The Celtics take on Howard and win

It was a renaissance in Boston last night. Garnett was draining 20 footers, Paul Pierce was driving and kicking and hitting shots, and Jermaine O’Neal was putting the clamps on Dwight Howard. Everybody hustled. The defensive intensity never lapsed all game. To steal a line from NBA TV studio man Brent Barry, the Celtics’ “Jurassic Five” went prehistoric on the Magic and held them to a franchise-low 56 points. It was their first win over a team with a winning record, by 31 points no less.

Recently, I’ve discussed the efficacy of the hack-a-Howard strategy (or as Celtics TV mainstay Tommy Heinsohn puts it, the old “hack the Shaq”). The short answer is that Howard shoots too well from the line (59% almost every year, though lower so far this year) for a pure hack-a-Howard to be effective for most teams. However, hacking Howard only when he has the ball in good position could be more effective. Howard shoots around 58% from the field and likely higher in some situations (rebound put backs, catches deep in the post, against smaller defenders, etc.). I was curious to see how the Celtics would handle Howard, so I tracked his positions for the game.

First Quarter

Howard started as follows:

  • Howard threw up a brick against Jermaine O’Neal
  • Easy dunk
  • Nice left hook going to the baseline over O’Neal (no help defense)
  • Alley oop dunk (O’Neal was there but can’t jump high enough anymore; he just watched the monster slam from the floor)
  • Partial block by O’Neal with very little help in the post again

It seemed like the Celtics wanted to start by guarding Howard straight up with O’Neal, which worked okay but not great. Howard was 3 for 5, and O’Neal missed two great chances for a man hug on the dunks. In response to Howard’s success, the Celtics changed tack the next two times Howard got the ball:

  • Sasha “the Dog” Pavlovic came down to double team, leaving Jason Richardson open; Howard found him cutting through the lane for an easy layup
  • O’Neal fouled Howard hard to prevent a good look at a layup (Howard made both free throws)

The double team was ineffective in this case: it gave up an easy basket. On the other hand, O’Neal’s foul on Howard was smart. I would have rather seen the same thing on the first play. Howard’s poor foul shooting works as well as a double team, since the defender can always foul if he gets a good look at a shot. The fact that his shooting percentage is similar to his free throw percentage suggests that most teams are using fouls in this way, at about the right rate. They take away Howard’s best shots (which lowers his shooting percentage), but allow him the ones that are about as successful as his free throw shooting.

In came Greg “the Dutch Steamer” Stiemsma for O’Neal at this point. The youngster faced a tough challenge. Here’s what happened:

  • Pavlovic came down to help the Steamer and the Dog picked up a quick and obvious foul before Howard could get close to the hoop (Howard made both free throws)
  • The Steamer failed to box out Howard, who beat four Celtics for the board off of a brick by Hedo “the Turk” Turkoglu, earning an easy put back
  • Howard sits down for awhile
Not a lot of action here. There was little the Steamer could do after he missed the box out (no time for a man hug). However, the first play was telling. With O’Neal out, the Celtics were even less confident that they could stop Howard, so they chose to foul once he had good position. There would be more of this later.

Second Quarter

The Celtics led by a few points for most of the second quarter. Howard sat out for the first four minutes or so. As soon as he came back in, Doc Rivers countered with O’Neal. He must have been feeling smug at this point, having gotten a few minutes out of the Steamer (i.e., more rest for O’Neal) without giving up much on the scoreboard. Here are Howard’s second quarter touches:

  • Howard got another easy offensive board; Marquis Daniels looked to be going for the smart hack to prevent the dunk but somehow got a clean steal
  • Howard started near the corner, turned and blew by O’Neal down the baseline, but had very little space and ended up under the hoop; Marquis Daniels contested the tough shot without fouling and Howard missed
  • Deep post up on O’Neal (no double team) with a strong move to the lane; O’Neal prevented the layup with his third foul (Howard split the free throws).
  • Garnett comes in for O’Neal
  • Turnover on the entry pass to the post, off Howard’s hands
  • Deep catch, the Celtics double to help Garnett, and Howard found Jameer Nelson for a wide open three (nailed it)
  • Garnett fouled Howard on the catch (non-shooting foul)
  • Same possession, deep post again on Garnett, missed layup
  • Deep once more, missed a tough layup across the lane; the Celtics double teamed and brought a third guy to disrupt the shot as Howard moved to the hoop
  • One last time into the post, Garnett fouled right away while fighting for position (no intent, Howard split the free throws)

Once again, the Celtics manned up Howard with O’Neal in the post, and he smartly fouled when Howard got a good look. After the foul, Rivers decided to preserve O’Neal. With Garnett defending (as with the Steamer), the Celtics double teamed on two of the three possessions where Howard was able to start a post move, but they gave up a kick out three on one of these plays. Garnett held Howard to a miss and one free throw without help (giving up two fouls). Again, fouling, even before Howard got a good look, proved to be a better choice than the double team.

Howard had a ton of chances in the second quarter, and, overall, the Celtics defense was strong, holding him to two free throws and an assist on a three pointer. Meanwhile, the Celtics got rolling with some nice half court play and hustle from Avery Bradley (playing in place of Rondo). It was a 10 point game at halftime.

