Thoughts on the Game: Boston Celtics 89, New Jersey Nets 83

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If I told you that the Nets would have an eight-point lead on the Boston Celtics at halftime, would you believe me? Well what if I told you that Shaquille O’Neal, at the spry age of 38, would light up the Nets for 25 points on 9-of-10 shooting and 11 rebounds? Would you believe me then? Truth is, both of those things happened Wednesday night at the TD Garden in Boston, as the Nets fell 89-83 to their Atlantic Division counterparts.

Surely not many Nets fans believed that the team stood a chance last night on the road against the reigning Eastern Conference champions, and whatever hope might have been floating around probably stemmed from the forthcoming absence of Rajon Rondo, who missed the game with an injury. The Boston Celtics did ultimately seal the deal to avoid losing to the Nets on their home floor for the second consecutive year, but it certainly did not go as planned for Doc Rivers & Co.

It was the typical tale of two halves for the Nets, as they came out strong in the beginning of the game (especially in the second quarter) before fading progressively as the game wound down. Despite the momentum New Jersey had, it almost seemed inevitable that the lead would evaporate — not only because the Celtics were the favorite but also because the atmosphere of the game felt that way.

What chance the Nets did stand was a product of effective defense once again, and stingy D is becoming a trademark of the 2010 team. The Nets held Paul Pierce to 7-of-17 shooting and Kevin Garnett to 8 points on 4-of-12 shooting with no free-throw attempts. But it wasn’t all a success on defense, as the Big Shamrock proved once more to be kryptonite to the Nets.

O’Neal was an offensive force for the Celtics, stepping up when the regulars couldn’t hit their shots. He showed great touch around the rim, finishing any shot that was created for him around the basket, and as he tends to do against the Nets, he got to the free-throw line a lot. It’s incredible that Shaq is still capable of putting up numbers like this, but what’s more incredible is how helpless the Nets’ post defense was in containing him. Too many times he got wide-open looks, and when there were defenders around him, they passively stood by as he dropped a layup through the net like he was playing Pop-a-Shot. The Nets said they wanted to get tougher — last night that would have meant forcing Shaq to go to the line.

On offense, the Nets didn’t look all that great. That said, as good as Shaq was on the offensive end last night … he was just as poor on defense; in fact, he didn’t look like much more than a reanimated corpse on that end of the floor. Routinely, the Nets ran pick-and-pops with the point guard and center, and O’Neal, time after time, failed to close out on the spotting-up center to contest the look. At one point, Johan Petro made three 18-footers because O’Neal wouldn’t come out to put a hand in his face. Meanwhile, when the Nets did get in to the paint, they managed to draw body contact from Shaq, who had five personal fouls in the game.

Elsewhere, the Nets were absolutely battered in the square-off of points in the paint; the Celtics put in 44 while the Nets managed only 28. Furthermore, the Celtics improved upon their top transition defense in the NBA, allowing only 6 fast-break points to that Nets — and that’s one of the best aspects of New Jersey’s offense. The real killer, though, was the total of 17 turnovers. You can’t surrender that many possessions to a team like the Celtics and hope to come away with a victory. What was so bad about it, though, was the nature of the turnovers. Several of them were errant passes arising from miscommunication between Nets players, something that never fails to be infuriating.

A problem that continues to manifest itself with the Nets offense is that there isn’t a ton off off-ball movement. While the Nets do run the pick-and-roll quite frequently, it’s never all that effective. And when they don’t run it, one of two things happens: (1) someone throws an entry pass into Brook Lopez in the post, which usually has good consequences; or (2) the Nets swing the ball around the perimeter like they’re a middle school girls basketball team until there are three seconds left on the shot clock and someone has to fire up a shot.

Avery Johnson has made his mark on this team with his defensive philosophy. Now it’s time to either make Lopez the focal point of the offense on every possession or develop a new scheme that encourages off-the-ball movement. Some of Boston’s plays that get Ray Allen open for jumpers off screens come to mind as potential plays to run with Anthony Morrow, for instance.

At the end of the day, it wasn’t a huge letdown to lose to Boston; it was almost expected going in. But considering the Nets’ lead at halftime, these second-half breakdowns are a bad sign. The will to battle for close games, that killer instinct that all elite teams have, isn’t developed yet. When the Nets start to keep their first-half leads with resilience and toughness, that’s when the wins will start coming in regularly.

Some more notes on the game after the jump.

  • Brook Lopez followed up his great night against the Hawks with another stinker: 16 points on just 5-of-14 shooting. It’s understandable, considering the schizophrenia he must have incurred from being defended by the Hawks’ frontcourt and then that of the Celtics, but Lopez needs to start putting a string of good games together, so he can establish himself as the offensive leader of this team. Notching his first double-double of the year some time soon would be a good start.
  • Kris Humphires, though he did bring down 9 rebounds, was a nonfactor offensively. Starting him is good in theory, so long as he can carry a bit of the offensive responsibility. When he only scores 2 points on 1-of-5 shooting, that’s when you start wishing Troy Murphy had joined the team on the road trip.
  • The Nets’ second unit was fairly impressive tonight, most notably because of Petro’s valuable minutes. Jordan Farmar ran the offense well, but he cannot buy a bucket from long range. He was 1-of-6 from out there against the Celtics.
  • Here’s one thing I want to get off my chest: I watch the Nets games on NBA League Pass Broadband, so when they’re on the road I have to settle for the home team’s announcers. I’ve thought this for a long time, but Tommy Heinsohn has got to be one of the most partisan color commentators I have ever had the displeasure of listening to. Every call a referee makes against the Celtics is wrong. If someone on the opposing team did something well, it was because of luck, not because of skill. On a scale of bias from Vin Scully to Johnny Most, Heinsohn doesn’t even register. He’s much too much of a homer to even be compared to Most.