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Doc Rivers stood by his words, allowing his players to deal as they wished with his criticism that they are soft. They had two days to digest the embarrassment of Wednesday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets, then produce a response.
Although the Portland Trail Blazers were not a mighty challenge, it hardly mattered. A team that had been stirring in anger and torment finally had a chance to feel good, even without their best player.
With Rajon Rondo serving the first of his two-game suspension for starting a fracas with Brooklyn’s Kris Humphries, the Celtics responded with a stifling defensive performance and positive effort in a 96-78 coast-to-coast win Friday night at TD Garden.
The Celtics led by as many as 27 as the Blazers played the role of patsies, shooting 23.3 percent in the first half and converting just seven field goals.
Friday’s opponent was hardly the focus. The Celtics spent 48 hours in reflection, asking themselves if Rivers’s assessment was correct. Some players acknowledged the comments made them angry, tested their manhood, but the only way to change the coach’s opinion was to play with more passion and physicality.
“After the last game, everybody had to realistically look themselves in the mirror,” forward Kevin Garnett said. “At this point, like we’ve been saying continuously, we’re a work in progress. But tonight we came with a lot of energy, a lot of energy defensively.”
Garnett said he was not pleased with Rivers’s comments, but he did not disagree.
“I don’t know any man that likes to be called soft,” Garnett said. “I think collectively he’s talking about our style and, obviously, the offensive rebounds. I don’t think he’s coming at us as men. But I definitely think he’s talking about our style as a whole. Collectively we all have to do that together. The onus falls on each and every last one of us. But yeah, that was disturbing. Who likes to be called soft in anything?’’
Jeff Green, despite a sore knee, returned to his aggressive ways with 19 points and four steals in 23 minutes and Courtney Lee, starting in place of Rondo, turned in his best all-around game of the season with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. Lee has played tentative for most of his first season with the Celtics, and Rivers accused some newcomers of taking playing for the Celtics for granted.
Lee wouldn’t deny that many players were upset at Rivers, but that only provided more motivation to perform to expectations.
“Nobody wants to be called soft,” Lee said. “Me, individually, I took that personal because I’m far from being soft and I think our team took it personal, too. We had a good practice [Thursday]. Doc was still going on his rant. We had to respond and we did that in practice by going hard and beating each other up and then we came out here and had a good start and threw that first punch.
“There’s been numerous times we’ve been mad at Doc. He’s the coach, whatever he says is the right way. It’s either his way or the highway, so you really can’t do too much about it, even if we’re right. So we always get mad at him and I think him calling us soft, we took it personal.”
The Trail Blazers were essentially a one-man team as All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge scored 23 points on 8-for-16 shooting. His teammates were 16 of 53 from the field, including much-heralded rookie Damian Lillard, who finished with 8 points, 3 assists, and 3 turnovers.
Without Rondo, the Celtics were simplistic offensively, but moved the ball crisply. Their first four baskets were assisted, and the team elected to run every opportunity.
“We just basically played through the bigs,” Rivers said. “We took all the pressure off the guards; all they had to do is bring it up and then throw it to Kevin at the elbow or Jared [Sullinger] at the elbow and then cut and move. That way there’s no dribbling; it was easier for them that way. And that’s what I meant before the game when I said I told everybody he’s going to be the point guard. Basically what I was saying: our bigs were the point guards today.”
Rivers said he didn’t say anything more to his team following Thursday’s comments. The only way to wipe away the embarrassment was by turning up the intensity at practice. Friday was a positive start, especially for a team that needed some confidence and momentum.
“We went pretty hard yesterday and we actually went hard today for a shootaround because we’ve got to get our culture right in that way,’’ Rivers said. “We’ve got a long way to go but we’re getting better, you can see it for sure.”