Commentary

Keyon Dooling is coming on strong

Celtics backup is finally earning Doc Rivers' trust after being derailed by injuries

Updated: March 30, 2012, 2:53 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Being a reserve on the Boston Celtics really requires only one thing: confidence.

[+] EnlargeKeyon Dooling
Steve Babineau/Getty ImagesKeyon Dooling has kicked it into top gear lately.

But good luck to you if you don't have it or if you lose it. Not only must you maintain a strong self-assurance in your own play, but you've got to earn the trust of coach Doc Rivers, who has no problem shortening his rotation if he believes you are a liability on the floor.

Once you fall into that abyss of doubt, it can be difficult to climb out. But not impossible. You simply have to be ready if another opportunity presents itself.

Keyon Dooling was ready.

After missing 16 of the team's first 26 games with right knee and right hip ailments, Dooling found himself with ground to make up when he returned again in mid-February.

Rivers gave Dooling the benefit of the doubt because of his maladies, but over a 19-game stretch upon his return, Dooling connected on a mere 14 of 54 shots overall (25.9 percent). He missed 14 consecutive 3-pointers at the end of that span.

Dooling's inability to generate offense wasn't helping his cause to crack the rotation. The Celtics had determined early on that he was better fit to play off the ball than run the backup PG position.

During Boston's eight-game road trip this month, Dooling's playing time had dwindled to an average of less than eight minutes per night over the first six contests (which included a 14-minute stint in a lopsided loss in Sacramento). But with Ray Allen hindered by a right ankle injury that has forced him to sit out the past four games, Dooling got a chance last week to make another impression.

It just so happened to come against a Milwaukee team that dealt him to Boston this offseason.

Perhaps that motivation aided his confidence -- he made all four shots he took that night in a bench-aided win over the Bucks -- but suddenly Dooling looks like a different player.

In his past five games, he's averaged 4.8 points, 1.6 assists and 1.4 rebounds over 16.8 minutes per game, all while shooting 57.9 percent from the floor. On Wednesday against the Jazz, Dooling drilled a key fourth-quarter 3-pointer to snap the game's final tie after Utah had rallied from an 18-point hole.

"I'm starting to feel better," said Dooling. "At the end of the day, everybody is banged up at this time of year. But I think I'm starting to earn Doc's trust a little bit more, starting to really find my niche and my role with this team."

So what is his niche?

"One night it might be diving on the floor, one night it might be making open shots," he said. "Every night it's contributing and keeping guys' energy up, keeping us feeling loose and helping the young guys from an execution standpoint. Just being who I am every day."

Dooling is a veteran of six teams in 12 NBA seasons. With a jammed depth chart in Milwaukee, the Celtics brought him in this offseason by utilizing a trade exception. The expectation was a healthier version of combo guard Delonte West; instead, Dooling battled his lower-body ailments and struggled to produce when on the floor.

"Just because you're not a young player, [it] doesn't mean you're exempt from the emotions of the game -- you ride the highs and sometimes you feel the lows," said Dooling.

But he's playing with renewed confidence now. And he's not looking over his shoulder to see if Rivers is going to pull him and the bench unit when opposing teams make a run.

Plagued by team-wide health woes this season, the Celtics desperately need as many contributing bodies as possible when the postseason arrives -- even when rotations tighten up. Dooling owns 29 games of postseason experience from his time with Florida teams (Miami and Orlando). He got to the Eastern Conference finals with the Heat in 2005.

Dooling is confident he can aid this team's playoff quest and he's trying to prove it with his recent play.

"Obviously when you come back from injury and don't feel great, you have to earn the trust of the coach," he said. "I think Doc is really starting to trust me, and I'm starting to kinda feel what he wants from me when I'm on the court. ... Now I'm just trying to find and build my role on this team."

Dooling is aware the stats aren't very glitzy. Offensively, he's averaging a mere 0.81 points per play this season, which puts him in just the 27th percentile among all NBA players, according to Synergy Sports data. He's actually thrived in the midrange, shooting 50 percent from 16 feet to 23 feet, according to HoopData, but has struggled elsewhere.

Lately, he's made his biggest strides on defense. His numbers remain troubling -- he's allowed 0.879 points per play, ranking him in the 37th percentile -- but he's moving in the right direction.

And Rivers has taken notice.

"Keyon, he's just coming on," said Rivers. "We don't want to forget how much he's been injured, and now he's starting to come on. You can see it a little bit and it's nice to see him make shots."

The coach has confidence in him at the moment. It's up to Dooling to maintain it.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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