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Analysis: Celtics regaining championship swagger

By Rob Peterson
Posted Jan 18 2009 12:12AM

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J -- It was Kids' Day at the IZOD Center on Saturday afternoon. No wonder the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics looked like men among boys.

By scoring a season-high 68 first-half points and in holding New Jersey to .405 from the field for the game, the Celtics not only cruised to an easy 105-85 win, but they also contributed to the second-half benching of Nets' stars Vince Carter and Devin Harris.

"I was a little curious as to why Vince and Devin sat out," said Ray Allen, who led all scorers with 25 points.

Out of shame, apparently.

"I was totally embarrassed about our performance," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "It starts with me and goes to our main players. I thought it was an embarrassing, embarrassing start to the game and decided to go in another direction."

In digging themselves a 29-point halftime hole, the Nets had nowhere to go but up as Carter and Harris combined to score 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting while committing four turnovers.

"We struggled early, and [Frank] made the decision to go another way in the second half," Carter said. "It's not easy, but I'm going to keep cheering my team on and trying to help any way I can."

Boston had many reasons to cheer in the first half. Instead of looking like an old team, as the Celtics did at times during the recent stretch where they lost seven of nine, Boston looked like the Celtics of old on both ends of the floor. On offense, they could do no wrong, as they shot .641 from the field and had 20 assists on their 25 first-half field goals, including 12 dimes from point guard Rajon Rondo.

On defense, the Celtics applied pressure on the ball, choked off passing lanes, harassed Nets shooters both near and far and, thanks to 16 defensive boards, limited the Nets' possessions.

"Great start," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Its one of the things we talked about. All three afternoon games we've played, we've come out on top. In these games, if you get off to a good start, it gives you a chance to play well the whole game."

Carter and Harris meanwhile looked as if they hit the snooze button one too many times this morning. Their poor first-half showing was in direct contrast with the reasons Frank gave before the game as to why the Celtics are a championship-caliber crew.

"They're a great model for all teams and coaches in that they share the ball offensively and don't have any other agenda other than getting a good shot," Frank said. "Defensively, they give you a great effort. They're very consistent and solid with their schemes.

"I'm a big fan of theirs in terms of watching them play and how they conduct themselves and I see the energy and enthusiasm for the game they have on a daily basis."

On Saturday, Frank had a courtside view of Boston's effort. You could even see a bit of the championship arrogance seeping back into the Celtics' play. No possession better epitomized the Celtics' confidence than Paul Pierce's heat-check three-pointer late in the second quarter. Leading 51-31, Kevin Garnett corralled a rebound and tossed an outlet pass to Rondo, who found Pierce four feet behind the three-point line at the top of the key. No one came to check Pierce, so he let it fly only seven seconds into the possession. Swish.

After beating the Nets by 32 on Wednesday, the Celtics also showed their swagger by not letting the Nets gain any confidence themselves.

"Doc read us a quote before the game," Garnett said. "We were more than motivated coming in here. Obviously when you play a team back-to-back, the second game puts a mark on it.

"And Doc read us a quote about how they were looking forward to this game and how they wanted to come out and prove that game in Boston was a fluke. We take that kind of personal, to be honest with you."

During an 82-game schedule, especially one in defense of an NBA title, a team may need to do whatever it feels it must to manufacture the motivation for a Saturday afternoon. Then again, championship teams often find motivation in the smallest of slights. The Celtics -- now 33-9 -- were 34-8 at the same point last season. How do the two seasons compare?

"Last year and this year, we're a different team in some ways," Rivers said. "We don't have a couple guys, and then some of our guys have improved, and they're different.

"I rarely bring up last year to players. We try to focus on this campaign."

Still, Rivers thinks the Celtics are in a good spot.

"We're getting there," Rivers said. "We just want to be there when the playoffs start. We're just building. Our attitude has been the same when we won 19 in a row and when we went through the stretch of losses.

"We're building to be better, every game, every day."

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