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Back and Forth with CelticsBlog

We had the privilege of doing a reciprocal interview with Steve from CelticsBlog today.  This is the first half of it.  The other half can be found over at the Celtics site.  Enjoy!


Blazersedge:  How long can the Celtics keep it up?  When does the window close?


CelticsBlog:  Bah.  I’m sure I’m going to do wonders toward endearing myself to the fantastic readership here by answering with what sounds like a copout, but hold on to your seats while I answer with what sounds like a copout: I honestly don’t know because I’ve refused to think about this as a fan of this team.


What I mean there is, as I mentioned to Tom of Indy Cornrows recently, the last fifteen years of Celtics basketball haven’t exactly been glory-filled.  We Celts fans spent a lot of time convincing ourselves to believe in the promise of the vast and unknown future – youthful mistakes for the future, tanking games for the future, dumping salary for the future.  Only July 31, 2007, that future officially arrived and became the present in the form of that scary-looking feller who screams a lot and makes basketball teams a lot better.  Even for franchises with as rich a history as the Celtics have, times like this don’t come around every day, as painfully evidenced to us by the events of the 22 years after the 16th title in 1986.  So at the beginning of last season, I told myself that as a fan, if the team was going to finally live in the present, so was I.  Sure, it’s my sincere hope that Danny Ainge doesn’t see this quite the way I do, that he is constantly thinking about the doing what’s best both in the short and long-term for this team.  But that isn’t my job.  I’m absolutely in love with this team, and just this once, for this era, however long it lasts, I’ve committed myself to taking in every second and enjoying it to the maximum.


What happens when Ray finally isn’t Ray anymore?  When KG and Paul are ready to move on?  When this team loses the true lynchpin that is Brian Scalabrine?  I’m not sure, and I don’t know when those things are going to happen.  I only know that it’s a pleasure beyond words to get to follow this team, and I hope that remains so for as long as possible.


Long story short, I owe the Blazer’s Edge community a rain check on this one.  Sorry, folks.


Blazersedge:  I think everyone was expecting an offensive spectacular when Garnett, Pierce, and Allen got together.  Really the Celtics have won with spectacular defense.  What makes the Boston “D” so special?  Is it mostly Garnett or was the transformation more thorough than that?


CelticsBlog:  The Celtics truly play defense as a team, which makes the transformation the result of a combination of factors. 


Schematically speaking, Tom Thibodeau came to town with a reputation as a defensive maven, and as Peter May reported in his season-chronicling book On Top of the World, Doc Rivers gave him nearly unfettered reign of that end of the floor last year.  Thibodeau stressed the values of smooth rotations, contesting shots, playing a physical style and swarming the basketball hard in the middle of the floor and forcing opponents out to the wings and corners.  He also emphasized effectively jumping out on high screen rolls and the importance of having the big men hedge out to prevent an open shot for the ball-handler while still being able to stick the screener. The Celtics defended exactly zero (that’s not an estimate) pick-and-rolls correctly through most of the previous decade, so this was a nice change. On a strategic level, the plan is simply full of tried-and-true basketball basics:  attack the ball, help each other out, close out on shooters.


That said, all those defensive basketball truisms require one major factor right off the bat in order to be effective at all: effort.  And that’s the biggest part of what Garnett brought and still brings to this team. 


Quick aside: Without a doubt, Garnett is a great defender on an individual level, and I would be remiss to gloss over that point.  He can stick just about any frontcourt player in the league, and he is as good in help and on screen-and-rolls as anyone this side of Tim Duncan.


But what makes Garnett truly special is the impact he has on his teammates.  At its core, playing good defensive basketball is so often simply about outworking the opponent, and that’s what KG is all about.  This is a guy who has been in one gear since the first day he got in the weight room in Waltham, Mass: go-go-go.  He is the sort of leader whose energy is contagious, who makes his teammates want to work for him.  I watched Paul Pierce spend a lot of time loafing and losing his man defensively over the past decade.  Paul was truly the most improved player on the Celtics last season because he busted it every single time out at both ends of the floor last season.  Ray Allen is another who didn’t have a great reputation for his interest defensively before last year but consistently put in a yeoman’s effort all season. 


