Tuesday January 8th, 2008

The Boston Celtics' starting point guard, Rajon Rondo, is untested and will collapse like a three-legged chair in the pressure of the playoffs. Their starting center is Kendrick Perkins, and who is Kendrick Perkins? Their coach, Doc Rivers, a man of smoldering intensity, will push them so hard they'll revolt. Their expected leap from laughingstock (24-58 in 2006-07) to contender is too substantial to make in just one season. Their bench is thin, even if it includes a 6' 9", 289-pound human tugboat of a rookie named Glen (Big Baby) Davis.

One of their Big Three of power forward Kevin Garnett, small forward Paul Pierce and shooting guard Ray Allen will tire of a supporting role and chafe at not being the Man. They're good, but the more battle-tested Detroit Pistons, who have played in five straight conference finals, are better.

Go ahead, list the reasons that the Celtics -- who have not won an NBA championship since 1986, back when a svelte Larry Bird roamed the parquet, the aroma of Red Auerbach's cigars still fouled the air at Boston Garden, and Perkins was 19 months old -- cannot win the title this June. "We've heard them all," says Pierce, "and they don't mean a thing."

Any sense that Boston is not ready for prime time was zapped last Saturday at The Palace of Auburn Hills. In a 92-85 win over the Pistons, the Celtics demonstrated composure, bench strength, chemistry and coaching acumen. It might be true that the Celtics are, as Rivers says, "still under construction," but it's impossible not to notice the new high-rise going up in the Eastern Conference. That's what happens when a team gets off to a 29-3 start -- the fourth-best in NBA history -- as Boston had through Sunday. And when its pedigree, in a league desperate to evoke its glory years, includes 16 championship banners and that magical tag of storied franchise. And when all eyes in the basketball world are watching to see if its three elite players, all in their 30s, can form the backbone of a championship unit in just one year.

The last was the primary concern for the Celts, but Garnett, Pierce and Allen -- hereafter GPA -- have emerged as a tone-setting troika for a team that starts a 21-year-old point guard and includes six new rotation players, Garnett and Allen among them. As individuals GPA are NBA royalty, but none has been able to lead a team to the top. If they are not defined by playoff failure, they are certainly shadowed by it. "Paul, Kevin and Ray have done everything except win," says Rivers, "so this is the right time for all of them."

That's perhaps why the message got through when Rivers went all school-marm on GPA after their press conference in August following the acquisitions of Allen (from the Seattle SuperSonics for a No. 1 pick, guard Delonte West and swingman Wally Szczerbiak) and Garnett (from the Minnesota Timberwolves for five players, two No. 1 picks and cash). "None of you mentioned a word about defense," he told them after the convivial backslapping gabfest was over. "If we're going to get this done, we can't be a good defensive team. We have to be a great defensive team."

Garnett was a six-time All-Defensive First Team selection, but Pierce and Allen, both of whom had been carrying the offensive load on weak clubs, sometimes went on vacation when the opposition had the ball. Also, all three were noted referee lobbyists, known to stay back and haggle about a noncall while a fast break was transpiring at the other end. There would be none of that this season, Rivers told GPA. But even he could not have imagined his players' level of commitment and execution: With the example set by Garnett, who has always been a conscientious practice player, and the input of newly hired assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, an acclaimed defensive guru who was out of a job when his boss (Jeff Van Gundy) got fired by the Houston Rockets, Rivers had turned the Celtics into the stingiest team in the league at week's end, surrendering only 87.3 points per game.

Boston's defensive scheme on the perimeter had been fairly straightforward man-to-man, but Rivers and Thibodeau used some twists against the Pistons. They double-teamed point guard Chauncey Billups on most pick-and-rolls, double-teamed Billups and backcourt mate Rip Hamilton when they attempted to post up (there are nightly concerns about the slightly built, 6' 1" Rondo getting overpowered down low) and showed Billups a smorgasbord of defenders, including Allen, down the stretch. Mr. Big Shot had burned Boston on Dec. 19 in an 87-85 Pistons victory at TD Banknorth Garden -- it grieves the soul that it's no longer called Boston Garden -- but Billups struggled on Saturday, with 17 points on 3-for-9 three-point shooting and key misses (including three free throws) in the last four minutes.

The Celtics' interior D is more conventional; they avoid double-teaming for the most part and let the 6' 10", 280-pound Perkins bang the opposition's largest threat for much of the game before Garnett takes over. That worked in a 97-93 home win against the Rockets on Jan. 2, when Garnett covered Yao Ming in the final minutes and twice forced the 7' 6" center into misses on turnaround jumpers. Even when Detroit's 6' 11" Rasheed Wallace backed down 6' 8" James Posey several times in the first half on Saturday, the Celts didn't do much doubling, saving their scheming for the perimeter.

A fundamental toughness defines Boston's defense, lots of hard-nosed, lockdown challenges met ("Pierce has been phenomenal," says Rivers), lots of digging on entry passes into the post and lots of versatility. (Posey can guard any position in a pinch.) And it's all anchored by Garnett, who's always been less interested in spectacular shot blocking -- he was 24th in the league in that category through Sunday, with 1.50 per game -- than in playing solid, position defense and, just as important, communicating. "I don't know whether anyone thought we could become a great defensive team," says Pierce, "but we've proved we can."

