Posted May 21 2010 11:19AM
WALTHAM, Mass. -- It's a line that Boston coach Glenn Rivers dusts off occasionally when asked about his players' various injuries -- "You do know that 'Doc' is only a nickname, right?" -- but after you spend some time around him and his team, you're not so sure that's true.
There are moments when Rivers sounds every bit the physician, charged with the care and treatment of a group suffering from one long, collective, complicated yet very curable malady (gang green?). From assessing the Celtics' physical strength to prescribing proper bed rest, from diagnosing what ails them in a particular game or on a specific play to keeping his finger on the pulse of the locker room.
Rivers and his coaching staff have been like a team of doctors at times, standing at the foot of the bed and pooling the specialties of an orthopedist, a psychiatrist and a cardiologist. After all, don't the NBA playoffs always come down to heart?
The happy news is that the patient, after eight months of hospital-like poking and prodding, appears to have made a full recovery. The Celtics -- 10-3 so far in this postseason, winners of five in a row with a 2-0 lead over Orlando in the Eastern Conference championship round -- have been cleared to go home, beginning with Game 3 Saturday at TD Garden.
"I think we're becoming the team that started the season more than the team that played in the middle to the end of the season," Rivers said after Boston's 95-92 victory in Game 2, sounding very much as if he were reading from a medical chart. "The team that started the season was pretty good. The team from Christmas, the day after Christmas, struggled. So I would like to think we're that team, the team before that."
Maybe some of this is attributable to Rivers' personal style, the way he humanizes his team and gives glimpses into their condition. It's as if he gets the Celtics, en masse, to say "Aah!" for our viewing pleasure.
How sick were the Celtics? They went 27-27 in their final 54 games. They dropped seven of the last 10 in the regular season. They went 0-4 against the skilled but immature Atlanta Hawks, slipping below the upstarts in the East playoff bracket. And late in the season, they lost at home to the likes of New Jersey, Washington, Memphis and Houston. An untimely postseason demise was a strong possibility. Boston fans braced for the flat line.
And now? People in these parts aren't just excited about the Celtics getting back to The Finals to chase yet another banner, they're talking about this group as if it is stronger and better than the club that won the championship two years ago.
"Everbody's healthy," Rivers said. "Everybody's focused. Everyone's listening and everyone is buying into the defensive schemes. When you get that, with the health, you have a chance."
Here are some keys to the Celtics' current physical and mental condition:
• Rest. Rivers and his staff monitor the players' minutes closely. Ideally, they want to limit guard Rajon Rondo to the 40-42 range, have Kevin Garnett (who turned 34 Wednesday) down around 32 and keep Paul Pierce and Ray Allen somewhere in between. It is similar to what has gone on since the Big Three came together prior to 2007-08.
"There was more rest in the regular season with some of our guys than we had to in 2008," Rivers said. "We actually played a lot of minutes that year, but we got up so far in the standings that we were able to ratchet down the last month. We did that this year, too, but we didn't have a cushion to do it with. We just did it anyway."
Like most teams, the Celtics use the extra days between playoff games to their advantage. Rivers forbade anyone to get on a basketball court Wednesday, with three days before Game 3. Also, in games, they use additional and longer timeouts to extend the players' breathers.
• Analysis. Rivers is comfortable letting players express themselves in huddles and during games -- up to a point. But when a disagreement over a defensive maneuver between Rondo and Garnett in Game 1 dragged on, Rivers called a timeout to straighten them out. "Two plays later you could see them staring at each other -- it was over a defensive rotation -- and that's something you can't have," the coach said.
Garnett, when asked about such, er, creative tension, told me: "Around here, it's about respect. Our locker room is very strong-miinded. Well-voiced. We communicate with each other in all types of different ways. But it works. When it doesn't work, we figure it out."
• Challenging the patient. Rasheed Wallace spent most of the season out of shape and unmotivated, despite the team's financial commitment to him. "He said it throughout, 'It doesn't matter what I do during the regular season. I will be judged for what I do in the playoffs,' " Rivers said. "I didn't want him to take that literally throughout the season. But he's been terrific."
Wallace has been a valuable big man in coping with Magic center Dwight Howard. He's also Exhibit A for those who would make the case that the Celtics dawdled through their first 82 games before getting serious only a month ago. Pierce was asked after his 28-point performance in Game 2 Tuesday whether his team has flipped the proverbial switch for the playoffs, an alleged no-no in sports. He gave a lengthy answer but finally concluded: "I know it's starting to look that way."
Said Rivers: "We have a lot of personalities on our team. In a lot of ways that's good. There's some nights that's not so good. Overall, I don't mind 'em all, as long as they're all bunching in the right direction."
• Home remedies. Certain illnesses and ailments are best left to the patients, Rivers has found. The shift from the 2008 title team, so reliant on Pierce, Garnett and Allen with minor support, to the current base that features Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Glen (Big Baby) Davis more prominently, couldn't be mandated. Doctor's orders can get easily ignored if those being treated don't admit to the problem or want to get better.
Allen talked about the wellness that sprang from within this season. "This team has more talent, for sure," he said. "Throughout the course of the year, we've had to learn with the talent to do less. We were the so-called 'Big Three' and the three of us were basically given the load to do everything. We have guys now where Paul, myself and KG, we have to step aside to make sure that Rondo is doing what he does and give Perk and those guys great responsibility out there."
Giving? Or having it taken? "It's both," Allen said. "The young guys, when you come in the league, coaches tell you you don't know anything. But at the same time, you have to go out there and force people into believing in you, that you can do the job."
Said Garnett: "Rondo, Baby, Perk, those guys are better. That's something you can't teach on the fly, you can't teach in-game experiences, last-second heroics, all that stuff. Baby's hitting big shots in the playoffs now, Rondo's having triple-doubles in the playoffs. All that fuels confidence."
And what only seems now like a speedy recovery. In fact, the treatment has been going on since early in the season, in one form or another. The current prognosis is terrific. So what's up now, Doc?
"The joke is when we win, it's because we have experience, and when we lose it's because we're too old," Rives said. "I don't think that will change, but I do think health has a lot to do with it. We're healthy now."
In every way.
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