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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tale of Two Teams, Two Very Different Philosophies

The opening minutes of tonight’s Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics game told the tale of two teams, two styles, two philosophies. The Raptors, who took to the parquet floor of Boston’s TD Garden with six international players, tore the leather off the cover of the official NBA Spalding basketball with 18 points in just under seven minutes of non-stop, offensive action. Toronto’s repertoire ranged from the workman-like inside moves of 6-10 (American) power-forward Chris Bosh to rainbow three-pointers by 6-10 (Turkish) swingman Hedo Turkoglu to a driving lay-up by 6-3 (Spanish) point guard Jose Calderon.

The Raptors shot the lights out early, hitting for better than 64-percent from the field. Not bad, you would think?

The problem? Let me count the ways and list the lay-ups and dunks from the first quarter play-by-play sheet:

9:45 - Ray Allen lay-up
9:16 - Rajon Rondo lay-up
8:48 – Paul Pierce lay-up
8:25 – Kendrick Perkins lay-up
7:51 – Kevin Garnett dunk
7:25 – Paul Pierce lay-up
6:25 – Kevin Garnett dunk
5:57 – Paul Pierce lay-up

It wasn’t until the 4:34 mark of the first quarter when Celtics forward Ray Allen settled for a jump shot off a Rondo pass when the Raptors let up a bucket other than a lay-up or dunk. That resulted in the Celtics shooting 12-for-13 over the opening stanza of the game, a torrid 92-percent from field goal range. After trading a few baskets and actually missing a shot or two, the quarter ended with another Rondo driving lay-up, a buzzer buzzer-beater to give the home team a 33-27 lead on 15-of-18 shooting (83-percent) with nine assists coming from the 15 field goals.

Not to be overlooked, the Raptors were raining down jump shots and scoring at a clip that would result in a full 18 points over the 90.8 points per game (ppg) that the Bostonians hold their visitors to on a nightly basis.

“We were having a feel good game at that point,” said Celtics Coach Doc Rivers. “You know, you score, you pat them on the back and they score.”

It was another Friday night fight for the Celtics on their home court, an unpleasant scenario for Rivers’ all-night video-tape sessions as his club held a entered the game with a dismal 1-3 mark within their friendly confines.

Of course, the Celtics took to the court without a single international player on their roster. The 2008 NBA champions fashion a large part of their game on the defensive end of the court, anchored by Kevin Garnett, one of the league’s best interior defenders. Danny Ainge, the popular team GM and executive director of basketball, together with Rivers, a proven veteran coach who stresses strong team defense with ball movement and unselfish play on the offensive end, orchestrated one of the NBA’s boldest series of off-season moves prior to their 2008 championship. They added to the player personnel file this past summer when free agent forward Rasheed Wallace and free agent guard Marquis Daniels were acquired to strengthen the team’s second unit and provide added interior defense alongside KG.

“Defense wins championships and offense sells tickets,” said Wallace in a recent Boston WEEI-Radio interview, echoing a statement he made frequently when he was on the Detroit Pistons’ NBA title team of 2004. Wallace’s quote, however, was really a paraphrase of famed Alabama college football coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant who was quoted as coining a similar, “offense wins games, but defense wins championships” line.

So the Toronto Raptors, hailing from a diverse and truly international metropolis, come to play games in the NBA with six international players, a Canadian coach in Jay Triano, an Italian Assistant General Manager/Player Personnel director in Maurizio Gherardini and the worldly viewpoint of team president Bryan Colangelo, who once orchestrated the high-octane offense of the Phoenix Suns and now wooing global talent to his new, cosmopolitan city.

The problem? Guarding.

“The Raptors can not guard anyone,” said one veteran NBA scout who has as much global experience as anyone in the game. “Bosh is not a very good defender. (Anrdea) Bargnani poses match-up problems but just can’t guard and Calderon can’t guard anyone.”

When it comes to tough, seven game series basketball in the playoffs, the Raptors must hit their shots. Otherwise, they will fall victim to teams like the Celtics who dialed up their defensive pressure in the third quarter to outscore Toronto 25-4 to put this particular game, played over the American Thanksgiving weekend, out of reach.

So, a look at the two teams and two very different philosophies tell the tale. The theory of tough defensive pressure and team defensive dominance seems to triumph over high-powered offensive might. A 25-4 run will prove the point every time.

Yet, high scoring, spread the defense and hit three-pointer style offense has doomed the Celtics on a number of occasions earlier this season. The Phoenix Suns’ 110-103 victory over the Celtics on November 3 provided a blue print of Boston’s vulnerabilities for the rest of the NBA. The question for Celtics’ opponents to ponder is simple. Can you consistently hit shots? Can you play 48-minutes of high-octane offense against a team that has superior defensive capabilities?

Do you want to play the run, shoot and score, international style or the rock ‘em, sock ‘em, shake down street NBA championship style defense?

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