Posted Mar 21 2008 2:13AM
NBA.com's John Schuhmann is in Texas, following the Boston Celtics as they travel through the Texas Triangle.
DALLAS, March 20, 2008 -- It was just three regular season games that didn't have any real impact on the Eastern Conference standings, but the Boston Celtics, in beating San Antonio, Houston and Dallas on the road in the span of four days, have proven that they are, without a doubt, the favorites to win the NBA championship this season.
First, they beat the Spurs, who were desperate for a win and who happen to be the defending champs, in San Antonio on Monday, after being down 22 points in the second quarter.
Then they ended the second longest winning streak in NBA history in Houston on Tuesday ... convincingly.
Finally, they outlasted the Mavs, one of the best offensive teams in the league, when their own offense was struggling, in Dallas on Thursday.
Pulling off a sweep in the Texas Triangle hadn't been done since 2001. This season, the three Texas teams had a combined home record of 82-19 (.812) before the Celtics came into their building. And Boston beat them all, two of them without Ray Allen.
"The best team in the league by far," Rick Adelman called them before his team became victim No. 2.
Last year, the Celtics ranked 17th in the league in points allowed per possession. This year, they're first. And it has been two key additions that have turned the defense around. Yes, Kevin Garnett is one of them. No, Ray Allen is not the other. It's assistant coach, Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau came to Boston this summer from Houston. Not coincidentally, the Rockets were the third best defensive team in the league last season, and are second best behind the Celtics this year. Thibodeau, in his 16th season as an NBA assistant and as good a candidate to be a future head coach as there is, is credited as the brains behind the Celtics' No. 1 defense.
But coaching defense doesn't help unless the players execute your schemes on the floor. And on the floor, the success of the Celtics' defense starts with Kevin Garnett.
"Kevin's a phenomenal on-ball and help defender," Doc Rivers explained before the trip got started, "which is rare. And the best talker on the floor that I've been around as well. He does a lot of good things for your team." And with Garnett's leadership, the rest of the team has bought in to the defense-first philosophy.
"Regardless of the offense," Paul Pierce adds, "everybody takes pride in the defense, helping one another, talking and communicating. That's gonna be the key for us. When we come to the huddle, it's not the shots we missed or the extra pass. We always talk about our defense."
No less of an authority than Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, he of four of the last nine NBA championships, believes the Celtics' defense is what makes them one of the favorites for this year's title.
"That wins you a lot of games and is really important come playoff time," Popovich said before his team fell victim to Boston on Monday. "You can score as much as you want, but everybody's average is gonna go down come playoff time. The defense that they're playing is for real."
2. The Go-To Guy
On Monday in San Antonio, the Celtics were down nine early in the fourth quarter when Pierce took over, slicing through the Spurs' defense and scoring nine of his 22 points as the Celtics used a 17-6 run to take the lead for good. And on the game-winning basket, it was Pierce's drive that created the open three for Sam Cassell.
On Tuesday, Pierce was guarded by arguably the best defensive player in the league, Shane Battier, who made Bryant shoot just 11-for-33 two days earlier. Yet Pierce still got his 20 points, including eight in the game-changing third quarter.
"I just feel like I can get my shot off pretty much on anybody," Pierce said afterward, "regardless of who I play against. Not to take anything away from Shane, because he is a great defender, but I think it's because I'm a little big bigger in size, I can be a little more physical with him, post him up a little bit, go inside and out."
Indeed Pierce is a complete offensive player. He doesn't have the freakish athleticism like LeBron or Kobe. He just knows how to put the ball in the basket. Ten years in the league, eight of them as the Celtics' leading scorer, helps in that aspect.
But the Celtics won't just go to Pierce down the stretch. They will obviously put the ball in Kevin Garnett's hands as well. KG had 16 of his 22 points in the second half in Houston.
"It's been different guys on different nights," Rivers says. "Paul has been the guy on most nights down the stretch, because he can post and he can take you off the dribble. He's just very good. He's a guy that has tremendous footwork, and he has the ability to get his shot off in tough circumstances with tough defense. And that's why you trust him so much."
Against the Spurs and Rockets, third and second best respectively in team defense, Pierce shot a combined 15-for-28 (.536) from the field. Then on Thursday, he led his team in the most important stretch of the fourth quarter, a 13-6 run that turned a three-point deficit into a four-point lead. Pierce had six points and an assist during the run.
3. The Shooters
And the Celtics have several guys who can knock down shots if you give them space. Heck, Ray Allen (.404 from downtown this season) doesn't even need space, he just needs the ball. Thursday's game winning three with 31 seconds to go, when he had been sitting on the bench for almost the entire fourth quarter, was just the latest example of how he can hit huge jumpers down the stretch.
And we saw on Monday, and in playoffs past, that Sam Cassell can do the same. The guy has onions and if you asked any player in the league to tell you about Cassell, the first three words out of their mouth would be "He makes shots" more often than not.
Then there's Eddie House and James Posey, who each hit huge threes of their own on the trip. House hit one to keep his team in the game with 1:45 to go in San Antonio. And Posey drained one down the stretch in Dallas to cap off the aforementioned 13-6 run.
4. Home Court Advantage
5. The Intangibles
First, there's the hunger. This team is led by three guys who have gone deep in the playoffs but have never been to the NBA Finals. And each of them played on a team that lost at least 50 games last season. To say that they're hungry for success is a gross understatement.
We've seen it on this trip, the way they came back against the Spurs, the way that pride overcame fatigue to allow them to trounce the Rockets one night later, and the way they never allowed the Mavs to pull away on Thursday, even though they couldn't get a bucket on their end. And we're sure to see it once the playoffs begin.
Second, there's the sense of team.
"Everybody's in it all together," Pierce explains. "We're sacrificing for the good of the team. And when you got a team that thinks team first, and forgets about all the individual stuff, hey, we're better by numbers than by individuals."
You see it in the way the bench reacts after a big bucket or a big stop. You see it the way Posey gives each of the starters a hug (not just a hug, but a HUG), before they take the floor to start the game.
"It's satisfying to know that I have a team that's committed towards winning," Garnett says, "not just in talking about it, but going out and doing it every day. It's satisfying to know that guys give themselves, and all personal egos are pushed to the side for the sake of winning."
Of course, all of that started with KG himself, as Rivers tells it.
"They came in 30 days before training camp," the coach says, "everybody, every single player on the team, and just played pickup games every day. Just that intensity level was ridiculous, and it was Kevin. I think it allowed his teammates to see what was expected of them. He didn't have to say it; it was his actions. Then after the workouts, he stayed on the court for another hour and a half working. Then he went and lifted. Then he came back that night. And you see that before the season, if you're anybody else, you almost have to [do it too]. How can you not?"
So, at the conclusion of the Texas Triangle, there is only one conclusion to make: The Celtics are pretty damn good. If you thought that their record was inflated because of the conference they play in, then you should have changed your mind after the past four days. And if (or when) they win the NBA championship, you can look back at this week as the ultimate sign that they were ready, and that they were able.