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John Schuhmann

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Coach Doc Rivers (right) has defensive tactics in mind to get Boston back to the Finals.
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Three reasons these Celtics could be better than '08 champs


Posted Nov 4 2009 11:11AM

PHILADELPHIA -- Doc Rivers is a Chicago guy and he likes his Bears. Not the current version of the Bears, but the one that featured Mike Singletary and the Fridge.

This season, he's using them as motivation for his own team in Boston. Twenty-five years from now, Rivers wants people to think the same way about the 2009-10 Boston Celtics as people do now about that 1985 Super Bowl championship team.

"When you say the '85 Bears, most people say 'Greateset defense ever' or 'One of the best defenses ever,'" Rivers said Tuesday. "It's a good goal for us, because if you can achieve that, then all the other stuff usually happens for you."

You may recall that the Celtics were a pretty good defensive team two seasons ago, when Kevin Garnett was healthy and they won their 17th championship. In fact, they were the best defensive team of the last 10 years when you compare their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) to that of the league average that season.

Top Five Defensive Teams, Last Decade
Team Season Defensive Rating NBA average Differential
Boston * 2007-08 96.4 104.7 -8.34
San Antonio 2003-04 91.7 100.0 -8.31
Detroit * 2003-04 92.6 100.0 -7.5
San Antonio * 2004-05 96.1 103.1 -7.0
Chicago 2006-07 97.1 103.7 -6.6
* = won NBA championship

This season, with the best teams in the league getting better, the Celtics may just have to be even more suffocating defensively than they were two seasons ago if they want to win banner No. 18. The question is: How do they do that?

The '07-08 Celtics led the league in opponents' field-goal percentage (0.457 EFG%), forced more turnovers than any other team (17.0 per 100 possessions), and were very good at controlling the defensive boards, ranking eighth with a defensive rebounding rate of 74.4 percent.

The one thing that they didn't do particularly well on defense was keep their opponents off the foul line. Their opponents' 28.1 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions were two more than the league average. But Rivers said that's one area the Celtics will just have to sacrifice.

"We're going to be physical," he said. "You never tell your team not to be aggressive, so you just live with it."

With that in mind, Rivers lists three key reasons why this Celtics team can be better defensively than it was two seasons ago:

1. Familiarity leads to cohesiveness

"We're together longer, [with the] same starting five," Rivers brought up first.

The Celtics have a few great individual defenders (such as Garnett), but a team is at its best defensively when it's functioning as a single unit. The more time teammates spend on the floor with one another, the more they know where each is going to be.

"Since we know the system a little bit better, things that happened two years ago shouldn't be happening," said Eddie House, in his third season with Boston.

2. The reserves can defend, too

With the additions of Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels, the Celtics have a stronger second unit.

"[Wallace] has an unbelievable basketball IQ and he talks," Rivers said. "Kevin [Garnett] is a verbal defender and so is [Kendrick Perkins]. Now we've added a third guy into the mix that's a good talker, and he's really been great for our bench and shoring up that defense."

Rivers believes that Daniels can be his stopper on the wing, calling the 6-foot-6 guard "a phenomenal defender." James Posey was that guy two seasons ago, but when he left for New Orleans before last season, there was no one to take his place.

"They caught on extremely fast," House said of Wallace and Daniels. "I think that's what's making us so good. Our bench is as good as our first unit defensively. There's not a drop-off. At times that first year, we had dropoffs at certain positions. We don't have that this year."

3. Rajon Rondo is more disciplined

With quick feet, quick hands and uncanny instincts, Rajon Rondo is a naturally good defender. He cracked the league's top 10 in steals per game as a rookie and has increased his average every year since.

But Rondo has always gambled too much. Instead of just playing solid one-on-one defense, he'll reach for the ball and sacrifice his position. This season, Rivers wants his point guard focusing on just staying in front of his man.

A little discipline can go a long way. If Rondo stays in front of his man...
a) More time runs off the shot clock and the opponent has less time to find a good look at the basket.
b) The Celtics' bigs are less likely to pick up fouls on drives by the opposing point guard (and that free-throw rate might just come down after all).
c) The ball stays out of the paint, where the Celtics' defense is most vulnerable. Instead, it gets channeled to the sides, where they can load up and smother any isolations or pick-and-rolls.

"We're trying to channel everything out of the paint," Rivers said. "We're trying to channel everything to the corners. And he has the ability to be as good as anybody in the league at doing it.

"He's still going to get his steals, because he has an innate way of doing that. But he's been great with the team defense this year and that makes us a better defensive team."

A group of six or seven teams are stacked with talent this season, but the Celtics believe that their defense will separate them from the pack and put them back in position to compete for a championship.

They're off to an excellent start, with a ridiculously low defensive rating of 86.4 through their first five games.

"I think that what's going to separate us is the fact that we [forget] our ego, the fact that we have no agendas, and the fact that it's one goal on this team, and that's to win," Garnett said. "Nothing more than that. When you're on the floor, you're going to play defense, you're going to talk, you're going to be for the next person and you're going to root for the next person, no matter who it is.

"I think that's going to be the difference. I think everybody says it, but here we live it."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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