We've heard since forever that defense wins championships. Stout defense was the foundation of Boston's last title, in 2008. Anchored by Kevin Garnett, Tony Allen, and Kendrick Perkins, that team held opponents to 90.3 points per game, good for second in the league. Boston's defensive rating of 98.3 points/100 possessions was tops in the NBA. Defense absolutely won the Celtics that title.
But the 2007-08 Celtics could score a little bit, too. They were 10th in the league in offensive rating. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were Hall of Fame-level offensive players in the primes of their careers, James Posey and Eddie House professional scorers off the bench. The contrast between that team and recent Celtics teams is striking.
With just 10 days remaining until the start of the playoffs, offense remains the Celtics' biggest concern. They scored 93 points in Wednesday night's 101-93 loss to the Nets at TD Garden. They didn't take a free throw in the first half. Doc Rivers said after the game that the Nets were the clear aggressors.
"I thought Jeff [Green] got fouled the one drive," said Rivers. "Other than that I honestly didn’t think there was another foul they should’ve called."
This problem isn't a new one. The Celtics improved their offensive rating to 6th in the league in 2008-09 before losing Garnett to an injury before the playoffs. That was the last time they ranked near the top of the league in terms of scoring. The offense has been on a slow, steady decline since, ranking 15th, 18th, and 27th in the NBA in consecutive seasons.
Of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams this season, the Celtics rank last in offensive rating, coming in at 25th in the league scoring 102.8 points/100 possessions. Brooklyn, Wednesday night's opponent, scores at a clip good enough for 8th in the league (108.1 points/100 possessions). The Knicks, Boston's likely first-round playoff opponent, are third (111.2). A little upstart outfit out of Miami is second at 112.4. Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James have a lot to do with that.
The big question for these Celtics is who their leading scorer is going to be. Green is 7 of 25 from the field in the last two games playing with Garnett. Pierce was the Celtics' best weapon Wednesday night, the only Celtics starter to make more shots than he missed. Pierce ripped into his team at halftime, highlighting their lack of free throws and aggressiveness.
"You know I was really shocked when I saw that stat at the half," said Pierce. "It just shows you that we were a passive team. We settled for jumpers instead of attacking them, getting in the paint. They were aggressive all night and we sort of settled for jump shots."
While Pierce's heart has always been in the right place, he's not capable of carrying the Celtics by himself anymore. This isn't 2008, when he can put up 41 points against James and check the Cavs forward by himself on the other end. The Celtics have been settling for jump shots because they're often unable to create better looks. In this area more than any other, they miss Rajon Rondo.
Wednesday night provided glimpses of the problem. When Pierce got the ball on the block there was a lot of standing and watching by his teammates. Avery Bradley found foul trouble, but his replacements, Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, combined for just 11 points in 50 minutes. At times Rivers rolled out a lineup of Green, Terry, Lee, Brandon Bass, and Shavlik Randolph, and you have to ask just where the offense is going to come from with a group like that.
As we've seen in recent years, writing the Celtics off for bad play before the playoffs is usually foolish. The team struggled last year before turning it on in the postseason. Last year's Celtics ranked two spots lower on offense, but many things fell their way on their run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose and bowed out of the playoffs before the Celtics could face them. Al Horford missed the first three games of the Hawks series. Chris Bosh missed five games for the Heat. Winning without offense is an anomaly, not a trend.
I was reminded watching the dominance of the University of Connecticut's women's team Tuesday night that offensive efficiency really can be dominating too. The Huskies got to wherever they wanted to on the floor in scoring 93 points against Louisville. They shot 45 free throws in a 40-minute game. They played the efficient, devastating offense they've played in each of their eight national championship wins. Defense wins championships, but offense can win them, too.
If you're looking for a glimmer of hope, the Celtics' new "big-small" lineup may be reason for optimism. The Celtics rarely roll out a true center (Randolph is really the only one), but the lineup of Bradley, Pierce, Green, Bass, and Garnett provides size problems for other teams at the shooting guard and small forward positions. It's a lineup Rivers has barely tested, and it has the potential to be effective.
Whether or not it can be effective enough to outscore Anthony and the Knicks in a seven-game series remains to be seen.