We (yes Dostie I use we, I’ll get into why that’s ok at a later date) had a great Game 3 on Saturday. Kevin Garnett made an appearance, Paul Pierce started the game in hero mode (good) instead of ending the game in hero mode (bad), Shaq lumbered around for 8 minutes, Jeff Green and Delonte West played decently, Jermaine O’Neal did his thing yet again and my little buddy Rajon Rondo put the question in our minds, “Is he better one handed than two?” There were a lot of positives that we could dig deeper into, but since the bad (Game 1 and Game 2) has outweighed the good (Game 3) so far, I want to talk about something that has been overlooked to this point that stands as a real concern for the rest of the series: Doc Rivers substitutions.
Doc Rivers has turned himself into a good NBA coach. He has won an NBA championship and 2 Coach of the Year awards. He has earned the respect and love of his players. He took a late first round draft pick who was known for butting heads with his coaches (Rondo) and has helped to turn him into a superstar and a leader. Most importantly, he has mastered the skill that seems to be most important in today’s NBA, which is managing player egos. One thing Doc has always struggled with, though, is putting the right guys on the court in the right situations.
The single biggest sign of a bad coach: Someone who can't settle on an eight-man or nine-man rotation. NBA players need consistency. They need to play together for prolonged periods. They don't like looking over their shoulder every time the horn blasts. They don't need a coach whisking guys on and off the court for four quarters, especially a young player battling to maintain his confidence. Bill Simmons, Jan. 12, 2006This quote, taken from a Bill Simmons article 5 years ago, demonstrates Doc’s most serious flaw. He was never able to settle on a set rotation when the team was composed of Paul Pierce and a bunch of youngsters and role players. When Danny Ainge gift wrapped him KG and Ray Allen, Doc’s job became a little easier. Play the Big 3 for 34-38 minutes a night and fill in accordingly. His first year with the new nucleus, he was also blessed with a true sixth man in James Posey to make his substitutions even easier. However, with young and inconsistent players at point guard and center (Rondo and Kendrick Perkins) and wily veterans backing them up (Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown), Doc still had a hard time settling on any consistency.
The next two years did not make things any easier on Doc. Rondo and Perkins emerged as legitimate stars and starters, respectively, which allowed Doc to put each of them on a regular rotation with the rest of the Big 3, but Doc was now faced with two new problems he did not have to deal with as much in Year 1 of the Big 3 era. The first problem that arose was the increased roles of Glenn Davis, Tony Allen and the revolving door of backup point guards (Eddie House, Stephon Marbury, Nate Robinson). With the departures of key veterans after the championship season, Davis, Allen and Rondo’s backups all were thrust into more minutes. For those of you who watched those two seasons, you of course know that it was impossible to know whether any of these players would play well from night to night. They all played hard, sure, but rarely did they play smart and this led to a lot of inconsistency in level of play and playing time.
The other problem that Doc had to deal with was injuries. In 2008-09, KG missed 25 games and Tony Allen, Pierce and Ray’s top backup, missed 36. The next season, KG missed 13, Pierce missed 11, Davis and Tony Allen each missed 28, and Marquis Daniels missed 31. This amount of injuries would wreak havoc on any coach, so we cannot really fault Doc here for having trouble finding a set rotation.
This season brought with it a whole new issue for Doc’s rotation. For the previous 3 seasons, the Celtics’ mantra was that they had never lost a playoff series with their starting 5 intact. This season, Perkins missed the first 43 games of the season, and his replacements, the O’Neal brothers, alternated trips to the trainer’s table the whole time. In addition, Daniels’ season came to an end prematurely leaving the team without a true backup for Pierce. Of course, at the trade deadline, Ainge blew up the supporting cast around the (now) Big 4 and Doc has yet to figure out the best rotation for this team.
Which brings us to the Miami series. In this series, Doc has made 3 egregious substitution mistakes that have had varying impacts.
1) and 2) Playing Glenn Davis and not playing Jermaine O’Neal. In Games 1 and 2, Davis played 9 more minutes than O’Neal. In Games 1 and 2, Davis’ Plus/Minus was -35 and O’Neal’s was +2. In Games 1 and 2, the Celtics lost by a combined 20 points. For those who do not know what Plus/Minus is here is a quick example. Let’s say Jermaine O’Neal starts the game and with about 5 minutes left in the opening quarter is replaced by Davis with the Celtics winning by a score of 18-5. O’Neal’s Plus/Minus is +13 because the Celtics outscored the opponent by 13 points while he was in the game. Then, let’s say, Davis exits the game with 12 seconds left in the 1st quarter with the score now 27-19, Celtics. In his time on the court, the Celtics were outscored 14-9, so his Plus/Minus is -5 (Note: this was an actual scenario from Game 2 of the Knicks series). So why was Doc playing Davis more than O’Neal when Davis was clearly playing poorly and O’Neal was clearly playing well? Granted, he did fix this in Game 3 (Davis only played 11 minutes and only managed a 0 Plus/Minus in a blowout), but what took him so long? O’Neal outplayed Davis in every game but the first game of the Knicks series, including a whopping Plus/Minus difference of 46 in Game 3 (O’Neal +30, Davis -16). Clearly Doc has to play Davis some and maybe O’Neal can’t handle too many more minutes given his injury problems right now, but something is clearly off about Davis. Had Doc realized this sooner, maybe Games 1 and 2 would have been within reach, specifically Game 2 when Davis blew 3 shots in a row after the Celtics fought back to tie the game at 80 apiece. (For more on this go to Celtics Hub for a full breakdown of the Celtics' center situation).
3) Playing a one armed man with a double digit lead. This is another reminder that Doc Rivers is not a real Doctor. This may be the dumbest coaching move I have ever seen. What in the hell was Doc thinking allowing Rondo back into that game, especially with an 11 point lead? After Rondo was thrown to the ground by new public enemy number 1, Dwyane Wade, it looked like his season and the Celtics’ possibilities of advancing were over. To the delight of the crowd, Rondo returned to the bench about 10 minutes later. With his left arm dangling by his side, nobody thought he would actually come into the game, but it was great to see the little guy come out to support his team. Then the 4th quarter started and there he was on the court, grabbing a rebound with his giant right hand. With the Celtics’ lead reaching as high as 18, but no lower than 11, Rondo remained in the game the entire 4th quarter with one good arm. He was left exposed to picks, box outs, deflections and one particularly scary moment when he dove on the floor but expertly kept his left arm out of harm’s way. But this all begs the question, why? True, Delonte West was also injured in this game and we do not know how bad and Rondo is clearly a physical freak who was able to play almost as effectively with the one arm. But with a DISCLOCATED ELBOW and at least 3 more games to play if they want to move on, there is absolutely no reason he should have seen the court again. The Heat have terrible point guards and Doc could have gone with a rotation of Jeff Green and Von Wafer to cover up for West and Rondo’s absence for one quarter. I don’t know who got ahold of Doc’s ear to convince him that this was a good decision. Yes, everything worked out, but it is a coach’s job to put his players and his team in the best position to succeed on that day’s game and in the future. By allowing Rondo to play that quarter, Doc put the team and Rondo’s career in jeopardy and I am still having a hard time figuring out why.
I can't wait for tonight's game.