- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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One of the below-the-radar battles in any NBA game is the tug-of-war for pace of play. Rarely does it get spotlighted unless a team like the New York Knicks, operating under coach Mike D'Antoni's "seven seconds or less" offensive philosophy, meets a team like the Portland Trail Blazers that prefers each game be played at the speed of a muddy tractor pull.
The Boston Celtics rank in the bottom third of the NBA in pace this season, averaging 90.8 possessions per game, nearly two possessions fewer than the league average.
Now, don't be misled -- ranking in pace does not have any bearing on overall success. The fact that the 10-win Minnesota Timberwolves top the league in pace (96.9 possessions per game) this season is indicative of that.
But there is something to be said for establishing a comfortable pace under which your team thrives. Over the past four seasons, Boston's slower pace has been dictated by a defense that prefers to dig in and make opponents work for every open look, often using much of the 24-second clock.
The Celtics do prefer to quicken the pace offensively, but they've been just fine with playing at a snail's speed if the other team wants to, particularly considering their aging roster. When healthy, Boston's defense is typically so stout, it's hard for opposing teams to win a low-possession battle.
Case in point: The Celtics won their first eight games of the season in which the possession count was 90 or fewer, outscoring opponents by an average of 11.3 points per game in those wins.
But an interesting trend has emerged over Boston's four most recent losses: Each game featured 89 possessions or fewer (the four-game average was 88.8 possessions).
So what gives? Those four losses all came without Kevin Garnett and it appears the absence of Boston's defensive quarterback rendered the team unable to escape in games that are played at a glacial pace.
That's left Celtics coach Doc Rivers preaching a faster pace to his point guards, hoping to offset Boston's defensive lapses by elevating the offensive intensity, particularly as the Celtics scorch the field, shooting better than 50 percent this season.
Boston snapped a two-game losing streak Wednesday with a lopsided win over Sacramento that featured a whopping 101 possessions. It was Boston's only game this season to have more than 100 possessions without overtime. And even though the Kings shot 51.5 percent from the floor -- something that would normally cause Rivers' head to steam -- the Celtics still breezed to a 24-point triumph with eight players reaching double figures.
"I thought our pace [in the first half] with [Rajon] Rondo and Nate [Robinson] -- we had an amazing pace," said Rivers. "We're pushing the ball up the floor. We missed I don't know how many just point-blank layups and wide-open shots, and I told them, 'So, don't worry about offense; if we keep doing exactly what we did and keep the pace, we'll be good.'"
The Celtics lacked that run-run-run mentality on offense during their low-possession losses and, compounding matters, their defense struggled. Those four opponents combined to shoot 50.2 percent from the field (142-of-283 overall) while averaging 96.3 points per game (opponents typically shoot a mere 44 percent from the floor against Boston).
What's more, the Celtics averaged only 88.5 points per game (11 points fewer than their 2010-11 average) while shooting 46 percent (134-of-291 overall) in those four losses. The lack of possessions meant Boston generated nearly four fewer shots than it usually takes per game and wasn't able to overcome the opponents' solid offensive play.
How has Boston compensated over the past two games?
"Just because you have a good pace doesn't mean you have to shoot it quickly," Rivers said at Thursday's practice. "I do want to get into [offensive sets] quickly. We want to start the offense at 18, not at 10. [During Boston's losses, the shot clock] was down to 12 or 10 on our first pass. It's tough to score in a 10-second offense."
Just ask Boston opponents. The Celtics pride themselves on forcing teams to not get into sets until the latter stages of the shot clock, leading to bad shots based simply on a team's need to get the ball up.
But there was Boston during last Saturday's visit to Chicago, not even moving until there were single digits on the clock. Rivers noted afterward that Boston "bounced the life out of the game." Sure enough, the Celtics shot a dreadful 37.9 percent and connected on a mere 28 shots (matching a season low in a loss to Orlando on Christmas Day).
In the absence of Garnett's defense, the Celtics can't nap on offense and expect to win games. The team has been forced to elevate its pace in order to thrive. While Garnett's return is on the horizon, injuries have made maintaining that pace difficult, even if it's just the result of fatigued players being late to position at the start of possessions.
"You have to get to your spots and guys are bumping, holding -- a lot of that goes into it," said Rivers. "It's not just stamina, it's mental fatigue more than physical. Physically, our guys can do it all day. But mentally, to do it every time, you have to understand the importance of it.
"All it takes is one guy not to be [in position] and it can set all five back. Much like football: You can't hike the ball until all the linemen are set, and the linemen are the ones that take longest to get down the field."
Boston isn't overreacting to its struggles in low-paced games. It's shown over the past four years it knows exactly the pace it thrives at.
During the 2007-08 championship season, Boston's pace was 90.9 possessions per game and the team ranked second in the NBA allowing 90.3 points per game. This season, Boston boasts that 90.8 pace and sits atop the league allowing 92 points per game.
While they've had to make tweaks without Garnett, the Celtics have to like their championship-caliber pace through the first half of the season.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann