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O'Brien finds pace just right in Indiana

Email|Print| Text size + By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / November 12, 2007

When the undefeated Celtics run across the Conseco Fieldhouse floor tomorrow night, ex-Boston and current Pacers coach Jim O'Brien probably can't help but wonder, "What if?"

With Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, the Celtics have the potential for success this season. The last time Boston enjoyed an extended postseason run was when O'Brien coached the franchise to its last Eastern Conference Finals appearance, in the 2001-02 season. But during the 2003-04 season, distraught after several roster moves the Celtics made, he resigned.

"They disbanded a group that I felt close to," O'Brien recently said in a phone interview. "I felt everybody would be best served as they retooled the franchise [that I] have a chance to move on to coach in a new place."

O'Brien spent four seasons as the Celtics' coach, compiling a 139-119 record with postseason appearances in '02 and '03. He led Boston to its first trip to the Eastern finals since 1988.

"He's a straight shooter type of guy," said Celtics forward Paul Pierce, whose team had yesterday off. "He demands a lot of his players. I'm surprised he has been out of coaching that long. I think we had a good relationship. We had an open relationship. He was real demanding of his players.

"I looked at him as one of those old-school coaches. He's a throwback coach. He preaches a lot of defense. He always preached about that. I think [the Pacers] are going to like him."

O'Brien, whose teams also favored the 3-pointer, seemed happy in Boston until new ownership opted for change.

In 2003 the Celtics were sold by Paul Gaston to Boston Basketball Partners, LLC. Before Boston was eliminated in the second round of the '03 playoffs, ex-Celtic Danny Ainge was hired as director of basketball operations.

Ainge dealt Antoine Walker and Tony Delk to Dallas for Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, Jiri Welsch, and a 2004 first-round pick in October of '03. During the '03-04 season, Ainge dealt Eric Williams, Tony Battie, and Kedrick Brown to Cleveland for Ricky Davis, Chris Mihm, Michael Stewart and a second-rounder.

Reportedly disappointed by that trade, O'Brien stepped down and was replaced by assistant John Carroll on an interim basis. Doc Rivers was hired to lead the Celtics the next season.

"We had a great thing going there," O'Brien said. "We had almost an ideal situation where I loved the players. They did it with their work ethic. As a result there was a close bond of players and coaching staff. We had a terrific couple years.

"[Watching the trades] was painful. A group like that is hard to replace. [Ainge] had his reasons to tear it down and build it up to win a championship. It was too painful for me."

Said Ainge: "He's a good coach. A good person. I wish him well. I have no ill feelings about Jim O'Brien. He just wasn't comfortable in the situation he was in. I understood it."

After leaving the Celtics, O'Brien coached the Sixers during the 2004-05 season, compiling a 43-39 record and making the playoffs. But when he didn't see eye-to-eye with the players, mostly Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, and the Sixers wanted to hire ex-Sixer Maurice Cheeks, he was gone.

During the last two seasons, O'Brien has spent most of his time in Bonita Springs, Fla., writing an NBA column for ESPN.com and watching lots of basketball on television.

"I spent two years away from it and did a lot of studying of the game," O'Brien said. "Can't tell you how many games I watched. Missed coaching. Being around other coaches and having my team. The basketball environment, and working with men, and trying to put a winner together was a great experience and I missed it."

O'Brien got his wish to get back in when the Pacers hired him this offseason. In taking the Indiana job he inherited a challenge similar to that when he first took over the Celtics - getting a franchise back into the postseason. The Pacers are 3-3 this season, and O'Brien's squad is even more aggressive offensively than his teams of the past.

While the odds for success seem against Indiana, O'Brien likes the makeup of his team, led by four-time All-Star Jermaine O'Neal and young standout Danny Granger, now in his third season.

"They have a very, very strong franchise," said O'Brien of the Pacers. "Terrific leadership. I thought this particular team with some additions could compete at a high level that most people gave them credit of being able to do. We aren't picked highly because of the year we had [last season]."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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