NEW YORK – They came dressed in black. They got out to an 11-0 lead. It looked like the Knicks were about to bury the body when Brandon Bass suddenly woke up. The Celtics got to the line seven times in the next five minutes and suddenly they had momentum again.
The Celtics got their first lead of the game on a Kevin Garnett pick-and-roll from Paul Pierce and never relinquished it again. What was once a series marred by horrid execution and general confusion on the offensive end for Boston is being flipped on its head.
In what appears to have suddenly become the team’s new mantra, the Celtics are beginning to tighten the screws on the casket they are building for the Knicks.
“We was going to a funeral man, but it looks we got buried” J.R. Smith said. “I’m done with this black stuff.”
The Knicks, who wore black to the game to signify that Game 5 would be the Celtics’ funeral, continued their shooting slump and relied primarily on iso play while Doc Rivers’ squad displayed its most well-rounded offensive performance in weeks.
Execution was at the forefront for the Celtics Wednesday night, as they rediscovered their snappy perimeter passing and perfectly timed cuts that carried their offense after Rondo’s injury. For the first three games against the Knicks, the offense was primarily designed to get Paul Pierce iso chances against a point guard off of a switch.
The flaw was that the Celtics did not have the proper spacing and quick decision-making to pull it off without getting trapped. That changed in Game 5.
“What I was most disappointed in us was that we were not taking advantage of their traps. Tonight we did,” Rivers said after the game. “To do that, you just got to trust each other and I thought for us, [Game 5] was the first game that we had complete trust.”
It gets a lot easier to trust each other when everyone is making shots. Jason Terry was a ghost for 11.5 quarters until a Smith elbow resuscitated the energy center in his brain. Terry has hit six threes in his last 40 minutes on the floor (Game 5 and overtime in Game 4) while Brandon Bass can seemingly do everything right now.
Bass and Terry have exhibited dramatically improved off-ball movement in the Celtics wins, as well as improved shooting. These qualities go hand-in-hand. With Terry setting down screens in the lane to free up Garnett to get the ball on the elbow and then curling hard into the corner, or Bass slipping back door at the perfect time, the Celtics have the kind of distracting secondary action that makes it difficult for the Knicks defense to focus on the ball.
The Knicks couldn’t trap nearly as much in Game 5 because they couldn’t get a second defender up to the perimeter quickly enough to cut off the passing options. So when Pierce would get trapped, he had guys like Terry, Green or Garnett in place to get the bailout pass and end up with an open look or lane.
Those looks are starting to go down now, with the Celtics shooting 11-for-20 from three and 12-for-14 at the rim in Game 5 according to HoopData. While both teams shot poorly from the high post and midrange areas, the Celtics had an effective field goal percentage of 85.8 to the Knicks’ 58.7 at the rim and 75-percent to the Knicks’ 34.1-percent from deep.
Although Iman Shumpert is seemingly getting more hands on passes than half the Celtics team, the offensive efficiency continues to climb as shots go in and execution improves. Their offensive efficiency of 103.4 points per 100 possessions was by far their best of the series, 6.4 points better than their Game 4 win. Despite a still detrimentally high turnover rate, Boston is getting better looks and freezing the New York defense more frequently.
“One-on-one basketball doesn’t work against [the Knicks],” Garnett said. “Our only chance for us to be successful is for us to lean on one another.
“They made a run. Don’t panic; don’t overreact. Just come out here and execute and do the things we talked about in the first couple of minutes.”
It is taking time to develop, but the entire team is finding its rhythm as the game goes on. When Pierce was getting doubled, Terry and Garnett roamed free and got good shots. When they hit a five minute slump in crunch time, Jeff Green finally awoke and went on an eight-point tear to blow it back open. When all else failed, Brandon Bass would cut behind the defense for an open layup.
But their go-to offense is the 1-5 pick-and-roll. That is supposed to be the point guard and the center, but Paul Pierce has taken over de facto point duties with Avery Bradley struggling in all regards offensively and Jordan Crawford being, well, a nightmare to control. Although Terrence Williams became a revelation (while Courtney Lee still toils away on the end of the bench), Pierce and Garnett need to run the offense.
With improved shooting forcing a little more spacing out of the lanes, they are back to running the pick-and-roll to near perfection. All of Garnett’s field goals came from 20-feet on the elbows or at the rim. No more giving KG post clear-outs and pretending that can carry the offense for five minutes. He is back to running his trademark pick-and-pops or delayed pick-and-rolls down the lane.
Garnett is great at three things: elbow jumpers, pick-and-rolls and post passing. He has barely had a chance to any of those things until Game 5. But Doc adjusted the game plan to focus on getting Garnett the ball in the high post while a flurry of screens free up a cutter that he can hit with one of those overhead one-handed bullets.
It worked, as KG led the game with five assists. Four of those assists were for Bass or Green layups and one for a Pierce three. Garnett has the length and vision to pass over someone as huge as Tyson Chandler or physical as Kenyon Martin. This pulls the rim protector out of the paint, leaving the lane wide open for Bass and Green to waltz in.
Garnett will stand in the high post with the ball over his head while some mix of Green and Pierce screens will free up a curling Terry, or vice versa. The end result usually means you have someone flaring to the corner, a shooter curling toward the lane or top of the key, and another option on the weak-side baseline.
In the first three games, a few Celtics plays resulted in a second option if they were lucky. But in their two wins, the improved execution has the Knicks defense frequently outmatched or confused, opening passing lanes for second and third options. Things like Brandon Bass scoring 17 points don’t happen without a fully coordinated effort.
“We out here scrappin’,” Garnett said. “This is surviving. It’s like a Game 7. Every game here on out is like a Game 7 and we scrappin’.”
Meanwhile, the Celtics are capitalizing on the Knicks shooting going ice cold, which was the exact same thing the Knicks did in the first three games. If the shots aren’t falling, execution and grinding it out will usually not be enough. But execution and grinding it out gets better looks which lead to more shots falling. So with no-shows Terry and Bass finding their spots in the offense, the screw is starting to get tight.
“Throw your hard hat on,” KG said. “Get your hammer, your nails. It’s time to work. Let’s do it. No shenanigans, no nothin’. We know what they’re running. They know what we’re running. It’s just all out. Who wants this? That’s what it is.”
While the hinges are falling off the Knicks offense, the Celtics continue to tighten the screws on their game plan. While they will need to retain their advantage from deep, it is their precise execution that is giving them a chance at an unprecedented comeback.
So go grab your screwdriver.