outplayed or neutralized by Bosh throughout the series. Jermaine O’Neal is not a great matchup on Bosh and Wilcox is in the early stages of gaining Rivers’ trust. It’s up to Garnett who played 37 minutes in the opener, which is not part of the master minutes plan.

The Rondo factor: In 41 minutes against the Knicks, Rondo made 11-of-19 shots and scored 31 points. Much notice was paid to his outside shot where he sank three of five from 16-23 feet and his free throws where he made nine of 12 attempts. More importantly, he converted on 8-of-10 attempts at the rim and seven of his 13 assists were for inside shots.

Against the Knicks, the Celtics made a staggering 84 percent of their shots inside — 21-of-25 — and that was against Tyson Chandler, one of the league’s top interior defenders. Miami doesn’t have a shot-blocker like Chandler protecting the basket and it will be on Rondo to stay aggressive. He’s their best weapon against Miami.

CELTICS LIKELY STARTERS: Rondo, Allen, Daniels, Garnett, O’Neal

Rotation: Dooling, Bradley, Pavlovic, Bass, Wilcox

HEAT LIKELY STARTERS: Chalmers, Wade, James, Bosh, Anthony

Rotation: Cole, James Jones, Battier, Haslem, Juwan Howard

Read More: Dwyane Wade, Heat, LeBron James,
Fast Break: Not enough Rondo as Celtics lose opener to Knicks 12.25.11 at 2:58 pm ET
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For one half, the Celtics lived down to everyone’s worst expectations for the season. They looked old on defense and disorganized on offense without Paul Pierce in the lineup. They stayed in the game against the Knicks because Rajon Rondo was the best player on the floor, but in the second half they suddenly looked like the Celtics of old again, and that was a good thing. Their defense was tight, their halfcourt movement was back and Rondo was brilliant.

The Knicks did not go away. In a wildly entertaining game that saw both teams trading baskets down the stretch, the Knicks prevailed, 106-104.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– Without Pierce in the lineup, the Celtics halfcourt offense looked sluggish and out of sync. Despite all their new additions, the Celtics simply don’t have many players who can create their own offense. His absence was acutely felt in the final minute when the Celtics couldn’t score.

– Pierce’s replacement, Sasha Pavlovic, had a completely non-existent game. He didn’t attempt a shot in 15 minutes of play and recorded just one assist and one rebound. Marquis Daniels also struggled offensively, but he had a much-stronger floor game.

Carmelo Anthony scored 37 points, again without Pierce on the floor. Anthony was unstoppable at times and Daniels was called for a reach-in foul with 16.4 seconds left that gave the Knicks the two free throws that were the difference.

Brandon Bass picked up two fouls in the first quarter and Jermaine O’Neal was called for three fouls in the six minutes in the first half, which led to Kevin Garnett playing 21 minutes. So much for the 5-5-5 plan. Garnett played 37 minutes, about seven more than coach Doc Rivers has in his usual budget and KG’s last-second jumper was short.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

– Rondo was aggressive right from the start. He attacked the basket, drew fouls and in a major revelation he also made his free throws. Rondo was the lone bright spot offensively among the starters and he carried the Celtics throughout the game. If this is the Rondo the Celtics will see all season then it’s way too early to start writing their obituaries. The problem for Rondo is the physical toll he’ll take throughout the season.

Brandon Bass may never be more popular than he is right now. Despite getting into early foul trouble, Bass scored 20 points and had 11 rebounds, including five on the offensive glass. Bass was the only Celtics’ reserve to get into an offensive rhythm and his production was essential.

– The Celtics recaptured the defensive mojo in the third quarter, erasing a 10-point halftime deficit and outscoring the Knicks, 35-17. New York was just 7-for-19 from the floor after shooting almost 50 percent in the first half. Jermaine O’Neal in particular anchored the Celtics defense.

Ray Allen shook off a terrible first half that included a first quarter without a shot attempt to score 15 second-half points. Allen was a complete non-factor in the first half, but the offensive spacing of old returned in the second half and Allen took advantage.

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