Boston coach Jim O'Brien was a faint beacon of hope on a sea of
gloom. Through three quarters of Game 3 of the Eastern
Conference finals, his Celtics were flatter than Kansas and
trailed the New Jersey Nets 74-53. Of the 171 teams that had
taken a lead that large into the final period of a playoff game,
none had lost. As Antoine Walker gave fellow All-Star Paul
Pierce an expletive-filled pep talk, O'Brien calmly addressed
the rest of the team in the huddle. "I'm not going to sit here
and tell you guys you cannot win this game," O'Brien said
firmly. His minions perked up. "It just shows," says guard Tony
Delk, "how much faith Obie has in us."
For the next 12 minutes the force was with Obie and Boston--and
especially with Pierce, whose 19 fourth-quarter points
spearheaded a 94-90 victory at the FleetCenter. In truth it was
as much the product of the Nets' choking (4-of-22 shooting, six
turnovers) as the Celtics' galvanized play. But what great
theater. "Don't ask me to describe it," O'Brien said afterward.
"It was unbelievable. Un-be-lievable."
No less un-be-lievable than the job O'Brien has done reviving
the Celtics' mystique. When he took over for Rick Pitino 34
games into last season, he presented the team with an ambitious
challenge: Commit to defense. At the time Boston ranked 26th in
points surrendered, but the players bought what the new coach
was peddling. "We knew we had scorers in Antoine and Paul," says
forward Eric Williams. "We also knew we weren't going to win
giving up points like that."
This season the Celtics ranked third defensively and increased
their win total from 36 to 49. Though Boston doesn't play a zone
per se, no coach has made better use of the new defensive rules
than O'Brien. Against the Nets, the Celts have flummoxed Jason
Kidd with double teams and used constant weakside help to
neutralize Jersey's scoring inside. Despite Monday's 94-92 loss,
which evened the series at two games apiece, the Celtics had
held New Jersey to 41.8% shooting. Says Boston assistant Dick
Harter, a veteran of five decades on college and NBA benches,
"This is the best coaching job I've ever been around."
A self-described "basketball lifer," O'Brien was a scrappy guard
in the early '70s at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, where he met
his wife, Sharon, the daughter of Hall of Fame coach Jack
Ramsay. O'Brien's resume includes stops at Wheeling (W.Va.)
Jesuit College and Pembroke (N.C.) State before a seven-year
hitch as Pitino's top assistant at Kentucky and Boston. In a
line of work in which egos are often wildly inflated and image
is a matter of obsessive concern, the 50-year-old O'Brien is a
welcome departure. Ask him about his team's success this season,
and he'll deflect credit to every franchise employee this side
of the guys who shoot free T-shirts into the crowd during
timeouts. While some of his colleagues demand clothing
allowances, O'Brien's three nicest suits were gifts from Walker.
"He's too cheap to buy his own," says Walker. "Plus, he doesn't
care about that stuff."
O'Brien is a firm believer in positive reinforcement: Four out
of five plays he screens in film sessions are ones that the
Celtics executed correctly. "It makes more sense to say 'Here's
what you did right,' instead of 'Here's how you screwed up,'" he
says. His positive attitude is apparent when he talks about his
daughter Caitlyn, 19, who has Down's syndrome. As her dad puts
it, "She's never had a bad day in her life."
Last Saturday night, as his players celebrated wildly on the
floor, O'Brien pumped his fist and then walked off the court
muttering "Good win" to himself. (Good win?) His suit was
rumpled, his tie was creased, his not-insignificant forehead was
glistening with sweat. Yet as the self-effacing coach headed
into the tunnel--his team, improbably, within sight of the NBA
Finals--he could not have looked smarter. --L. Jon Wertheim