PHILADELPHIA — The news that the Celtics may lose guard Avery Bradley for the rest of the season is an immediate blow to the team’s defense, depriving Doc Rivers of his best on-ball defender in the seventh game of a series dominated by guard play. Down the road, the potential loss of Bradley could severely limit Boston’s chances against stars like Miami’s Dwyane Wade.
But defense wasn’t Boston’s problem in Game 6, the second straight game in which Bradley was a spectator with a left shoulder injury. The Celtics’ failure to muster more than 75 points, and their second-worst playoff shooting performance in the New Big Three era (33.3 percent), was the main issue. Rarely have the Celtics looked this bad on offense. You’d have to go back to Game 4 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit, a game in which the Celtics shot 31.8 percent from the field, to find a worse shooting performance (thanks to Sean Grande for the stat) since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came to town.
So where did it all go wrong? How does a team with the 18th (Garnett), 24th (Allen), and 25th (Paul Pierce) leading scorers in NBA history have trouble putting the ball in the basket?
If you parse Rivers’ comments after the game, you come up with at least four answers: Missed shots, Rajon Rondo walking the ball up, Ray Allen’s ankle, and, yes, the loss of Bradley.
Parse the comments further, and it becomes clear that only the first reason has nothing to do with Bradley. Brandon Bass was 2 of 12 from the field. Allen and Kevin Garnett were a combined 13 of 31. It’s a make/miss league, according to Rivers, and we’re all just living in it.
“Brandon had 12 shots,” said Rivers, indicating that he liked that number. “And I would say nine of them just didn’t go in. He’s been the guy they’ve been giving shots to the entire series. When he makes them, it’s a good thing.”
Bass’s misses have nothing to do with Bradley, a player who averaged six points and one assist in four games this series before being shut down. It’s very possible that if some of Bass’s shots go in, the Celtics win this game. Philadelphia missing 11 free throws makes that argument a moot point. Teams miss shots. It’s how they overcome it that leads them to wins or losses.
Making or missing shots aside, an argument can be made that the rest of Boston’s offensive problems in Game 6 were directly related to the loss of Bradley.
Allen’s play is a good place to start. The best long-distance shooter of all-time was coming off the bench before Bradley got hurt, but he’s been thrust into a starting role, and he’s just not capable of it given his ankle issues. Allen hobbled through 25 minutes of playing time Wednesday night. With his man consistently beating him to the spot, Allen picked up six fouls before bowing out with nine points. With most of his time spent catching up to the play, he was in no position to display the shooting prowess that has made him one of the game’s premiere playoff performers.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy fix for Allen. The Sixers were trapping him in Game 5, leading Rivers to say that things would change if Allen got any space. Philadelphia obliged in Game 6, going away from constant trapping and leaving Allen open to take 11 shots. It didn’t help.
“I think that’ll be good for Ray coming into the next game, knowing that he’s going to get shots,” said Rivers, wishfully. He’s running out of games to get his sharpshooter on track.
Allen’s problems highlight Bradley’s direct absence. After an ineffective Allen on the depth chart, there’s 3-point-shooter Mickael Pietrus, who hasn’t been hitting 3-point shots. After that, there’s nowhere to turn.
The problem with Rondo is more obtuse. Rivers took issue with Rondo’s pace in Game 6, complaining that the Celtics point guard walked the ball up the floor far too often. His theory is that Rondo is expending so much energy on defense that he isn’t running the offense effectively.
“I thought we had a lot of empty possessions,” said Rivers. “I thought we hurt ourselves with our pace. We walked the ball up the floor the entire game. We didn’t get any pacing to it. We have to get Rondo running. The best game for us is to have a quick game offensively, and a slowdown game for him on the other end.”
The other end being defense, where Rondo — named to the NBA’s All-Defensive second team — has taken risks and lazy routes on pick-and-rolls. Maybe it’s fatigue, but Rondo has not matched Bradley’s defense, and Rivers thinks it’s affecting Rondo’s offense. Maybe Rivers is defending his player. Maybe Rondo’s issues are all his own. Either way, he isn’t likely to get a boost from the return of Bradley.”
“It’s what we have,” said Rivers. “Clearly Avery’s a great defender. But he’s not playing. So I can’t worry about that.”
The Celtics held Philadelphia to 85 points Wednesday night, so their defense doesn’t appear to be crippled without Bradley. But the team has obviously lost a spark. One more offensive output like this, and the Celtics will have lost the series.