An oft overlooked bonus of team depth is limiting the drop off when a starter falls into early, or late for that matter, foul trouble. Last night we saw this ripple go even deeper as Carmelo Anthony drew an early flurry of fouls on Paul Pierce and then on his substitute Marquis Daniels. Enter the defensive specialist used less and less of late and whose season has been a roller coaster ride. Tony Allen had possibly his best game of this campaign. He turned in an efficient and effective performance by playing deny-the-ball and then physical on-the-ball defense against Denver's most explosive scorer. He kept the miscues down while slashing to the basket especially without the ball and providing a punitive outlet when the Nuggets converged on his teammates. Finally he provided a desperately needed 20 minutes and 5 fouls suppressing the mighty Melo in a game where his fellow swingmen stayed in foul trouble (Daniels 3 in just 6 minutes, Pierce 5 with 3 early ones).
One might note the irony of the timely emergence of three deep coverage at the small forward position which has been the most criticized flaw in the current Celtics aggregate. While there is still a deficit in size needed to control power-three's (think Rashad Lewis, Lamar Oden, or even LeBron), the depth to deal with finesse and skill players at this position seems to be in place and functional. From an offensive standpoint the depth has some significant similarities. Paul, Marquis, and Tony all thrive attacking the basket. While only Paul has a consistent outside shot, each of them pose a significant threat slashing toward the lane without the ball. All finish well and often draw a foul in addition to converting around the basket.
This depth issue has looked better and better as the starters have gotten healthier, Danny has added pieces at midseason, and several players morphed into altered roles. Nate has been a significant upgrade over House. Thus far he has shot better and certainly he handles the ball better. Perhaps most important he can create his own shot and the movement he forces from the defense creates opportunities for his teammates. His defense has been a pleasant surprise and the water-bug backcourt of Nate and Rondo has flashed glimpses of a whole new level of defensive pressure. Playing really short has obvious liabilities but sometimes you need takeaways and can't afford the 24-second cycle. If they can't force the steal or 8-second call, they still seriously impede the progress of the opponents getting into their offense and the half court vulnerability may have as little as a 10-second lifespan. His addition along with Finley has allowed Doc to play the second group as a unit with adequate firepower, ball handling, and outside shooting.
Finley has been a surprisingly beneficial addition. His shooting range fits much better with either Tony or Marquis who, when played together, left so little outside threat that defenses packed into the lane dared the slashers to break the scrum. Michael has picked up the offensive and defensive schemes much faster than most new Celtics and displays the best aspects of experience--good court spacing, finding the open man, an awareness of the shot clock, and anticipation to help on defense and close off the passing lanes. It is hard to know for sure but there may also be a positive side effect from the outside attack of Finley and Robinson that has encouraged Wallace to rein in his errant long-distance bombing.
These additions have been positive but hardly tell the whole story. Part of the improved depth situation has been wrought by the role changes achieved by several players. Big Baby has managed to shift from his Garnett-replacement act of the end of last season to return to energizer bunny off the bench. Often criticized for his rebounding, or lack thereof, he has become the designated board crasher of the second unit. Rather than leaning on his mid-range jumper like last April and May, he has unleashed quite an array of shots inside 10 feet. Even the new knock on Davis, that he stubbornly forces up shots inside in a crowd, has been less evident of late as he seems more willing to recycle the possession by kicking it outside when surrounded. While he picks up about as many blocking calls as charges, in either case the effect is some opponent slamming into nearly 300 pounds which has to dampen their enthusiasm a bit.
At least as important as Big Baby's willing resumption of his bench role has been Rasheed Wallace spending significantly more time in the blocks rather than beyond the circle where he is having a career-low year. Now the second unit has a low post attack to balance the outside shooting of Finley and Robinson, the slashing of Daniels or Tony Allen, and the (massive) pick and roll or pop of Davis. Rasheed may also finally be rounding into something resembling NBA game shape.
It has been a long haul to get all the pieces gathered and healthy enough to participate. The whole seems to be meshing and it seems reasonable to hope that these final few weeks of games can meld the whole into a team that exceeds the sum of the parts. Last night the Celtics assured themselves of a spot in the playoffs. Seems timely, don't you just love it when a plan comes together.