C's bench, LaFrentz big keys
By Brian James
Jermaine O'Neal on race and the NBA age limit
Game 1 of this Eastern Conference series proved to me how quickly opinions can change.
Most of the season, the Boston Celtics' front office was criticized for personnel decisions. Now the Celtics are hailed for putting a quality team together. Danny Ainge and his staff have not only done a tremendous job of getting a playoff-tested team in his main core of players, but an energetic team of speed and youth in a second unit that left the Indiana Pacers helpless in a 102-82 drubbing. Let's take a look at some of the matchups and what the keys might be in winning Game 2 Monday night.
Celtics: Gary Payton was able to get enough rest because of the lopsided score that he will be raring to go in Game 2. Payton has redefined his game this season in Boston and truly has been a pleasant surprise in leading and teaching this young nucleus how to play under coach Doc Rivers. His 7-for-11 field-goal shooting shows Payton can still dominate a game from the free-throw line and under. He can create shots for himself and for everyone else when he backs the smaller point guard down inside. This team needs his veteran skills out front. He can still finish with the best in transition and make quality decisions with the ball. Payton is still very good in screen-roll action from on top or the wing.
Pacers: Normally, Anthony Johnson would be regarded as one of league's best backup point guards. But the injury to Jamaal Tinsley now makes Johnson the starter. He can make important shots when open, gets others involved, and knows when and how to deliver the ball to the proper man. But Johnson is not as quick as needed when plays break down and you need him to create something out of nothing. A solid player, but admittedly the Pacers miss Tinsley.
Celtics: Tony Allen started 34 games in the regular season, averaging 16 minutes. He shot 47 percent from the floor. He fits right into the Celtics' philosophy of getting athletic young talent to go with the older vets. Allen is a slasher, and he can jump out of the arena going in to dunk the ball. A hard-nosed tough defender who isn't afraid to mix it up with the best at his position. He's constantly improving. The Pacers must make him take the jump shots instead of allowing him to drive to his right.
Pacers: Reggie Miller was not himself in Game 1. Trust me, the Pacers will do a better job of keeping Reggie in the game longer with closer games. He will get more screens to use. The Celtics did a good job of shadowing him and denying open looks. Crowding him as much as possible without fouling is quite a challenge. I predict that he will respond like the Reggie we all know in Game 2. His work ethic and mental toughness won't allow him to fail. I'm sorry to see him retire since he is a true professional who only cares about winning. Advantage: Pacers
Celtics: Paul Pierce didn't get his first field goal until 7:56 remained in Game 1. I don't think I've ever seen or heard of that before with Pierce. But the Celtics still won by a large margin, which is scary. Pierce is still one of the best clutch scorers in the fourth quarter. Getting to the free-throw line is one of his biggest attributes. Rivers has brought back some of the old Celtics plays of Jim O'Brien, the ones that use the high-low diagonal pass from Antoine Walker to Pierce. That play seems unstoppable. Inside or outside, Pierce can hurt you. He had nine free-throw attempts, nine rebounds, five assists and five steals. This is a great night for many other players
Pacers: Stephen Jackson will again try to limit Pierce's touches in the post or open areas on the wing. His height definitely can affect any 3s he defends. Jackson works on fronting the low post, which will make Pierce come out on the floor to catch the ball. Besides his defense, Jackson's 25 points led the Pacers. Even though he shot only 40 percent from the floor for the year, Jackson was excellent hitting jumpers or attacking in Game 1. He was 3-for-4 from 3-point range and 9-of-14 overall. He must limit his turnovers by not trying to do too much and must let his game come to him in the flow. Indiana needs big games out of him to win, and the majority of times, Jackson delivers.
Advantage: The Celtics overall, but the Pacers in Game 1.
Celtics: Talk about inspired! Walker was as verbal and feisty as ever. He came to his teammates' defense when Miller started talking. Walker committed just one turnover in 30 minutes and was not just settling for tough 3-point attempts. He is playing the right way. His defense inside is crucial, as is his rebounding from his position – whether it be on O'Neal, Dale Davis, Jeff Foster or Austin Croshere. Some are inside players, some outside, and Walker must be able to defend both. He still stretches the defense for Pierce and the drivers when he is on the perimeter.
