BOSTON -- Doc Rivers has seen it from both sides. Early in his Boston incarnation, he had
a team of callow kids and could never be sure which group would show up from
game to game. He now has the opposite of that, sort of. It's a veteran team. It's a better team, for sure, but because veteran teams have a tendency to, er, coast, the coach also can't know for sure what group he will see on any given night.
To wit: What Boston Celtic fan out there didn't expect this team to go into Toronto
last Sunday afternoon and absolutely vaporize the undermanned, underwhelming Raptors, regardless of Rajon Rondo's status? There had been a disheartening loss on Friday at home, an easy-pickins' opponent on the road (and in a building where they'd won six in a row) and, well, of course they'd bounce back. Hold that happy thought.
It didn't happen. They lost. They stunk.
Then, of course, it did happen the next night in Atlanta, where the Celtics
humiliated the Hawks in front of the usual assemblage of casual fans and empty seats at Philips Arena. In the past, having a team with a free night in Atlanta was a recipe for potential disaster. The Georgia capitol has many distractions for NBA players.
No one knew that more than Rivers, who lived and played in Atlanta for years. But he sensed that this team was finally going to grow up -- and show up. It had been burned in Canada. It had no intention of freezing in the south (apologies to The Band).
"We're a veteran team and sometimes it seems like we're counting how many games we have to play before the playoffs,'' Rivers said. "We'll have to deal with it."
The young teams count other things, like touches, points, minutes and, they hope, zeroes in their next contract. The veterans have been there and done that, and ideally should be focused only on winning.
But both young and old will have trouble getting up for 1 p.m. games in
November in Toronto -- or 7 p.m. February games in New Jersey. That's life in the NBA. The 1985-86 Celtics, arguably the greatest team in NBA history, lost a slew of games to teams it should have beaten -- to 37-win Sacramento, to 26-win Indiana, to 23-win New York. But that group knew it was good and had the end in mind.
This team looks a lot like that one, not in talent but in long-term vision and short-term mindset. It is probably, on paper, the most talented team
the Celtics have fielded since that 1986 title team. As such, this team is blocking its collective calendar in May and June, in anticipation of playing important basketball games in those months. It's a natural tendency. It's probably going to happen.
But how do you get this team to play like it did on Monday night more than,
say, once every fortnight? The obliteration of the supposedly talented Hawks was a thing of beauty. There was precision offense. There was lock-down defense. There was focus, commitment, drive -- all the things one might expect from this group, and all the things that were missing the day before.
"Our defensive disposition [in Atlanta] from the start was terrific,'' Rivers
said. "I felt we were going to compete defensively. The big question is can we do this every night?"
This has been Rivers' conundrum since the start of training camp. He is
determined to make the regular season meaningful, even as he rests Rondo maybe longer than necessary and watches his starters' minutes with the tenacity of a Welsh nanny. He wants them healthy for the playoffs, which right now seem about as close as Pluto. But he can't allow them to skate because he saw what happened last season.
This is where Kevin Garnett comes into play. He can do a lot of Rivers' work
for him on the floor, keeping the team at a high level of readiness. Garnett set the menacing tone in 2007-08, when the Celtics won 66 games, beat every team in the league, and won their 17th title. He is now 18 months removed from his knee operation -- team physician Dr. Brian McKeon says it takes that long to fully recover -- and it is time for him to once again be the emotional center of this team.
The Celtics are going to either get it done or not get it done by being a
terrific defensive team. Garnett is the unquestioned defensive quarterback. Monday, he was Tom Brady and Peyton Manning rolled into one, smothering a hapless, helpless Josh Smith while himself registering his sixth double-double of the season.
Garnett didn't get his sixth double-double last season until Feb. 25 -- and he had only 10 all season. He's liable to have that many, or more, by Christmas this time around.
It's one thing to be the team's vocal adrenaline (apologies to "Glee") when you are at the top of your game, which is where Garnett was during the 2007-08 season. Teammates have to listen. It's quite another thing to be that same person when your body isn't reacting the way you'd like it to and you are a step slow (see Blatche, Andray, 4-9-10) or a second off (see Ilyasova, Ersan, 3-9-10). The words just don't resonate the same way.
Garnett may never get back to that 2007-08 form, but he's a lot closer to that KG now than to the KG of 2009-10, the one who dragged his leg like Long John Silver for most of the season. And he was the one who set the tone for the Atlanta mugging.
"I think he was a little disappointed with his play [in Toronto] defensively
and he took it upon himself,'' Paul Pierce said. "He's our defensive leader. [Against Atlanta] he showed it."
He did, indeed. With Garnett, it's hard to envision how actions speak louder
than words, given that he never stops talking. But when you play like he did
Monday, it's contagious. That is how the Celtics won three seasons ago. That's the only way they're going to win this season.
A healthy, contributing Garnett helps. A healthy, contributing, in-your-face,
no-B.S., live-for-today Garnett not only helps, it's essential.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.