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New-look Celtics no longer defenseless

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / November 6, 2007

We've had only one week of NBA basketball in the 2007-08 season, but there already are story lines everywhere. Yes, Kobe is still with the Lakers. Yes, Isiah is still coaching the Knicks. Yes, Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson are still on suspension.

However . . . Miami is 0-3. The Pacers are 3-0. The Bobcats are 2-0. The Wizards are 0-3.

But here's the one stat that activated Norton and McAfee Security Systems on computers around the planet yesterday: The No. 1 defensive team in the NBA, in terms of field goal percentage, is the Boston Celtics. And not only were they tops in that category, they also were third in points allowed.

True, it's only two games, but when has a Celtics team ever crashed the San Antonio Spurs' party?

The Celtics opened against two (supposedly) decent teams, one of which, the Wizards, pretty much lives and dies with its offense. The Raptors can put up points as well and were at home. The result: The two teams combined to shoot 35.9 percent and average 89 points. And that's with an overtime thrown in Sunday against Toronto. Chicago is No. 2 in field goal defense at 38.6 percent and the Raptors are No. 2 in points allowed at 88.

We pretty much figured that this year's Celtics would be a vast improvement defensively over last year's Celtics because of (a) Kevin Garnett, (b) James Posey, (c) assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, and (d) they couldn't be much worse. Garnett all by himself gives the team a defensive cachet and identity. As Gilbert Arenas, in one of his (rare?) lucid moments, said, "The other guys are great, but KG is the one who makes it go, especially on the defensive end."

And, as coach Doc Rivers pointed out recently, he can actually teach and coach defense this year without his players looking at him as if he were talking about quantum physics. He now has veterans who have at least a passing knowledge of the concept.

"We're all right," Posey said after the Toronto game, when asked about the team's defense. "We could be a lot better. But it's the second game and we're going to have many more practices just to tune it up a little bit. Once we get that done, we're going to be really good."

Posey arrived with the reputation as a defensive demon. Garnett has been a glass eater his entire career while also being a shot-blocking threat and an annual member of the All-Defensive Team, dating to 2000. He was a first-teamer for six straight years and has been second team the past two. The Celtics haven't had anyone make the All-Defensive Team since Kevin McHale in 1990, on the second team, and only one guy (Rick Fox, 1997) has even gotten a vote by the coaches in the past decade.

We pretty much figured the 2007-08 Celtics would be able to score. But were they going to be a version of last year's Wizards, the old Denver teams (Dan Issel, Alex English, Kiki Vandeweghe), or the old Seattle teams (Tom Chambers, Xavier McDaniel, Dale Ellis) who could score a ton of points but could never break through to even get a shot in the NBA Finals?

"[Defense] was the biggest thing we wanted to change from last year," said Rajon Rondo. "We wanted to be a defensive team first. We knew offense would come if we just took care of the ball. Defense, we wanted it to be the main goal."

And can the Celtics be a top defensive team?

"We have the talent on paper," Rondo said. "But we've got to keep trusting each other and know that [we'll] be there for each other. If we get that steady, the better it will be."

Meanwhile . . .

Larry Bird said the Pacers would be better than a lot of people think. Indiana assistant coach Dick Harter told friends he saw the team being no worse than .500. The Pacers have notched wins over Washington, Miami, and Memphis (who together are 0-8), and the first came without Jermaine O'Neal. Danny Granger, who graces the cover of the Indiana media guide, is averaging 22.7 points while Mike Dunleavy is at 22.3 . . . The Heat have dropped 16 straight games and Shaquille O'Neal is looking like Rigor Artis Gilmore. Even worse, Miami's next two games are against the Spurs and Suns. The Heat are in Boston a week from Friday, by which time Dwyane Wade (a.k.a. the cavalry) should be back. The teams meet again in Miami at the end of the month . . . The Charlotte Bobcats are 2-0 for the first time ever. " 'Streaking' Bobcats withstand Heat" headlined the Charlotte Observer, tongue fully in cheek, after a win at Miami Saturday. The Wizards are 0-3 for the first time since 1992. But Brendan Haywood is averaging a triple-double . . . The Celtics, who did not practice yesterday, held their annual Shamrock Foundation Dinner last night at the Intercontinental Hotel. The entire team was scheduled to attend, along with former Celtics Bob Cousy and Bill Walton. Danny Ainge led a moment of silence for Doc Rivers's father, Grady Alexander Rivers, who died Sunday.

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