|Sunday, January 7
Updated: January 8, 10:26 AM ET
O'Brien needs to focus on Celtics' strengths
By Dr. Jack Ramsay
Special to ESPN.com
Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino will resign his command on Monday and assistant Jim O'Brien will move into the head coaching job. O'Brien knows Celtics personnel very well and understands that he has a major re-tooling job to do if the Celtics are to stop their slide and become a playoff contender.
O'Brien's first concern must be team defense. Boston is the worst in the league in field-goal percentage defense (.466) and ranks 26th in points allowed (97.8). Opponents shredded the Celtics' full-court press. It's a risky style of defense at best in the NBA, and is not compatible with team personnel. The Celtics lack capable one-on-one perimeter stoppers, so opponents are able to penetrate freely into the basket area. There, because the defense is stretched by the trapping efforts, even missed shots are often converted into scores by offensive putbacks (the Celtics rank 22nd in rebounds per game -- 40.8).
The pressure-defense system was basically ineffective; it should be abandoned in favor of a strong half-court concept with a plan to force the ball in one direction (preferably to the baseline), followed by consistent weak-side help and effective rotations to cover open shooters. This adjustment requires the full focus of the coaches and players -- plus hard work on the practice floor. O'Brien told me that he's ready to move in those directions.
O'Brien's next priority is team offense. Boston's field-goal percentage (.419) ranks 25th in the league. That indicates the team isn't getting many fastbreak opportunities despite forcing 17 turnovers per game. The Celtics seldom have an organized, three-man fastbreak. Fastbreak scores most often come from long pass connections where the receiver has beaten all defenders to the basket ... and there aren't many of those.
That shortcoming relegated the offense to a half-court passing-game style where the best scorers, Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, often forced shots from beyond their optimum shooting areas. Consequently, Walker is shooting .413 from the field and Pierce, who has a great shooting touch, is hitting only .441. Factor in the tepid percentages of the other starters -- Bryant Stith (.422), Kenny Anderson (.379), and Mark Blount (.190) -- and anemic shooting from the bench players, and the Celtics' low shooting percentage is clear.
The Celtics must develop a fastbreak focus so that there's an organized running attack with each possession -- even after opponent's scores. There's enough squad speed, rebounding and ball-handling skill to do this. It must be demanded by the coaches and become a part of the players' mind-set. This will get them some easy scores and raise offensive efficiency.
In half court, O'Brien will run more set plays for Pierce and Walker in an effort to get them the ball where they are most effective. That should help both players and the team. Walker has great maneuverability at the low post and is a good passer if double-teamed; he needs to stay in the basket area. Pierce has great catch-and-shoot skills, can drive to the hoop, and can shoot over most defenders from the post. The other Celtics must play off the two high scorers, who will draw most of the opponent's defensive attention. The end result will be more high-percentage shots for everyone.
Better team defense and more efficient offense will convert to more Celtic wins. Boston is 12-22 as Pitino leaves his post. O'Brien feels the Celtics have a chance for a playoff spot. It's a daunting challenge. At the end of this week's homestand against Portland, Miami and Minnesota, they will have played nine more home games than on the road -- then they embark on a four-game West Coast trip. To make the playoffs, they must beat out either Indiana (15-19) or Toronto (15-17).
The turnaround must begin now.