Offensively, most of the questions surrounded Rondo. Can he make decisions in crunch time? How will a second-year player who looks like a high school kid keep all three superstars happy? Will he be able to hit the open shots that will undoubtedly come his way when GPA is double-teamed? It would be tempting for Rivers to reduce Rondo's role, perhaps turning the team over to Pierce as a point forward or letting Allen or one of two reserve guards, Eddie House or Tony Allen, run the offense. The coach thought briefly about it, then dismissed the idea. It was the correct decision.

Neither Pierce nor Ray Allen is remotely a playmaker; the former's an inveterate gunner when given too much control of the ball, and the latter needs screens and kickouts to get his work done from the perimeter. House and Tony Allen are too valuable in their current shoot-first, shoot-second, pass-third roles off the bench. And most important, Rondo is not that bad. Yes, his jump shot, kind of a one-handed launch, is terribly unreliable (he'd attempted only six three-pointers at week's end, making two), and he has taken to "hoping" the ball in, bouncing up and down on his toes after the release. But he will be a terrific point guard with another year's experience, and, in fact, is a major part of the offense now, most effective as a slasher or coming off screens and getting it back from a post man. In the Boston offense a Garnett-to-Rondo field goal is almost as likely as a Rondo-to-Garnett field goal; Rondo is so good at finishing around the rim that he was shooting 49.6% at week's end despite his horrific J.

Still, Rondo will have his off nights, as he did on Saturday, making one of seven shots and playing only 26 minutes against the Pistons. "That's what's going to happen when you have a young point guard," says Pierce, "even if he's a good one like Rajon." But the Celtics hardly missed a beat, at various times using both Allens, House and Pierce to initiate the offense.

That might be the best news for Boston: It was able to beat a tough home team, which had won 11 straight games overall by an average of 16.7 points, despite so-so play from its starters. In addition to Rondo's struggles, GPA was average or worse, particularly A, who had nine points after scoring just two in the Celtics' unimpressive 100-96 home win over the Memphis Grizzlies an evening earlier. "Your attention, please," Tony Allen said as he emerged from the shower in the cramped visitors' locker room in Auburn Hills after the game, "all the Ray Allen questions will be directed to Tony Allen." Ray smiled and slapped Tony on the back as he went by.

As it has all season, the Celtics' bench proved capable of handling the load. Lo and behold, the best finishing option in the fourth quarter turned out to be Davis, who was more effective at center than Perkins against the physical Pistons. Big Baby scored a game-high 20 points, 16 in the final frame (all six of his field goals coming on assists) as Boston overcame a four-point deficit to pull away.

Indeed, GPA seemingly has adapted to the team and, by all appearances, to one another. Pierce said it began in their first pickup game back in August, when their eagerness to pass up shots and share the ball became laughable. "You have guys with these kinds of résumés," says Pierce, "of course you're going to give it up to them." At week's end each member of GPA was attempting fewer field goals per game than his career average, a reflection of their collective willingness to sacrifice points for W's.

On the first day of camp in October, Rivers told his team about an African word -- ubuntu (oo-BOON-too) -- that he had learned during a meeting at his alma mater, Marquette, where he is a trustee. It has various meanings, all of them relating to unity. ("My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours," is how Desmond Tutu describes it.) "I used it to talk about teamwork," says Rivers. "Make the point that none of us can succeed without the others." How much pro athletes really buy into that stuff is hard to say, but snatches of Rivers's talk are still heard around the locker room. Last week, for example, Ray Allen mentioned the "chain of trust" that has developed on the team.

But it is early. A Western swing looms after the All-Star break, as well as visits to San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and New Orleans over six days in March. Losses are sure to come, and the Celtics' collective adoption of ubuntu will be tested, particularly for GPA. As the third option, Allen must now search for the looks that used to come readily for him as a Sonic, and he's no longer the focus of the media attention; after almost every home game Allen stays at his locker while Garnett and Pierce are escorted into the interview room.

A 10-year Celtics vet, Pierce remains the team's captain and still gets his fair share of shots -- fearless going to the basket, he's Boston's most assertive one-on-one player -- but he must accept a different kind of diminished role. Make no mistake about it: Garnett has become Beantown's most beloved sports figure in these early days of winter (after Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Randy Moss, et al.). At home games, it is Garnett's elaborate pregame preparation (clapping his hands, adjusting his shorts, peeking out from behind the basket support to the delight of the fans, spraying powder at the scorer's table) that draws attention; Garnett's primal scream, on the scoreboard each night, that juices the crowd before the game, and his chest-pounding, jersey-grabbing, hip-shimmying theatrics after a key basket that keep it that way; and Garnett's playfulness that makes the postgame press conferences with Pierce so entertaining.

After the Houston game Garnett had just finished saying that his intense play was because "my gas was high" when a loud grumble interrupted the proceedings.

"Damn, P, is that your stomach?" Garnett asked Pierce.

"I'm hungry," said Pierce.

"Obviously your gas is high, too," said Garnett.

Every Celtic's gas is high these days. For Saturday's road win was more than a baby step, or even a Big Baby step. It was a giant step, one that showed that the reconstituted Celtics may be even greater than the sum of their royal parts.

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