Third Quarter

The Magic continued to run the “toss it to the post” offense. Here were Howard’s third quarter touches (this covers almost every Magic possession):

  • Hook shot over O’Neal (brick)
  • Mid-post entry pass nearly stolen by Pierce (double teaming); kick out for a Jason Richardson brick.
  • Deep post, called for an offensive foul (shoulder to the jaw of Jermaine O’Neal as he crossed the lane, which probably should have been a blocking foul); the shot was no good
  • Deep post catch on O’Neal, Celtics doubled, Howard kicked out, and the Turk drained the three
  • Howard never got the ball, but he and O’Neal bump, O’Neal puts his finger in Howard’s face, and they exchange words; double technicals and a personal on O’Neal (non-shooting foul)
  • The Steamer comes in for O’Neal
  • The Steamer intentionally fouls as Howard moves to the lane to prevent any look at a layup (Howard splits the free throws)
  • Deep catch, double team, kick out; the ball came back in and Howard missed a quick hook shot from close
  • Another obvious foul from the Steamer in the post (Howard misses both free throws)
  • The Steamer has done his duty, out he goes for Brandon Bass
  • Howard catches fairly deep, but KG had him off balance; tough baseline move, awkward reverse under the hoop, well-contested by Garnett and miss
  • Deep post with Bass now defending; big mismatch but Howard decided on a baseline fade away hook (brick)
  • Deep post again on Bass, double team by E’Twaun Moore, who committed a reach in foul (made both free throws).
  • Exact same play with the double team, this time Bass committed the foul to prevent a layup (missed both free throws)

Yes, that was 11 post ups for Howard in one quarter. His haul? Three made free throws, 0-4 from the field, no easy shots, and 1-2 on three point kick outs. The Celtics strategy remained the same. They sometimes let O’Neal defend one on one and sometimes double teamed, Stiemsma either fouled intentionally or got help, and Bass got help on every play. Their results? Even better than the first half. O’Neal got two stops by himself, while two double teams led to one made and one missed three. The Steamer’s intentional fouls were successful (one free throw on two possessions). Howard got no good shots. Unlike in the first half, however, Howard was unable to find open guys out of the Stiemsma/Garnett/Bass double teams. By the end of the quarter, the double team seemed to be working.

My theory is that Howard was tiring at this point. The Celtics were running around like crazy. Avery Bradley pressed Jameer Nelson the whole way down the court, creating multiple turnovers (as Heinsohn put it, “This guy is a weapon on defense”). Guys were working the boards and getting steals all over the place. Every time down, the Magic just pitched the ball into Howard and said, “Good luck.” Given that Nelson and the Turk are both decent penetrators, I was surprised to see this lack of offensive creativity. Even a pick and roll would have been novel.

The Celtics built up a 23 point lead by the end of the third, and Howard managed little in the fourth. O’Neal stopped him again one on one and then fouled out to prevent a dunk (Howard split the free throws). Howard looked gassed as he left the game with 6:50 left and the Magic down by 24. Largely due to O’Neal’s judicious fouling and strong defense, Howard had zero good shots outside of his two first quarter dunks.

There are some lessons from this game. First, blindly hacking Howard is certainly not worth it if you have decent, smart defenders. Old man O’Neal looked like he might never get up after bumping knees with the Turk in the third, but he still stopped Howard from getting good shots all by himself after a slow start in the first. Second, double teams are not really necessary against Howard. They may have their place when he’s going to the hoop single mindedly (i.e., when he got tired in this game), but in general they free up the Magic’s strong three point shooters. Howard is a bad enough free throw shooter that fouling only on good shot attempts keeps his scoring rate down and eliminates the need for the double team. He gets frustrated too; after the last foul by O’Neal, he could be seen mouthing, ” . . . all game!” angrily. The hacks were in his head. Third, Howard is not actually Superman, so he will get tired; throwing lots of bodies at him can create an advantage in the second half.

Still, Howard’s struggles ended up taking the back seat to the Celtics’ overall dominance. It was easily the best game of the year for the C’s, and they did it without their two most consistent players (Rondo and Allen). Garnett had five steals and even found his lovable personality in the fourth quarter — the basket mic caught him screaming, “Get that s*** outta here!” as he rejected the Turk on a layup. Brandon Bass (8-14, 19 points, 8 boards, 1 turnover) smoked Big Baby Davis (2-9, 6 points, 11 boards, 4 turnovers) in the battle for trade supremacy. I’m excited for the rematch in Orlando on Thursday!

A lot of people have been down on the Celtics for their early struggles. The old three were starting to look their age, but maybe Pierce’s heel injury was really bothering him (he’s been great in the last two games), and maybe Garnett needed to play his legs into shape. They have a secretly good bench, and you can never fault their effort. My buddy Tony says these Celtics made him care about basketball again, since they play hard no matter what. They probably try too hard, if anything — even though they are shorthanded and need to conserve their energy, Pierce and Garnett stayed in for the fourth quarter last night (I’ve complained about this before).

For something light, be sure to check out this Max Tall ad for men’s shoe inserts that plays regularly on NBA TV, or this one for 0.9999 pure gold coins (“That’s 4 nines!” which is the only thing higher than Ray Allen’s free throw percentage). There’s another one for die cast model Ford trucks that I can’t seem to find. Come on NBA! Get some real ads.

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