Another step along the way
Celtics exhibit mental toughness
The unofficial exhibition season disclaimer for defending champions and lottery teams alike reads as follows:
Exhibition games do not count, for a reason. Coaches do not reveal their playbooks in meaningless contests. Starters generally get half the minutes they will play during the regular season. Matchups can be comically unbalanced, with a well-conditioned veteran (e.g. Mark Blount) facing an untested rookie (e.g. Detroit's 320-pound Nigel Dixon, slimmed down significantly from his college weight).
Gaudy statistics accumulated in fewer than 20 minutes should not be extrapolated to predict what a player might do in November. (Raef LaFrentz scored 13 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in 17 minutes against the Pistons Wednesday night, but that doesn't mean he will average a double-double during the regular season.)
Exhibition games primarily provide young players with risk-free experience and coaches with a rough barometer reading of where a team stands.
So, what can coach Doc Rivers and the Celtics reasonably conclude from a blowout of the Bulls in their first exhibition game and a last-minute loss to the Pistons in their second?
The running game is taking shape with Gary Payton leading the way, allowing the Celtics to top 100 points against Chicago and Detroit. The defense, which forced more than 20 turnovers in each contest, may actually be ahead of schedule. And the rookies have had moments, albeit brief, of competence. Rivers allowed the newcomers and second-year players to stay on the floor for the final minutes of the Detroit game.
Rivers must expand the Celtics' offensive and defensive repertoire, work to create consistency, hope the rookies don't make the same mistakes, and trust that the mental toughness demonstrated against Detroit will continue to develop. The Celtics will be back to work today in preparation for an exhibition game against the Nets tomorrow.
"I'm discouraged that at the beginning of the [Detroit] game, we weren't mentally focused enough to fight off fatigue or whatever else, to come out and compete," said Rivers. "I'm encouraged because we were able to gather ourselves and have that focus and get back into the game.
"I'm encouraged with Delonte West. I thought he was absolutely phenomenal. I thought defensively he had an unbelievable game [against Detroit] with his hands. Raef and [Tom] Gugliotta, you can really see getting into things. I thought Paul [Pierce] was trying so hard to get everybody else involved that he forgot about himself in the first quarter [against Detroit]. In the third quarter, you could see him getting more involved. I like that he can pick his spots through our offense. I think they'll come out of this more confident."
The Celtics appear to be enjoying themselves on the court. Sniping between teammates has been brief, momentary spells of confusion about a play or positioning.
For now, the Celtics trust each other enough to share the ball. Pierce took the lead against Chicago with 11 attempts, while LaFrentz followed with 10. The Celtics recorded 25 assists against the Bulls and 17 against the Pistons.
"Our youth and inexperience stick out," said Pierce. "But [Detroit] was a great, great test for the young guys. It's a learning experience. That's what the preseason is all about, getting the mistakes out of the way and learning from them."
Perhaps, the most encouraging aspect of the back-to-back exhibition games was that LaFrentz remained healthy. After playing 22 minutes against Chicago and 17 against Detroit, LaFrentz had no complaints about his surgically repaired right knee. He moved as smoothly in the second game as he did in the first.
"Everybody's feeling really upbeat about what we're doing and the direction we're heading," said LaFrentz. "We're playing as a team. We're playing unselfish. Defensively, I think we're ahead of the ballgame right now from where teams normally are this time of year. The young guys are playing well, picking up the system. I feel good. I don't foresee any problems. With every practice, with every back-to-back, with every game, I'm learning where I'm at and I'm real pleased."
With 14 points and a pair of steals off the bench against the Pistons, West was impressive in his second exhibition game. Rivers left the Detroit contest in the hands of West, fellow rookies Al Jefferson, Tony Allen, and Justin Reed, as well as inexperienced sophomores Marcus Banks and Kendrick Perkins. West displayed the kind of composure at the point guard spot that has made the coaching staff take notice.
"Even when we were down [against Detroit] and things weren't going our way, we stuck to the system," said West. "We expect big things out of ourselves this year. [The first two exhibition games] have definitely given me hands-on experience. It feels good [to run the team down the stretch]. It's just a preseason game, but for a rookie, it's a big game for us. I'm taking advantage of it and picking up things for the next time I'm in the same situation."
And that's what preseason is meant to be about.