You could make the case that it wasn’t that Allen and Pierce didn’t care previously but that they had to expend so much energy carrying offensive loads alone that they didn’t have much left at the other end.  So complementing each other offensively may have played a big role in what each was able to do on defense.  But no matter the reason, the effort and intensity at the defensive end skyrocketed for those players and several others (Eddie House comes to mind) last season.  They didn’t just look better because KG was playing behind them as a security blanket.  They became better defenders by working harder, and it was a joy to see.  I truly believe that KG was responsible not just for his physical play defensively but for changing the culture in Boston with his attitude toward working hard.


Blazersedge:  Rajon Rondo:  how good is he really?  How much is environment and how much is him?


CelticsBlog:  It would be foolish of me to say that the environment hasn’t helped.  Playing with three veteran stud offensive players who are each more concerned with team success than ‘getting his,’ has afford Raj plenty of help.  He always has other players with him who demand defensive attention, thus giving Rondo more open looks or an easier first step to the basket or a clearer route into the lane, and it would be a bit homeristic of me to discount that entirely.


But please don’t mistake the fact that Rondo is in a fantastic environment for the idea that he is simply riding the coattails of his mates.  This kid can play, and I’m not sure we really have any idea just how good he can be.  His quickness into the lane is something special, and even in year three, he still astounds me with his passing vision at least three or four times a night.  Raj rebounds well for a guard and is becoming increasingly adept at finishing around the rim.  Of course, as the rest of the country maintains, he still needs to become at least a competent jump shooter in order to really force defenses to stay honest with him, and at the beginning of the season, it seemed as though he had regressed in that area.  But he is 22 years old and has reportedly continued to work on that shot, and there is plenty of time for it to come.


Defensively, Rondo is a catalyst for this team with his freakish ability to jump passing routes and get his long fingers on any number of passes and occasionally errant dribbles as well.  In the interest of objectivity, I’d actually go so far as to say that I do think Rondo’s individual on-ball defense is actually a bit overrated at this point.  He is a very good gambler, and he does a wonderful job lunging at just the right times to force turnovers and give the Celtics a chance to run.  But he has had problems at times with some of the league’s more experienced and savvier point guards on an individual level, and at times he could do a bit more toward staying focused on simply stopping his man.  But that isn’t to say he’s not already good in that regard.  I just think there is more room for improvement there than do most others.


It’s no coincidence that the Celtics have started to play some of their best basketball of the young season just as Rondo has heated up.  When this guy is providing the spark, the boys in green are going to be extremely difficult to stop.


Blazersedge:  Rate Doc Rivers as a coach:  is he a Beatles-level genius or is he the luckiest guy on earth to fall where he did, like Huey Lewis?


CelticsBlog:  Like quite nearly every coach in this league, Doc is somewhere in the middle.  We’re in year five with him, and I still can’t figure it out for sure.  What I do know is that it takes players to win in this league.  Doc wasn’t the antichrist I (and many other guilty parties) mistakenly branded him to be prior to last season, and he was far from perfect last year.  At times, his rotation management and timeouts still bug me, although those moments seem to be becoming more and more infrequent.  Doc has a great rapport with his players, and the guys seem to listen to him, and they certainly go out and play hard for him every night.  That he seems to be a genuinely good guy – which was the case during the tough times, too – is only a bonus, although it also makes me feel worse about some of the things I had to say about him two years ago. 


Right now, it’s awfully hard to complain, and it has seemed almost without exception since the beginning of last season that Doc had just the right demeanor to be the coach of this particular team.  Regardless of whether all Celts fans are on the Doc wagon, if you aren’t willing to afford him at least a bit of leeway and grace at this point, you aren’t being fair.


Blazersedge:  Talk a little bit about Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis.  How are things going for them?  Future prospects?


