In an ugly win, Celtics rally to top New Jersey
It was apparent midway through the third quarter last night that the Celtics’ opponent was not the shorthanded and skittish New Jersey Nets, who actually made it a contest by playing respectably for one half.
The Celtics are fighting themselves early this season, devoid of practice time, besieged by nagging injuries, and afflicted by age.
It took 30 minutes last night for the Celtics to figure themselves out. They are a team that doesn’t allow rookies to torch them, as former Providence standout MarShon Brooks did in the first half. They are a team that relies on ball movement and taking the open shot. They are a team that depends on its increased depth.
Using a 30-7 run, the Celtics turned it into an abbreviated night for Paul Pierce, and a confidence-boosting outing for Avery Bradley in an 89-70 win.
Ray Allen never even made it to the Garden because of illness. Celtics coach Doc Rivers strongly advised him to stay home after he tried to make it through shootaround and didn’t feel well. So once again, the Celtics were without a starter, and they began the game lethargically, trailing a Nets team missing three starters by 1 point at halftime.
Pierce keyed the third-period spurt that gave the Celtics a 16-point lead, and a 10-0 fourth-quarter surge allowed Rivers to rest Pierce and clear the bench. With Pierce missing training camp because of a bruised right heel, and the team limited in practice time, the Celtics have found it difficult to cultivate their rhythm.
They have been choppy, making runs then struggling to score, falling asleep on defense then suddenly stopping opponents. Brooks, the Nets’ No. 2 scorer, and perhaps turning into a steal of the draft, had scored 15 points by halftime. He scored 2 in a nightmarish second half that ended with a sprained left ankle.
“I can definitely say from a rhythm standpoint,’’ Kevin Garnett said, when asked if it was the Celtics’ best defensive effort of the season. “I would say this would probably be the most complete defensive game we put together for 48 minutes. The Providence kid came in and had a real, real good first half, and we turned that water off and got him under control.
“And that’s what we are. We are a defensive team.’’
Entering last night, the Celtics were 20th in the NBA in scoring defense at 96.8 points per game and 22d in opponents’ field goal percentage (45.7). The Celtics normally rank in the top five in both categories, but playing high-octane teams such as the Knicks and Heat to begin the season hurt any chances of gaining early defensive consistency, and the Celtics have been in catch-up mode ever since.
Last night, they earned some extra credit. They limited New Jersey to 5-of-16 shooting and caused five turnovers in a 12-point third quarter. Sundiata Gaines (6 points) was the lone player with more than 2 points for the Nets, who were without point guard Deron Williams (strained oblique), forward Kris Humphries (sore shoulder), and center Brook Lopez (broken right foot).
“They really turned up the pressure, clamped us down, and smothered us. They’re a championship team with a lot of experience,’’ said Nets coach Avery Johnson. “Garnett disrupted a lot of our offense just with his activity and his length, and [Rajon] Rondo with turnovers. They pushed our offense out to half court. We didn’t make adjustments in terms of going backdoor and reading the defense.’’
Bradley submitted his most meaningful performance as a Celtic. He scored a career-high 20 points in last year’s regular-season finale against the Knicks, but that game had no significance. Bradley came off the bench last night to record 11 points, 2 assists, 2 steals, and his first NBA 3-pointer.
The added depth this season has given Rivers a variety of options. With Allen out, he used Keyon Dooling, Bradley, Sasha Pavlovic, and even E’Twaun Moore at shooting guard. Brandon Bass continued to impress with 15 points and 13 rebounds, his second double-double in seven games.
Pierce led the Celtics with 24 points in 29 minutes. He drained 3 of 5 3-pointers, making him 10 for 21 on the season.
Without Allen’s scoring punch, Pierce took control with 11 third-quarter points, and then rested for the final quarter with the game decided. Rivers said he can see Pierce rounding into form. He is averaging 22.5 points, 7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists over his past two games.
“He’s getting his rhythm,’’ said Rivers. “I always tell guys, ‘When you miss a ton of games and don’t play, the ballhandling is the last to come.’ But he’s getting it.’’