Boston Celtics look for familiar path with unfamiliar players

Elsa

The Boston Celtics' rotations have been a flux all season, making their search for finding continuity and togetherness difficult. Our report from a day-off practice.

NEW YORK -- Before Saturday's Game 1, the Celtics' starting lineup of Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett had played just 38 minutes together.

The early returns were encouraging. That group scored 117.5 points per 100 possessions and gave up just 88.4 points per NBA.com's advanced stats database. In Game 1, they were on the court for 17 minutes and scored 80.7 points per 100 possessions and gave up 94.3 points.

What can we take from all of that? Nothing, really. That's why they call them small sample sizes. For the Celtics this season, all sample sizes are small. They didn't have a single lineup play more than 250 minutes together this season and only four that were on the court for as many as 100 minutes. It's been a constant series of changes and experimentation as Doc Rivers has looked for complementary combinations around Pierce and Garnett.

We tend to think of them as this homogenous group with the images of their five-year run burned into our collective memory banks. Yet, outside of Garnett and Pierce, none of those players were around in 2010 when they went to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Bass was the only other healthy and active player last season.

Rivers played three players off the bench on Saturday -- Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford -- and all of them were on other teams when the C's took Miami to Game 7 of the conference finals last season.

For all intents and purposes, this is a brand new team that is still learning how to play with one another. In the absence of shared experiences, what they do have are their philosophies.

"At this point, regardless if we haven't played together, it's about our offensive concept," Pierce said. "That's what we preach each and every day. Ball movement. Make the extra pass. It doesn't matter who you put out there on the court or how long they've been here. That's our system. When we play that way, we're successful."

The Celtics made just 27 shots in Game 1 and 18 of those makes were assisted. That's the way they've always played whether they've had Rajon Rondo or anyone else running the point. Of course, they also missed 38 shots, and without combing through the play-by-play, it's a safe bet that a lot of those happened on isolated jump shots.

"A lot of times when you're trying to be aggressive, you're trying to create momentum, it's a little bit of what we call, ‘by yourself.' That's not the way we got here," Kevin Garnett said. "We got here with being together and sharing the ball. That alone builds the trust and you want to be consistent with that.

"It's not like we're going to get into the playoffs and now we forget. We've been playing like this since Rondo went down, so it shouldn't be an issue."

Rivers felt like his team was too reliant on Pierce and Green. They, in turn, were probably too reliant on themselves to try to something -- anything -- to snap out of the offensive funk that plagued them throughout a second half in which they scored a franchise-worst 25 points.

Everything came to a halt in the fourth quarter when they scored just eight points. Oddly, that was the second time in franchise playoff history they hit the eight-point mark. The other happened in 1948 against the Chicago Stags, so yes, this was a historically bad performance.

"Sometimes guys want to win so much they get in the way of themselves."-Doc Rivers

"We did lose our trust a little bit," Rivers said. "We had three or four next passes where we clearly have to make the next pass and we decided to hold it and shoot it. It's not guys being selfish. It's not that at all. It's guys want to win. Sometimes guys want to win so much they get in the way of themselves."

You can call that a lack of trust, a lack of familiarity or just simply bad basketball, but the deeper issue is that Pierce and Green are the only players capable of creating for themselves. That's a talent issue as much as a teamwork problem.

There were other specific laments that are really all part of the root cause in their 85-78 loss, such as:

Turnovers

Doc Rivers: "That had nothing to do with not having a point guard. We made bad decisions and it wasn't Avery, only. Paul had six turnovers, Jeff had six. Avery could have made some better decisions and so could everyone else. We made some unbelievable decisions with the ball."

Pierce: "I mean, 20 turnovers in a playoff game, that just can't happen. We understand that's their game. We said that since we've been playing them in the regular season. When you get into the paint, look for New York. They've got guys who are going to strip down. They've only got one shot blocker. That's Tyson Chandler. The rest of these guys are slapdown players and they're good at it, to their credit."

Spacing

Rivers: "In the second half, we became an ISO and a bad space team. I don't mind ISOs if you're into good space. It's not like that for us. We haven't done that and we did it. It was really vivid on film."

Playing through Garnett

Rivers: "I don't want to talk too much about it, but we've got to involve him more. There's a better way to do it than the way we did it. There's certain things that he didn't do either. We've just got to do a better job of it."

It wasn't all bad, however. Rivers liked the way they defended Carmelo Anthony, forcing him to take 29 shots to get his 36 points. Rivers even defended his bench despite its collective 0-for-7 performance. He did acknowledge that he may play an extra big man, either Chris Wilcox or Shavlik Randolph, and that he played Green too many minutes. He also said that he wanted to get Jordan Crawford more time.

But these are only cosmetic fixes. Obviously the bench players need to be better and produce something of value, but if they are going to go anywhere it will have to come from that starting five. At the end of the day, the Celtics think the mistakes they made are correctable. We'll see.

That's not being snarky. We really have no idea. After 81 regular season games and one more in the postseason, the C's are as big a mystery as they were when they began the season in Europe.

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