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Shaun Powell

Tom Thibodeau (left, with Ray Allen) has the Celtics' defense in total command of the Eastern Conference finals.
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Longtime assistant coach Thibodeau makes mark on Celtics' D

Posted May 20 2010 10:33AM

BOSTON -- He isn't your typical NBA assistant coach. For a few reasons. Most aren't pulling in close to $1 million a season, which is what he's rumored to get. Most haven't spent 19 years on the bench. And most don't leave their seat to shout instructions half as much as he does.

Tom Thibodeau isn't a head coach, not this minute anyway, but what's in a title, anyway? He carries almost as much weight, and it's only getting heavier, thanks to the Eastern Conference finals and the way the Celtics have locked down the Magic. The Celtics lead the series 2-0 mainly because they've followed the defensive gameplan scribbled up by someone who once again finds himself in demand as the Hot Assistant Coach of the moment.

Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Paul Pierce ... they all swear by Thibodeau, and so does Doc Rivers, who gives his lead assistant far more leeway and clout than a head coach normally does. It's not unusual, for instance, to see Thibodeau pulling Rajon Rondo or Ray Allen aside during a stoppage in play, or barking orders from the bench, which goes against standard assistant coach etiquette.

"Sometimes the players need to hear a different voice," Rivers explained. "And Tom knows what he's doing."

We don't know what he's thinking, however. Rivers doesn't allow Thibodeau or any of his assistants to speak to the media. But, really, the Celtics are doing the talking for him. They've kept the Magic in check by rotating swiftly to cover the open man, nullified Orlando's 3-point shooting and are playing Dwight Howard straight-up man-to-man without paying a heavy price.

Has anyone heard from Jameer Nelson, the Magic point guard who dismantled the Hawks and Bobcats in previous rounds? How about Rashard Lewis, still looking to make an impact in this series? Orlando seems confused and bewildered, unable to break open for good looks, and it all comes back to Thibodeau and his philosophy.

"He's good, man," said Perkins, whose game has personally grown since Thibodeau joined the club. "Real good."

Thibodeau arrived in 2008, a month after Garnett, and it wasn't by coincidence that the Celtics, after adding a pair of defensive aces, won a championship. Before, Thibodeau bounced around several teams and served under a variety of head coaches, spending much of his career with Jeff Van Gundy (who sings Thibodeau's praises) in New York, where the Knicks were known for defense, and later Houston.

Nearly two decades after he broke into the league, he's still an assistant. Which begs the obvious question: Why? Strangely, Thibodeau has been bypassed a number of times, never even receiving interviews in others. The same summer the Celtics won their championship, the Bulls had an opening and hired the untested Vinny Del Negro instead, firing him just last month after a turbulent second season.

General managers can be peculiar when it comes to career assistant coaches such as Thibodeau. They get nervous. They think something must be wrong. Why hasn't someone else hired him by now? They look at career assistants like a house that's been on the market for a year.

Also, there's a world of difference once a coach moves one seat over on the bench. Suddenly, he's not so lovable any more to the players. He controls playing time, devises substitution patterns, doles out minutes and deals with different personalities in the locker room, along with the public criticism. He needs superior communication skills. Not every assistant is cut out to be a head coach. The coaching graveyard is full of "hot assistants" who suddenly crumbled from the demands after moving over a seat. That's why GMs are more likely to recycle the same names rather than turn their team over to a neophyte. It's the safe decision.

That's the big unknown with Thibodeau. His in-game strategies, temperament, ability to devise an offensive game plan, etc., will never be tested until he's finally elevated.

The odds are increasing, however, that Thibodeau will get his shot this summer, with a handful of teams keeping their vacancies open perhaps until the Celtics are through playing. Surely, they're seeing what we're seeing. If the Hornets wanted Avery Johnson, for example, wouldn't they have hired him by now? The Hawks are still looking for a coach, same for the Nets and their billionaire owner. Plus of course, the Bulls.

And what about the Celtics, if Rivers leaves after the season to spend time with his family in Orlando, as the word goes?

Ask any of the Celtics and they'll say Thibodeau is more than ready. They marvel at his work ethic, attention to detail, creativity and strategy. It's a formula that's working for him and the Celtics right now, as they hit their stride and return home with a two-game advantage on Orlando.

After that? After the conference finals? After the NBA Finals?

One way or another, with or without the Celtics, Thibodeau appears to be going places.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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

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