Roughly 22 percent into the regular season and credit must be given where it is due. Danny Ainge is a genius that Bill Simmons and I owe an apology. In an offseason when the Celtics President of Basketball Operations signed an extremely (or what seemed to be) aged Shaquille O’Neal who was tossed around like a hot potato by teams who could have used a 7-footer, Simmons’ (via Twitter, sadly he isn’t in my contacts list) only response before this article was, “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!”. I have to admit that I shared that same sentiment. Fans should never be executives for the teams that they love.
I thought this team would eventually miss the Black Mamba’s anti-venom when Ainge waved goodbye to Tony Allen and I thought Shaq would simply be a wall to fill Perkins’ spot on the floor until he was healthy while hopefully learning how to instigate one less technical per quarter. And when you compare the two, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Nate Robinson (re-signed in July) is extremely talented and provides a spark off the bench because Rondo’s execution and vision is otherworldly. At the end of the offseason, who could have predicted a 14-4 record with contributions and rejuvenation from the most unexpected places?
Shaquille O’Neal is averaging 22.8 minutes per game and leads the Celtics in field goal percentage shooting 67 percent?! Granted, Shaq has always had it easy when it came to making the shots he actually took, but this is not 2000. Leading a potent offense in FG%, not to mention his dominating back-to-back double-doubles versus Atlanta and New Jersey, are two things I doubt fans had considered when he signed on. This was supposed to be a guy coming off the bench with the other crippled O’Neal, setting picks and helping KG under the basket. He plays half the game every night and I can’t believe I am saying this, however, O’Neal has become one of my favorite players to watch. He fits like a glove with this team (see: sideline during game) and told WEEI that the Celts are the best team he’s been on.
We all wondered whether or not the real Kevin Garnett would ever appear while donning a Celtics jersey. Although his statistics are only a few points higher than his totals last year, KG’s resurrection is obvious when you look at a couple of areas that were a cause for concern last season. The two things you depend on KG for are minutes (because he is a defensive menace) and rebounds. You know the man is going to score 15+ points a game, but it’s the way he gets his team the ball that sets up any sort of fast break, 2-for-1 or the incredible and entertaining Rondo to Garnett alley-oop. Does anyone see any residue left from the knee injury when he gets down the floor faster than Ray Allen? KG is playing three more minutes and averaging two more rebounds per game thus far. Small sample sizes are not an idea worth marrying, but they lay down the framework when it comes to finding significant improvement. Another thing that I’ve noticed this year is Garnett and Rondo clicking like Siamese twins separated at birth. Is it that they are both better this year or that a 7-game NBA Finals gave them the time to figure out how easy it is for Rondo to suck in the opposing defense then snake-eye lob it to The Big Ticket? I think it’s the former.
Averaging 17 points within the last three games, Glen “Big Baby” Davis has completely won over the city of Boston. He is playing the best basketball anyone has ever WITNESSED and Tommy continues to give him points. We can talk about points, assists and rebounds, but it’s the things that no one keeps track of that allow me to write, without regret, how solid and reliable Big Baby is. He’s a smart basketball player. There are few of them out there and it seems that the Celtics were able to acquire all of them. There’s a difference between the talent a player possesses and skill. Talent is natural while skill is acquired through hard work. For a guy who measures (without shoes) significantly below the height of an average center he always ends up with the ball in his hands. He jumps higher, dives harder and moves his feet like a running back, drawing the charge and gaining possession. Davis has very obviously matured and will be an important piece to this team, scoring double-digits off the bench, as they pursue Banner 18.
Delonte West, Kendrick Perkins and Jermaine O’Neal are all sitting on injury row counting down the minutes until their return. What will Doc’s next move be? With two very different point guards in Rondo and Robinson that are getting you points either shooting or assisting, three middle men blocking shots, taking hard fouls and getting baskets in the paint in Garnett, Shaq and Big Baby, and Marquis Daniels playing some very impressive defense, what are the weaknesses on a team when those three return? The bench seems to be in dire need during the games when the offense is needed and falls flat, but the defense of the second unit has never seemed more lax than the starters. Starters give up “1.87 points per minute during their 30-minute block, while the reserves allow 1.95 points per minute during their 18-minute span”, Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com writes. The area that sportswriters and fans are worried about is the offense. “The starters average 2.16 points per minute and the bench scores 1.84 per minute. Going back to simpler metrics, Boston’s reserves have been outscored by the opponents’ reserves 517-421, or about 6 points per game.” In an honest world, this is not something that should worry anyone. The bench will learn as the season goes on how to gain cohesiveness as a unit, spread the floor and get the easy basket. Once Jermaine and Perk come back the length needed to get the offensive rebound and second chance shot will be less challenging. Don’t forget before his excruciating injury Delonte was playing consistently and seemed to understand that this was his shot to redeem what had been an ugly, dramatic and championshipless past couple of years. With the return of the not-so-big but still necessary three, this team matches up extremely well with any hypothetical postseason opponent.
Danny, as much as I cringed and couldn’t believe my eyes during the month of August, played his cards just right…so far.