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Five takeaways from Celtics' preseason game No. 4

Posted by Baxter Holmes, Globe Staff  October 13, 2013 01:22 AM

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MANCHESTER, N.H. – The Celtics snapped a three-game preseason losing streak by routing the New York Knicks, 111-81, Saturday at the Verizon Wireless Arena here.

For more on the game, check out our story in Sunday's Globe.

That said, here are five takeaways you can enjoy with your morning coffee.

1. Let us start off by noting that Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton were absent from this affair. Had they played, everything that follows may well be quite different; in fact, everything that follows almost certainly would've been quite different.

Now that we've got that vitally important qualifier out of the way, we can focus on other subjects, beginning with, well, beginnings, and how the Celtics had a nice one Saturday.

Coach Brad Stevens had harped on how poorly the team had started games and even third quarters in all its preseason games, but it jumped out to an 18-4 lead against the Knicks and opened the second half with a 13-2 run. Instead of being a team in a hole, the Celtics put their opponent in one and the short-handed Knicks never could climb out.

After, Stevens said the key was getting the ball deeper earlier in the shot clock, which is to say that guards would push the ball up the floor quick and try to work it inside. If something was there, one of the Celtics post players had the option of trying to score, but if not, they could kick it back out to the perimeter, where a guard might find himself open.

Stevens noted that he believes a player will shoot better if he's made a couple layups and/or has been attacking the basket. That follows the adage that if a player scores on an close-range bucket early, it will give him confidence that will fuel his outside game.

For the most part, this plan worked well, as the Celtics piled up points up and down the roster, but there was one vitally important player for whom this plan did not work so well...

2. There may come a point when the qualifiers no longer apply to Jeff Green. Soon, we may say that it doesn't matter that it's the preseason, that he's adjusting to a new role as a top scoring option, that he's playing multiple positions, that defenses are focusing on him...or whatever else you might attribute to his early struggles thus far.

In fact, there may come a point – and it may come soon – when there are no qualifiers that give shadows of doubt to Green's rotten preseason start, and all that is left is blunt truth.

Then, we might attribute his struggles, such as shooting 28 percent this preseason, to something else. We might say that he just isn't ready for this role, for what defenses may throw at him, and that he needs the security blanket of another top player (as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were to him) to truly be as effective as he can be on the court.

But, right now, all we can do is look at all that is new and believe that those qualifiers have more to do with Green's performances than anything else. We cannot simply say there is some huge looming issue that has yet to reveal itself just yet because, yes, it's still early.

However, at this point, we can start to look at Jeff Green and his new role with more skepticism, more doubt. We can look at him and his new role like that at this point because his poor play has given us no other choice. Yes, Green was a team-best plus-24 in plus/minus, but many of his misses weren't overly difficult shots. They were just misses.

"Any time you’ve got a guy that is struggling at all, it’s easy to say that there’s an individual and just changing the individual is going to make a difference," Stevens said before the game. "I don’t think that’s the case [with Green]. It’s too early a sample size to figure out if that’s legitimate.

"But at the same time, I think he would be the first to tell you that making more shots is helpful. And I think that will start with a couple paint makes – getting into the paint, posting up, getting in transition, getting an and-1, getting an offensive rebound, doing something that is a difficult thing to do but is an easier finish. That usually opens the floodgates for making jump shots."

3. We touched on our skepticism regarding the idea that Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford could function as a point guard duo in which they play together and either can bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense.

The Celtics trotted out that combination in their preseason loss to Philadelphia on Friday (when it didn't really work) and then again Saturday (when it looked, actually, much better).

But after the Knicks game, I'm still not sold. Why? Because Felton wasn't out there and Knicks guard Pablo Prigioni didn't spend too much time trying to harass whichever Celtics player brought the ball up the court.

If you'll recall from last season's playoff series against the Knicks, Felton and Prigioni pressured Celtics guards (namely Bradley) and forced several turnovers. If those two had played Saturday, and if they played at a high level, then I don't think the Celtics would have had as much luck running an offense where two point guards help run the show.

Now, Crawford and Bradley did play well together even though neither faced the kind of pressure that the Knicks would serve up in the regular season. Crawford in particular was impressive as he helped orchestrate the offense while also looking for his own shot. Crawford was so impressive, in fact, that there was talk that we might be seeing a new kind of Jordan Crawford, one who is more mature and team-orientated.

That could well be true, but, again, it's the preseason, so I'd rather wait to see how he plays in the regular season, perhaps at this position, before jumping to any solid conclusions.

Crawford, who had 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting, did say that being a primary ball-handler makes him more comfortable offensively, but the reason why that is the case is interesting.

"You know you don’t have to force shots because the ball can come back to you so you want to get everybody involved, get everybody else ready," Crawford said. "While you’re getting everybody else ready, you find your rhythm."

Like we said, there is, perhaps, a chance that this dual point guard system could work – and work well. As Stevens said before the game, "I think what we all think is there’s a prototypical way of doing things. It’s okay to be different and that’s the way those guys can approach it and hopefully approach it by committee here as we move forward."

So even if Phil Pressey might be the Celtics' best option at point guard because he's their only healthy true point guard while Rajon Rondo (knee) is sidelined, Stevens is, at least, not afraid to try something different and unconventional, which, really, are two words that nicely sum up the idea of having natural shooting guards share point guard duties.

4. Jared Sullinger isn't in as bad of shape as he says he is – or at least that's what we can take from a player who doesn't look all that rusty even though he's been out for about half a year or so after having back surgery.

Sullinger had 12 points and 5 rebounds in limited minutes and was impressive in how he worked down low, either to get positioning for rebounds or to go back up with the ball in traffic. (Another thing, the guy might not jump that high, but he always seems to be one of the first ones to jump; along with his positioning, that skill helps him grab a lot of boards.)

Sullinger has, no doubt, been one of the brightest stars for the Celtics, and the fact that he's still out of shape makes it all the more intriguing about how far along he'll be when he is more in shape. He said he's worked on his conditioning a lot after practices and that he's using these preseason games to improve his conditioning, too.

All we know right now is that Sullinger is ahead of schedule and looks like he could be a force inside for the Celtics this season.

5. This was Stevens' first ever back-to-back, and the effort his team played with in the second game was impressive, especially after it played with very little in the first, a 97-85 loss to Philadelphia.

"I told the team today, "I don’t want to use the back-to-back thing as an excuse,'" Stevens said before the game. "I know it’s something that everybody is going to talk about, but everybody’s got them. Everybody’s gotta do it. Nobody should be more excited about playing a game today than us, and that’s the way I look at it."

Again, anything that happened in this game should be taken with a grain of salt considering who the Knicks left on the bench Saturday. It's easy to look good in several categories when the competition is, shall we say, not that stiff. But, still, this was a Knicks team that the Celtics should have pounded into the court, and they did, leading by as much as 37.

Now, the Celtics have another back-to-back this week, first in Brooklyn on Tuesday and then in Toronto on Wednesday. How they play in the second of those games will be something to watch.

Leftovers: By my count, officials called eight delay-of-game violations when players threw the ball to the referee after made baskets. The league is emphasizing that rule to try and speed up the pace of play, but all those whistles actually slowed down the game. I'm having mixed feelings about this rule at the moment, and it seems the teams and players are too.

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