Pacers: Jermaine O'Neal had an off shooting night, and you can tell he is not completely recovered from his March 3 right shoulder sprain. He'll have to be on the floor for more than 25 minutes and produce from his right block, which he calls home on those turnaround jump shots. He scored just seven points in Game 1. Look for the Pacers to get him going early in Game 2. Post-ups on the move or the screen and roll to get his man on the run to keep up with him is how he likes to attack the defense. Hopefully, rest during off days in this series will allow his right shoulder to heal.
Advantage: Pacers (or this series will be over soon).
Celtics: Raef LaFrentz turned out to be the secret weapon in Game 1. His outside shooting (5-for-5 from 3-point land) provided the bulk of his 21 points. Healthy for the first time most of this season, LaFrentz makes a big difference. When he plays like this, the Celtics are almost unbeatable. They love to start LaFrentz because he is so good at stretching the defense and allowing Pierce and Walker to post up. That allows the athletic wings to use the dribble drive. LaFrentz's hands are always ready for the kick out to the weak side. After he sets a drag screen, he is able to quickly get 10-12 feet away to create distance between him and his defender, who is showing out to help get the ball stopped. Then on the quick pass to him, he has his hands ready to shoot. When he is stationary on the weak side, he is always in position to shoot the ball. He'll need to play the exact same way in Game 2.
Pacers: Dale Davis starts at center. Who then starts on defending LaFrentz out by the 3-point line? Davis loves to be in the paint guarding and banging with the low-post guys. This is not LaFrentz's game, so there could be a change again early here. The Pacers might assign O'Neal to guard LaFrentz and keep Davis inside on any post-up threat. Davis still rebounded with authority with a game-high 10 boards. He needs to get more than one basket, though, even if his touches are scarce.
Celtics: The team's 40 bench points proved to be the difference in Game 1. The second unit is young, tough, athletic and inspired by the home crowd. A 28-point difference in second-quarter scoring was key, and the second unit provided the emotion. The reserves made steals and still moved the ball on offense to find the open man. Ricky Davis is a starter in my mind, and Al Jefferson and Marcus Banks constantly are improving.
Pacers: With the suspension of Ron Artest and assorted injuries to others, the Pacers just aren't as deep as in past years. Foster, Croshere, Scot Pollard and Fred Jones are quality people coming into the game. Now, with additional shooter James Jones and Eddie Gill, these six players off the bench must bring it to the Celts. Jones must attack, Foster rebound and Croshere and Jones knock down shots.
Celtics: Rivers is the right coach for this team. His experience as a player in playoff series will help him here. He lets his team be creative offensively and lets his veterans make decisions on the court but isn't afraid to make the tough decisions with anyone. He has molded them into a unit. With some of the personalities on this team, that could not have been easy.
Pacers: With everything he has had to go through this season, Rick Carlisle should be ready for sainthood. No one does a better job at either end. His game preparation is always sound, and his demeanor is patient but demanding at the same time. Coaching will not determine this series.
Game 1 keys
Celtics: The stats don't lie. This team made shots with LaFrentz outside the 3-point line drawing a big defender away from the interior. If this continues, it will be a short series because you know that Pierce's scoring will improve. The Celtics' bench dominated this game.
Pacers: They couldn't hold off the momentum in the 39-11 romp in the second quarter. This was a problem with the starters and the subs. Defensively, they couldn't get back in time, since they didn't make the Celtics take the ball out of the net enough after a score. They doubled the turnovers, 22-11. The Pacers didn't take care of the ball, and this is uncharacteristic of them.
Game 2 adjustments
Celtics: The Celtics need to keep attacking – and playing unselfishly. Except for the 16 field-goal attempts by Walker, every Celtic had about the same number of shots. The third-best shooting team this season connected on 51.4 percent from the floor in Game 1. Boston enjoyed plenty of layups and open shots. Shooting 10-for-18 from 3-point range will win almost any game. The Celtics' "inside-outside" philosophy worked, as did stretching out the Pacers' defense with shooters. The second unit was tremendous defensively in clogging passing lanes.
Pacers: They must get their two top stars to produce better numbers. If they get only 14 points combined from O'Neal and Miller again, the team's vacation will start earlier than expected. Look for both to get plenty of opportunities to get turned around in the first quarter. The bench must be better, as well. The Pacers' reserves shot only 6-for-23 as a group. The Pacers must contest on defense, corral the ball and shoot the ball with better movement to get open. Slow the pace down somewhat and give your defense a chance. Get those Celtic scorers out of the paint.
Original Prediction: The Celtics in 7. There is no reason to change this now. I loved the C's energy.