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Coach Doc Rivers, seen with Ricky Davis, has led Boston to is first Atlantic Division title since 1992, and a playoff series with Indiana starting tomorrow.
Coach Doc Rivers, seen with Ricky Davis, has led Boston to is first Atlantic Division title since 1992, and a playoff series with Indiana starting tomorrow. (Globe Staff Photo / John Bohn)

With Rivers in charge, Celtics set for another shot

Unfathomable as it seemed, Celtics captain Paul Pierce lay on the court, upended during a game early this season, and no one seemed to care -- least of all his teammates.

No one extended a hand to Pierce. And the closest Celtic, rookie Al Jefferson, walked away.

Worse, Pierce's predicament epitomized a chronic problem: The once-mighty Celtics had grown accustomed to leaving each other on the floor.

''What the hell is that?" first-year coach Doc Rivers asked his players as he showed them a videotape of the scene and others like it.

''Even the young guys weren't picking their teammates up," Rivers said in an interview this week in Cleveland. ''They weren't doing it because they hadn't seen the veterans do it."

Those days are history. With Rivers trying to reshape the Celtics in the image he projected over 13 seasons as an NBA player -- uptempo, tenacious, and, above all, team-oriented -- the heirs to the league's greatest dynasty have lifted themselves off the floor and launched a refreshingly spirited campaign to reclaim the franchise's faded glory.

The makeover, still a work in progress, has pitted Rivers against Pierce and other players at times as he has tried to root out an array of counterproductive tendencies. But if the Celtics make the very best of their incarnation, they soon could hoist their first championship banner since 1986 (when Jefferson was still in diapers) and deliver Rivers his first title since he was a 14-year-old growing up in a tough Chicago suburb.

The test begins tomorrow night at the FleetCenter when the Celtics enter the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in a best-of-seven series against the Indiana Pacers, who humiliated them last year in a first-round sweep.

``I told my guys that if we win it this year, I might go home," said Rivers, 43, who signed a four-year contract last year worth about $20 million. ``I've been close, but I don't know how it feels to be a winner, and that's all I want."

Chances are, Rivers will have to wait a while longer. By nearly all accounts, the Celtics lack the rebounding and indomitable defense needed to overtake the NBA's titans and join the Red Sox and Patriots as world champions.

But, hey, who picked the Celtics to win the Atlantic Division this season, which they did, for the first time since Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale roamed the parquet in 1992?

Or to capture home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since they advanced to the conference finals in 2002?

Or even to improve on last year's woeful television ratings?

``Let's face it, we didn't expect to be where we are now," said Gary Payton, the 15-year veteran point guard. ``Everybody thought this was a building situation for us, but look where we're at. It's all pretty good, and it's because Doc has built us up."

Payton was surprised by the results -- with 45 wins, Rivers topped his previous best of 44 with the Orlando Magic in 2001-02 -- but he hardly was confounded by the process. Payton played against Rivers and expected his former rival to coach like he played: all-out.

Picture Rivers in his first exhibition game with the Hawks in 1983, losing two front teeth in an inadvertent collision with teammate Keith Edmonson. Rivers scooped up the teeth, tossed them toward the Atlanta bench, and raced downcourt to play defense.

"I was trying to make the team," Rivers said. "I wasn't thinking about my teeth."

His junior high coach, Donald Burnside, would have expected nothing less. An Army veteran, Burnside ran his practices like boot camps, with Rivers and his teammates wearing combat boots during conditioning drills, all the while chanting a classic military marching cadence: "I don't know but I believe, I'll be home by Christmas Eve."

Rivers loved it. He learned discipline from his father, Grady, a police officer in their hometown of Maywood, Ill., and mother, Bettye, a deeply religious woman who steered him into the choir. But Burnside made him tough enough to compete on the Chicago playgrounds with the likes of future NBA colleagues Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, and Darrell Walker. He also taught Rivers not to worry about a couple of lost teeth.

Playing in the NBA, where he reached the playoffs 10 of his 13 seasons with the Hawks, Clippers, Knicks, and Spurs, Rivers's style was best epitomized by his 1992-93 season. He helped the Knicks advance to the Eastern Conference finals while competing at various times with a separated shoulder, sprained wrist, strained knee, and broken nose. He also needed 11 stitches to close cuts on his face and lost another front tooth to the elbow of Golden State's Jud Buechler.

