Just twice has Boston managed to score 25 points or fewer in the second half of a playoff game, both of which have come in just the past three days at the hands of a New York Knicks team that has pressured the Celtics into bad decisions and rushed shots regularly in each of the latter halves at MSG.
For the C’s, the similarities between these games from an offensive standpoint is striking: They have shot 38-for-72 (.541, 50.5 ppg) during the first half and just 14-for-63 (.222, 24.0 ppg) after intermission.
The Knicks intensified their defense in the fourth quarter during Game 1, but tonight they harassed the Celtics guards all over the floor from the opening possession of the second half.
“This game their pressure made us turn the ball over,” explained Celtics guard Avery Bradley. “We just weren’t executing our plays. We let them just run us out of our plays and it was to their advantage. We were getting a shot up like three seconds into the shot clock every time down.”
The Knicks newly minted Sixth Man of the Year agreed with Bradley’s assessment.
“They’re kind of a little fuzzy up top on who they want to get it to and why,” J. R. Smith said. “We’re doing a great job of pressuring them, making sure they don’t have enough time to think about that.”
Combine the Knicks’ defensive energy with what Celtics coach Doc Rivers called “broken, missed assignments,” that added up to uncontested 3-point attempts by Iman Shumpert, and Boston was headed down a path similar to Game 1.
Add to the equation the fact that Kevin Garnett, who facilitated the offense from the high and low posts in the first half, was saddled with foul trouble throughout the game, and the second half was headed down a similar path, except with even more time on the clock for the Knicks to expand a comfortable double-digit lead before walking off their home court with an 87-71 victory and a decisive 2-o lead as the series shifts to Boston.
“Everything we do really goes through getting Kevin the ball and working from there,” Paul Pierce explained. “So when he gets in foul trouble we need to find ways to make adjustments, giving other people a chance to step up. When he’s not in the game we really don’t have an inside presence so we rely on fast breaks and getting to the basket.”
The problem with relying on fast breaks is that you need to get stops and force turnovers, neither of which Boston could do on a consistent enough basis to thwart the Knicks’ attacking defense.
In fact, the Knicks only had three turnovers in the second half.
So how do the Celtics score if they aren’t forcing New York out of its comfort zone?
“We can’t,” said Rivers. “If we don’t get stops – that’s the one thing I will say – without having our facilitators. If we don’t get stops then we can’t play because we don’t have the ability to walk the ball up the floor and run our offense. Our offense was directly linked to the bad defense in the third quarter and it changed the game.”
Though the Celtics have been courageous and defiant in their quest to compete and win without All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, it’s been painfully obvious that they are struggling to get into any kind of rhythm because their primary playmakers are their defense, Garnett and Pierce, in that order.
“I thought (Pierce) started to get tired in the second half because he tried to do everything for us,” said Rivers.
To say Boston’s excursion to New York has been a disaster would probably be accurate.
The locker room was littered with varied responses of, “We need to come out more aggressive after halftime,” with not much of an explanation as to how they are actually going to turn those words into reality.
Whether the Cletics can consistently continue to slow down the Knicks (over longer stretches of time) while creating easier scoring opportunities remains to be seen. But they do have one thing going for them.
“Overall, we hold them to 40 percent shooting, 85 points,” stated Pierce. “A lot of things defensively we’re doing well. But offensively, we can’t let their pressure get to us. We can hold them to 85 every night but we’ve got to do better offensively.”
In a game of minor adjustments, and with a coach who is near the top of the profession at making such tweaks, it isn’t inconceivable that Boston patches up its problems for a game, maybe even two, especially with the Celtics heading back to TD Garden for the first time since the Boston Marathon bombings took place last Monday.
But with the way these Knicks are playing and the relentlessness focus and confidence superstar Carmelo Anthony is showing, this series could be over by Sunday.
“Right now, ain’t nobody on my team looking ahead to anything that we don’t have to look ahead to,” Anthony said. “We’re taking it one game at a time and right now our next task is Friday. Right now, we’re just worried about Friday and doing what we’ve gotta do to win that game.”
The Celtics have two days to figure out complex problems at the most crucial point in the season.
It’s going to take a herculean effort of concentration, really gritty basketball and a few lucky bounces if they are going to have a shot to bring this series back to New York.
Jeremy Bauman is an aspiring shooting coach and scout who writes columns and blogs for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.