So Far ... So Great

The new-look, suddenly defensive-minded Celtics are off to the fourth-best start in NBA history. But as the Pistons learned, it's not just thanks to the Big Three
January 14, 2008

THE BOSTONCeltics' Starting point guard, Rajon Rondo, is untested and will collapse likea three-legged chair in the pressure of the playoffs. Their starting center isKendrick Perkins, and who is Kendrick Perkins? Their coach, Doc Rivers, a manof smoldering intensity, will push them so hard they'll revolt. Their expectedleap from laughingstock (24--58 in 2006--07) to contender is too substantial tomake 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 theirBig Three of power forward Kevin Garnett, small forward Paul Pierce andshooting guard Ray Allen will tire of a supporting role and chafe at not beingthe Man. They're good, but the more battle-tested Detroit Pistons, who haveplayed in five straight conference finals, are better.

Go ahead, listthe 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'scigars still fouled the air at Boston Garden, and Perkins was 19 monthsold—cannot win the title this June. "We've heard them all," saysPierce, "and they don't mean a thing."

Any sense thatBoston is not ready for prime time was zapped last Saturday at The Palace ofAuburn Hills. In a 92--85 win over the Pistons, the Celtics demonstratedcomposure, bench strength, chemistry and coaching acumen. It might be true thatthe Celtics are, as Rivers says, "still under construction," but it'simpossible 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 inNBA history—as Boston had through Sunday. And when its pedigree, in a leaguedesperate to evoke its glory years, includes 16 championship banners and thatmagical tag of storied franchise. And when all eyes in the basketball world arewatching to see if its three elite players, all in their 30s, can form thebackbone of a championship unit in just one year.

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

THAT'S PERHAPSwhy the message got through when Rivers went all school-marm on GPA after theirpress conference in August following the acquisitions of Allen (from theSeattle SuperSonics for a No. 1 pick, guard Delonte West and swingman WallySzczerbiak) and Garnett (from the Minnesota Timberwolves for five players, twoNo. 1 picks and cash). "None of you mentioned a word about defense," hetold them after the convivial backslapping gabfest was over. "If we'regoing to get this done, we can't be a good defensive team. We have to be agreat defensive team."

Garnett was asix-time All-Defensive First Team selection, but Pierce and Allen, both of whomhad been carrying the offensive load on weak clubs, sometimes went on vacationwhen 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 wastranspiring at the other end. There would be none of that this season, Riverstold GPA. But even he could not have imagined his players' level of commitmentand execution: With the example set by Garnett, who has always been aconscientious practice player, and the input of newly hired assistant coach TomThibodeau, an acclaimed defensive guru who was out of a job when his boss (JeffVan Gundy) got fired by the Houston Rockets, Rivers had turned the Celtics intothe stingiest team in the league at week's end, surrendering only 87.3 pointsper game.

Boston'sdefensive scheme on the perimeter had been fairly straightforward man-to-man,but Rivers and Thibodeau used some twists against the Pistons. Theydouble-teamed point guard Chauncey Billups on most pick-and-rolls,double-teamed Billups and backcourt mate Rip Hamilton when they attempted topost up (there are nightly concerns about the slightly built, 6'1" Rondogetting overpowered down low) and showed Billups a smorgasbord of defenders,including Allen, down the stretch. Mr. Big Shot had burned Boston on Dec. 19 inan 87--85 Pistons victory at TD Banknorth Garden—it grieves the soul that it'sno longer called Boston Garden—but Billups struggled on Saturday, with 17points on 3-for-9 three-point shooting and key misses (including three freethrows) in the last four minutes.

The Celtics'interior D is more conventional; they avoid double-teaming for the most partand let the 6'10", 280-pound Perkins bang the opposition's largest threatfor much of the game before Garnett takes over. That worked in a 97--93 homewin against the Rockets on Jan. 2, when Garnett covered Yao Ming in the finalminutes 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 Poseyseveral times in the first half on Saturday, the Celts didn't do much doubling,saving their scheming for the perimeter.

A fundamentaltoughness defines Boston's defense, lots of hard-nosed, lock-down challengesmet ("Pierce has been phenomenal," says Rivers), lots of digging onentry passes into the post and lots of versatility. (Posey can guard anyposition in a pinch.) And it's all anchored by Garnett, who's always been lessinterested in spectacular shot blocking—he was 24th in the league in thatcategory through Sunday, with 1.50 per game—than in playing solid, positiondefense and, just as important, communicating. "I don't know whether anyonethought we could become a great defensive team," says Pierce, "butwe've proved we can."