CelticsBlog:   Ah, Kendrick – a long time source of frustration for me.  I’ve written often that I’m probably unduly hard on the big fella (something I probably picked up from my father, who spent a lot of the 2003-2007 era of Celtics hoops venting to me about Perk), but he has made great strides over the last season and change.  I still think he is a step slower than he gets credit for in his defensive footwork and that I could do without quite as much offensive, er, creativity, from Perk from time to time.  But to his credit, the guy comes to work every day and busts his tail, and he has become a better defender, finisher and rebounder because of it.  This season, he has finally started to cut down on that awful habit of catching the ball under the basket and bringing it down before going up to finish, and he even seems to have developed a bit of touch around the rim.  He has no doubt benefited greatly from Garnett’s presence, and while I’m not quite sure what his worth would be on another team or down the road in a different situation, he has become a serviceable starter.  I don’t know that he’ll ever be a dominant offensive player in this league, but he is becoming a more solid defender by the day, and with the exception of his idiotic habit of yapping and picking up silly technicals, I don’t have a lot to complain about these days.  The patented Angry Perk Face is awesome.  You’ll want to be sure to look out for that Friday night; it usually comes out a couple of times a game.


Meanwhile, the Infuriated Infant remains a work in progress, and I’m not sure even the Celtics feel they know what they have with him from a long-term perspective.  He’s a character and a fun guy to have on the team, and the Terrifying Toddler has no doubt become a fan favorite.  He plays hard and has a good basketball IQ, but the jury remains out as to whether or not his small (vertical) size will hinder him too much, especially as far as moonlighting at the five is concerned.  I’ve been a bit frustrated with his insistence on shooting from mid-range in that it reached a point earlier in the season when 70 percent of his shots were jumpers, and he was only hitting on 23 percent of those. 


I don’t have a problem with Baby shooting the J occasionally, and I think he can hit it at a better rate, but this is a guy who should be looking to roll to the basket when he can rather than away from it.  He should be banging inside and doing what he does best, using his boundless energy to crash hard and make opponents miserable.  His game last week against Golden State was a nice step in the right direction in that Davis went 1-for-1 from the field (a lay-up on which he was fouled) and 7-for-7 from the line.  He rolled off screens right to the rim and even attacked the basket off the dribble and got himself to the line doing so.  The more of that we see, the better.  Right now, Davis is a good energy guy who still needs to learn to use his fouls more judiciously, but he is a solid member of this rotation.  He hasn’t shown yet that he can reach another level beyond that in this league, but there remains plenty of time for that change.  It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Celtics package him in a deal for a low-priced veteran, but the team would be just fine hanging on to him as well.


Blazersedge:  Can anyone in the East challenge the Celtics this year?


CelticsBlog:  While karmic obligations dictate that I say yes no matter what, it bears noting that this team didn’t exactly coast its way to the title last season.  The toughest series was by far the conference semis against Cleveland, and I have no hesitation in calling the Cavs the team that provides the biggest threat to the Celts’ Eastern dominance once more.  No matter what you think of Mike Brown, he always has that team playing good defense, and right now, they are tops in basketball in offensive efficiency to boot.  They have the expiring contracts (hello, Wally World!) to possibly add another veteran during the season, and that number 23 fellow is always a problem no matter who is on the floor with him.  This isn’t to say the Pistons, Magic Sixers, Heat or anyone else in the East couldn’t rise and become a problem in their own right (see how carefully I tread around the sports karma lords?), but I won’t shy away from saying that I think our boys in green are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the East with Cleveland the closest threat.


Thanks so much for having me on, Dave.  I don’t comment a whole lot, but I spend more time than you can imagine lurking here at the Edge just because there’s such a wealth of knowledge and good discussion about the Blazers and hoops in general courtesy of you, Ben and the readership here.  It’s a pleasure to have a chance to address the Edge community.  Good luck tonight, Portland faithful.


Be sure to check out the other side of the interview, including plenty of comments from myself and Ben, over at CelticsBlog.  We didn't wish the Celtics fans luck like Steve wished us.  I guess that'll make us poor winners, eh?


--Dave (