Asked Saturday night how his team could improve upon its performance from a season ago, Celtics coach Doc Rivers didn’t even hesitate.
“We can win Game 7,” said Rivers. “We can rebound, we were awful during the regular season; We turned the ball over during the regular season. And we didn’t win enough home games.”
But when Rivers compares the championship season of 2008 with last year’s campaign, which came six minutes shy of another title, he sees one glaring difference: an inside-outside attack.
“You’ll see more [of a post game this season],” said Rivers. “Two years ago we were a post team, an inside-outside team. We basically had to abandon that, based on who we were and our health.”
With a revamped roster and improved health, the Celtics are hellbent on returning to that inside-outside game. To prove that point, Boston has attempted to post up just about everyone on their roster this preseason, including point guard Rajon Rondo.
“We worked on it last year, but we never had the confidence to do it,” said Rivers. “What makes it effective is that you have to guard him there, you can’t back off there. When he’s guarded, he becomes a straight scorer, but an even better passer.”
And it’s worked. The Celtics first went to Rondo in the post when utilizing a lineup that included Delonte West in the backcourt, allowing a second ball-handler to feed Rondo on the blocks. From there, Rondo is using his deceptive power and his well-documented speed to work against defenders, even if they’re bigger than he is. Rondo also is able to make short passes to cutters, generating high-percentage offense.
But, really, Rondo?
“We’re posting everybody, even Rondo,” said Rivers. “We told them on the first day [of training camp], ‘We've got to get back to being an in-and-out team.’ We want to run and get easy baskets, but we also want to look early to post. [Friday vs. Toronto], [Kevin Garnett] had five of them where he sprinted down the floor, beat everybody, and got into the deep post. Last year he was the last guy down the floor, dragging his leg. So we did what we had to do [last season].
“It’s nice, it allows you to stop runs. When you have a post team and teams are on an 8-0 run, you can call timeout and usually you get something out of that. When you don’t have that, you have to hope you’re making shots.”
Which is something the Celtics couldn’t always do last season. When the offense struggled, particularly the second team, Boston lacked a go-to option to generate an easy bucket or a trip to the foul line.
The addition of Shaquille O’Neal alone should ease some of those post concerns. The Celtics have already seen the appeal of just lobbing the ball to O’Neal near the hoop and letting him go to work.
Maybe most encouraging is the reemergence of Garnett in the post. In 2008, he attempted 5.7 shots per game within 10 feet of the basket, completing 73 percent of his shots near the rim. Last year, Garnett attempted 4.9 shots per game within 10 feet, and his field goal percentage near the rim dropped to 65.2 percent.
Rivers has raved about the renewed confidence Garnett has in that leg and how he’s demanded the ball in the post, unlike last season when he shied away. Rivers also noted how even Paul Pierce was skittish to return to the post because of his variety of injuries a year ago.
“Paul was injured too, and we forget that Paul missed a big chunk of time and it took a long time for him to get back to health,” said Rivers. “When you have injuries, guys try to stay outside. That hurt him. You look at some of his bigger games in the playoffs, we didn’t have a post presence. It’s a difficult way to play and win.”
Some say the Celtics overcame that deficiency to come within a half-quarter of a title. But Rivers doesn’t buy it. The team didn’t walk out of the Staples Center with another title, so the coach says it's time to get back to the championship ways of 2008.