BOSTON — Andre Miller, a veteran of 14 seasons and more than a thousand games in the NBA, summed it up best.
“I think everybody played like they wanted to go home,” he said.
Miller and the Nuggets came out on the losing end of a triple-overtime battle on Sunday in the battle of the two hottest teams in the NBA. The Celtics’ survived, extending their win streak to seven games and halting Denver’s own win streak at nine, in a game in which neither team felt it played all that well.
“That’s how we play,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley said. “We’re a grind team, and we grinded this one out.”
With all due respect to Bradley, that is how the Celtics used to play. They have become a more dynamic team, ironically, since they lost Rajon Rondo, one of the league’s most dynamic players. They may have been a “grind” team for the last 5 1/2 seasons, but for the last seven games they have been anything but. In fact, they have looked a lot like the Nuggets.
The Celtics are still in the bottom third of the league in pace, which measures the average possessions a team uses in a 48-minute game. The Nuggets play at a faster pace than any team other than the Rockets while challenging opponents to keep up in the thin mountain air. Recently, however, the Celtics’ results speak for themselves.
The Celtics are averaging 84.8 field goal attempts per game in February, all without Rondo, up from about 80 attempts per game prior to Rondo’s injury. More shots have meant more baskets, but that is not always the case. The lowly Cavs, Suns and Kings are three of the more aggressive shooting teams in the league, for instance, but unlike those squads the Celtics are not simply firing away.
Their uptick in scoring is a result of a hounding defense that is forcing more turnovers and blocking more shots than at any point this season. On offense they are pulling off the tough task of moving the ball more effectively while also cutting down on turnovers. Typically, more passing means more opportunities to throw the ball away, but the Celtics are averaging a season-high 26.6 assists per game this month while averaging a season-low 13.8 turnovers per game.
This is the style that Denver coach George Karl idealizes. No team advances the ball with the pass as well as the Nuggets, who seem to take only three types of shots: layups, 3-pointers and free throws. That type of shot efficiency makes Karl the crush of the advanced-statistics crowd. He also has fans among the traditional set.
“I love watching them,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I tell George that all the time. They’re agenda-less. They’re a very difficult team to load on. We load on a couple guys a game, and I’m sitting there thinking, which guy do we so that to [against the Nuggets]?”
With Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa flying around in the backcourt and Bradley and Courtney Lee making life difficult for opposing ballhandlers, the Celtics have been similarly “agenda-less” of late. Still, Sunday’s slog showed that the similarities need only go so far. The Nuggets had won a few close games in their streak, such as an overtime triumph over the Thunder and a one-point victory over the Pacers, but in general they do not have that grinding quality the Celtics are able to hold in reserve. When things got tight on Sunday, the Nuggets often looked to Miller, the 36-year-old point guard who is the closest thing to a grinder they have on the roster.
The difference for the Celtics was the presence of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Those old hands are enjoying this free-wheeling style, yet they also know what to do when the track meet becomes a tug-of-war. Down two, three or even four in the waning moments, they never seemed surprised when clutch shot after clutch shot found its way into the hoop.
In order to continue their stretch of success without Rondo, the Celtics have to keep defending and running like they have throughout the streak. When needed, though, they showed Sunday that they can still dig into the muck and pull out a win.
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