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who took part in a 1993 brawl between the Knicks and Suns in which the main combatants were Rivers and Phoenix's Kevin Johnson, knew when he hired Rivers last year he was installing a coach who would not shy from confrontation.

Just ask Pierce. The Celtics wanted more from the four-time All-Star than averaging 23.2 points a game, as he had done over his first six seasons. They needed Pierce to cut back on his 3-point shots and rely far less on trying to carry the team by himself. Rivers became the enforcer, and Pierce bristled.

"It was tough for me adapting to a new coach and a new system and accepting the changes after the way I played for six years," Pierce said in an interview in Cleveland. "Doc and I finally came to an even medium, I guess, but we're still growing and learning about each other. It's kind of like when you have a new relationship with your girlfriend. It isn't all roses at the beginning. We've had our bumps throughout the season, but we've been able to taste some success and at the end of the road it was good for both of us."

Asked by reporters yesterday what ended his hostile relationship with Rivers, Pierce said, "I guess I just got tired of getting into arguments with Doc. We both got tired of it."

When Pierce was asked if their relationship grew so strained that he didn't want to be in the same room as Rivers, Pierce smiled and said, "We'll talk about that later."

As it turned out, Pierce averaged 21.6 points this season despite launching nearly 100 fewer 3-point shots than last year. He otherwise improved in nearly every offensive category, as did the Celtics.

"Before Doc came, the team's offense was pretty much pass to Pierce and pray," said Tom Heinsohn, who helped the Celtics win eight NBA championships as a player and two more as a coach and now serves as the team's television analyst. "Paul found out how tough it is to carry the entire team on his shoulders. But this year he has played the best basketball in every aspect of the game that I have seen him play."

Rivers said he understood Pierce's frustration and praised him for persevering. Though Pierce was irate when Rivers removed him from a game early in the season, Rivers found a way to keep his star productive.

"He wasn't mad because the system changed but because he had a hard time adjusting to it," Rivers said. "I was happy he was trying."

Antoine Walker faced a similar mandate when he returned in February to the Celtics. Like Pierce, Walker has struggled to change the way he's played for most of his 10 seasons in the NBA.

"I really believe we still have work to do with Antoine," Rivers said. "When he plays the way we want him to, he's really good. But when he goes back to his old ways, I think he struggles, and his numbers bear that out."

Yet Walker, who will be a free agent after the season, expressed optimism about the change. The Celtics have gone 18-9 since he returned.

"It's been good for the team," Walker said. "As long as it shows up in the win-loss category, that's what we want. We're continuing to develop, but Doc is definitely a coach I can see myself playing for for a long time."

Under Rivers, Ricky Davis has produced one of his finest seasons and Raef LaFrentz, despite a painful, surgically repaired right knee, has revived his career. Rivers has carefully managed LaFrentz's playing time.

"I've tried to battle through the season, and I knew there would be a lot of days when I wouldn't feel very good but I still wanted to contribute," LaFrentz said. "It's been a luxury for me to know the coach understands. He's been great about helping me achieve that goal."

Even so, Rivers publicly ripped LaFrentz and fellow big man Mark Blount after he benched them for playing subpar defense in a loss to the Bulls in January in Chicago.

"They didn't deserve to be in there," Rivers told reporters at the time.

Rivers has not been shy about publicly criticizing players, a risky practice for an NBA coach. But he expressed regret this week for his remarks about LaFrentz and Blount. "To be honest, I remember reading it and thinking, `I wish I hadn't said it that way,' " he said.

Rivers has spent much of the season hounding his young guards, particularly 23-year-old Marcus Banks and 21-year-old Delonte West, in an attempt to develop a successor to Payton. But he also has nurtured the pair by granting them more playing time, especially in crucial situations, than the Celtics have given their young players in recent years.

"This is the best coaching job I've seen here in about 15 years," Heinsohn said. "Doc has trusted his veterans and has been willing to live with the mistakes of his young players, which a lot of coaches don't have enough confidence to do. That's how you build a team."

Rivers also has given his 20-year-old forwards, Jefferson (a rookie) and Kendrick Perkins (second year), considerable exposure, though both are fresh out of high school. Jefferson said Rivers has fostered strong chemistry by allowing the young players to feel like contributors.

"He's done a great job all year bringing us together and keeping us together," Jefferson said. "We're closer than ever now as we go into the playoffs."

They even pick each other up.

Shira Springer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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