Commentary

For C's, defense will set them free

Boston must make stops while freeing Pierce and Rondo to do their thing

Updated: May 8, 2010, 10:02 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Each of the first four questions Doc Rivers fielded to start his daily confab with the media Saturday focused on the Celtics' offense. When the fifth one continued that trend, Rivers paused to politely make one thing clear.

"Listen, if we're going to go over the offense when we just gave up 120 points, then we have a problem," Rivers said a day after his team's 124-95 thumping at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series.

"That was not an offensive problem [Friday]. It was a defensive problem. We score off our defense. If you take the ball out every time [after an opposing make], you're not going to score in the playoffs. You have to get stops, multiple stops."

Needless to say, the Celtics struggled to get stops Friday. They forced LeBron James and the Cavaliers into jump shots, but the visitors couldn't miss. When they did misfire, they usually got the offensive rebound. Boston had nine -- nine!? -- rebounds in the first half and four of those were offensive.

That means Boston got a mere five first-half possessions in which it had the opportunity to attack Cleveland on the run. Heck, even when the Cavaliers made turnovers, they threw the ball out of bounds, still forcing Boston to inbound and operate out of the half-court set.

Dobbs That was not an offensive problem [Friday]. It was a defensive problem. We score off our defense. If you take the ball out every time [after an opposing make], you're not going to score in the playoffs. You have to get stops, multiple stops.

-- Celtics coach Doc Rivers

So it's no surprise that Boston found itself down by 19 after one quarter, 22 at the intermission, and 29 at game's end.

What's more, Boston struggled to defend the Cavaliers in their half-court offense. According to the wizards at ESPN Stats and Information, the Celtics entered Game 3 having limited their playoff opponents (Heat and Cavaliers) to 42.2 percent shooting in the half-court set, and those teams averaged just 85 points per 100 possessions, making the Celtics second-best in the postseason behind only the Orlando Magic (84 points).

On Friday, Cleveland shot a blistering 60 percent out of the half-court offense and scored 114 points on 89 half-court possessions (which averages out to 128 points per 100 possessions), sparked by LeBron James, who scored 33 points on 24 half-court plays (a play is the total number of field goals attempted, turnovers, and trips to the free throw line, except and-one's).

All of which suggests that the biggest adjustment Boston must make heading into what's now a pivotal Game 4 Sunday (3:30 p.m, ABC) at the Garden is an increased focus on defense.

But here are two more nuggets to keep in mind:

Stops fuel Runnin' Rondo: According to those same wizards at ESPN Stats and Information, the Celtics are averaging only 8.7 fast-break points per game in this series, the worst among any remaining playoff team. This after Boston averaged more than twice that amount -- 17.8 fast-break points per game to be exact -- in a first-round, five-game triumph over the Miami Heat.

Needless to say, Rajon Rondo is being stifled when the Cavaliers make shots. But Rivers suggested Saturday that it was more than just being stuck in half-court sets.

"I told Rondo, he can't get caught -- and he does it at times -- where he becomes a scorer instead of a playmaker," said Rivers. "We want him to be both all the time. Playmaking is huge. I thought early on, he really wore out [Anthony] Parker, got us running, and got to the basket. But no one else got involved. That's a fine line."

Four nights after dishing out 19 assists, Rondo finished with eight in Game 3, nothing to sneeze at but clearly low for Rondo's postseason standards.

Kendrick Perkins cautioned against putting too much of the blame on Rondo.

"Rondo made the same passes that he made in Game 2, guys just didn't make shots," said Perkins. "If we made shots, he still would have had a 19-assist game. We just didn't make shots."

Regardless, Rondo didn't seem to be attacking the paint as much and causing the chaos that made Boston so successful in Game 2.

Paging Mr. Pierce: ESPNBoston.com's Peter May detailed Paul Pierce's invisibility this series after another substandard performance in Game 3 (as opposed to, say, James' invincibility that same game).

Pierce is averaging a mere 12.7 points per game on 31 percent shooting (13-for-42) against Cleveland. This after averaging 19.6 points in the first round against the Heat and 18.3 points per game during the regular season.

After Friday's loss, Pierce suggested it doesn't matter what he does offensively, given his defensive responsibilities with James. Rivers said he's half right as Boston needs Pierce to be a factor at both ends of the court, just like James has been.

"Obviously, we want him to be more efficient," said Rivers. "He's right. We were fine in Game 2, but I think we lost Game 1. We do want to get him involved more, get his rhythm better. He has a big job; guarding LeBron is very difficult. It takes a lot out of him.

"LeBron gets the ball 101 times per game. He handles the ball, pushes the ball up the floor and posts. Absolutely, that's going to take something out of [Pierce]. You still gotta do it on both ends."

Echoed Kevin Garnett: "We need Paul to be aggressive at both ends."

But Pierce's teammates seem confident the offense will come before it's too late.

"I'm not worried about P's," Perkins said. "I've been around with P's a long time. I've seen P's have a few bad nights and I've seen him come back and have a 35-point night. You just never know with P's. I know he's capable of having big games. He always steps up in big games.

"We gotta do a great job of getting Paul open and getting him good shots. And we need to help him on defense."

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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