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

Neither Piercenor Ray Allen is remotely a playmaker; the former's an inveterate gunner whengiven too much control of the ball, and the latter needs screens and kick-outsto get his work done from the perimeter. House and Tony Allen are too valuablein their current shoot-first, shoot-second, pass-third roles off the bench. Andmost important. Rondo is not that bad. Yes, his jump shot, kind of a one-handedlaunch, is terribly unreliable (he'd attempted only six three-pointers atweek'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 terrificpoint guard with another year's experience, and, in fact, is a major part ofthe offense now, most effective as a slasher or coming off screens and gettingit back from a post man. In the Boston offense a Garnett-to-Rondo field goal isalmost as likely as a Rondo-to-Garnett field goal; Rondo is so good atfinishing around the rim that he was shooting 49.6% at week's end despite hishorrific J.

Still, Rondo willhave his off nights, as he did on Saturday, making one of seven shots andplaying only 26 minutes against the Pistons. "That's what's going to happenwhen you have a young point guard," says Pierce, "even if he's a goodone like Rajon." But the Celtics hardly missed a beat, at various timesusing both Aliens, House and Pierce to initiate the offense.

That might be thebest news for Boston: It was able to beat a tough home team, which had won 11straight games overall by an average of 16.7 points, despite so-so play fromits 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 showerin the cramped visitors' locker room in Auburn Hills after the game, "allthe Ray Allen questions will be directed to Tony Allen." Ray smiled andslapped Tony on the back as he went by.

As it has allseason, 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 wasmore effective at center than Perkins against the physical Pistons. Big Babyscored a game-high 20 points, 16 in the final frame (all six of his field goalscoming on assists) as Boston overcame a four-point deficit to pull away.

Indeed, GPAseemingly 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 theireagerness to pass up shots and share the ball became laughable, "You haveguys with these kinds of résumés," says Pierce, "of course you're goingto give it up to them." At week's end each member of GPA was attemptingfewer field goals per game than his career average, a reflection of theircollective willingness to sacrifice points for W's.

ON THE first dayof 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 relatingto unity. ("My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in at isyours," is how Desmond Tutu describes it.) "I used it to talk aboutteamwork," says Rivers. "Make the point that none of us can succeedwithout the others." How much pro athletes really buy into that stuff ishard to say, but snatches of Rivers's talk are still heard around the lockerroom. 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 SanAntonio, Houston, Dallas and New Orleans over six days in March. Losses aresure 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 looksthat used to come readily for him as a Sonic, and he's no longer the focus ofthe media attention; after almost every home game Allen stays at his lockerwhile Garnett and Pierce are escorted into the interview room.

A 10-year Celticsvet, Pierce remains the team's captain and still gets his fail share ofshots—fearless going to the basket, he's Boston's most assertive one-on-oneplayer—but he must accept a different kind of diminished role. Make no mistakeabout it: Garnett has become Beantown's most beloved sports figure in theseearly days of winter (after Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Raid Moss, et al.). Athome games, it is Garnett's elaborate pregame preparation (clapping his hands,adjusting his shorts, peeking out from behind the basket support to the delightof the fans, spraying powder at the scorer's table) that draws attention;Garnett's primal scream, on the scoreboard each night, that juices the crowdbefore the game, and his chest-pounding, jersey-grabbing, hip-shimmyingtheatrics after a key basket that keep it that way; and Garnett's playfulnessthat makes the postgame press conferences with Pierce so entertaining.

After the Houstongame Garnett had just finished saying that his intense play was because "mygas was high" when a loud grumble interrupted the proceedings.

"Damn, P, isthat your stomach?" Garnett asked Pierce.

"I'mhungry," said Pierce.

"Obviouslyyour gas is high, too," said Garnett.

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

"If we're going to get this done," Rivers toldhis trio in August, "we can't be a good defensive team. We have to be aGREAT defensive team."


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PHOTOPhotograph by Heinz KluetmeierWINNING COMBO Garnett (5) has played like the superstar he is, but support from the likes of Rondo (9) can't be overlooked. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above] PHOTOAL TIELEMANSTHAT'S P FOR POINTS Pierce remains GPA's top scorer because of his one-on-one skills and his ability to get to the foul line. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERSTILL CLUTCH Allen may be shooting a career-low 41.6% from the field, but he has hit two game-winning shots at the buzzer.