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Breakdown a team effort

Tony Allen, (left) Kendrick Perkins (center), and Sam Cassell watched as Joe Johnson ran all over the Celtics in Game 4. Tony Allen, (left) Kendrick Perkins (center), and Sam Cassell watched as Joe Johnson ran all over the Celtics in Game 4. (Gregory Smith/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / April 30, 2008

The most popular Celtic, at least judging by my e-mails after Game 4, never played a minute in the disappointing loss to the Hawks Monday night. Tony Allen was on the minds of a lot of people who wondered why he wasn't in the game in the fourth quarter when Joe Johnson was going LeBron and leading the Hawks to another improbable victory.

Call it the "backup quarterback syndrome." He's always the most popular player because, well, he never plays and he represents the classic what-if. Remember Michael Bishop? Allen was that guy in Game 4, because (a) he didn't play and (b) those who did play had no luck with Johnson in the fourth quarter, when he scored 20 points, or 3 more than the Celtics had as a team in the period.

You expect these kinds of reactions when the Celtics did what they did. The fact is, they had their primo lineup on the floor in the fourth quarter, anchored by the Defensive Player of the Year, and didn't get it done. Would Allen have changed that? Maybe. Maybe not. The Celtics also scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. Would Allen have changed that?

There's always going to be finger-pointing among the masses after games like that one in Atlanta. Doc Rivers will tell you that's what he likes about Boston, that people do care and, however witless, they are willing to put their thoughts out there for one and all to see. Rivers, after all, was the one who made the decision to not play Allen, and while it might have been worth a shot to see what the kid could do, does anyone seriously believe that was why the team lost?

Ray Allen isn't exactly Kyle Korver on defense, and he was the one guarding Joe Johnson. But Ray Allen was caught in a pick-and-roll almost every single possession, which meant that it was up to the team to react and adjust. Tony Allen would have been in the same situation. The problem against the Hawks is that the Celtics team did a bad job of adjusting once Johnson had wriggled free of his initial defender.

In other words, they didn't play good team defense. And that's what this Celtics season has been about, a defense anchored by, yes, a splendid individual defender, but populated mostly by average individual defenders who became above-average because of the presence of Garnett.

Putting Tony Allen on Johnson sounds good in theory, but what if Johnson manages to break him down off the dribble, which he could, by the way. Then what happens? The team has to adjust, which is what the Spurs do all the time when Tony Parker, who can't guard anyone, is beaten off the dribble.

(I apologize if I'm sounding too much like Hubie Brown here.)

The problem wasn't the absence of Tony Allen. The problem was the inability of the five guys on the floor, who did all right most of the year, to make the necessary adjustments to stop Johnson. Or, if you want to throw Rivers under the bus, the problem was the coach leaving five players out there who didn't make the necessary adjustments to stop Johnson.

Rivers didn't absolve himself by any means, admitting the Celtics could have and probably should have done things differently - such as, perhaps, double-teaming Johnson to make him give up the ball. They tried that once and Johnson faked one way, went the other, and drew a blocking foul, good for two free throws.

"There were too many breakdowns that are preventable," said Rivers. "We've been a good defensive team all year. We haven't been for the last two games."

It's the playoffs, folks. It's different. No one is playing the second leg of a back-to-back, having flown in from Memphis the night before while the other guy has been off for three days. The old adage about young players doing well at home in the playoffs has been borne out here. Rajon Rondo was a monster in the first two games; he disappeared in Game 3 and then resurfaced for a spell in Game 4.

The Hawks' young-uns, of which there are many, really took off in their digs, fueled by the crowd. Even Johnson, who qualifies as a veteran on that team, wasn't immune from the venue change. He averaged 15 points and shot 11 of 32 in Boston. In Atlanta, he averaged 29 points and shot 21 of 42 from the field. High-flying Josh Smith averaged 9.5 points a game in Boston while shooting 6 of 23. In Atlanta, Smith averaged 27.5 points a game and shot 19 of 33.

That's how the playoffs work, especially for young teams. They're going to play better at home, whether a guy like Tony Allen is in there or not. Tony Allen played a total of 11 minutes and 39 seconds in the two games in Boston and a total of 4 seconds in Game 3.

Yes, he might have helped. But it was a teamwide defensive breakdown that allowed Johnson to do what he did, along with the requisite amount of home cooking.

Peter May can be reached at pmay@globe.com

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