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Despite early stumbles, no doubts on this trip

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 5, 2009

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Believe it or not, there was actually a great deal of concern in the Celtics’ locker room eight days ago about an upcoming four-game road trip. Although Boston put together a couple of wins against Philadelphia and Toronto, it had hardly been impressive or consistent.

The journey through the Southeast and Southwest would determine whether the Celtics were truly one of the league’s elite teams through the first month of the season. After pummeling the Oklahoma City Thunder, 105-87, at Ford Center last night, the answer is obvious.

The Celtics rolled through Miami, Charlotte, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City with fervor, punishing those teams for every mistake. Kevin Garnett erased any doubt about the stability of his right knee and the effectiveness of his game.

Rajon Rondo’s sparkling play has made pundits forget about his free throw shooting while Rasheed Wallace used the trip to realize that his inside game opens his outside game.

The Celtics’ precise execution sent a message to the NBA that they are curing their early-season ills, but the past six days was even more critical to the teams’ psyche. Three home losses and a couple of ugly wins caused apprehension, although coach Doc Rivers never showed a hint of panic.

Behind the cool demeanor and bright smile, Rivers allows his team plenty of room to find themselves. So while the region may have been uneasy with the 9-4 start, Rivers could be seen sipping on a Smoothie.

Rivers has diverted comparisons with the 2008 title team, fully realizing this team - especially with Wallace and a healthy Garnett - needs to establish its personality. That evolution occurs during November games and sometimes the growing period is deceiving.

The goal isn’t to win pretty, it is to win. And the pretty wins, such as last night against a talented Thunder team, will come in time. Rivers promised this, showing little distress when questioned by reporters about the team’s issues.

Rivers had the mentality of Mr. Roarke of “Fantasy Island.’’ Everything was cool. The warts that appeared were expected, and soon enough the Celtics would smooth those blemishes. But who knew this would happen so quickly?

“This is just a great road trip,’’ Rivers said. “We came out here and had a sweep even though all the teams were playing well. I’m really proud of our guys. I thought this would be the toughest of all the nights. This is the best all year that our starters have played.’’

A tough win at Miami, a breezy victory over Charlotte, and an easier-than-expected win at San Antonio set up the showdown with the Thunder. On the final game of the trip and on the second of back-to-back games, the Celtics showed more energy, played with more passion, and used their veteran guile to frustrate Oklahoma City. By the third quarter, Kevin Durant was picking up technicals, angry after Rondo nearly collapsed after slightly colliding with him on a screen.

Last night was a perfect example of old school showing new school how it’s done. Although the Thunder have had their moments this season, they are light years away from the intensity and execution of the Celtics.

“Well I have a lot of respect for how they play,’’ Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “They play physical. They chase down every ball. There’s no breakaway layups. They’re going to chase you down. They’re built on making winning basketball plays every time down the court. That’s a competitive team that plays with spirit and that’s a lesson we can learn.’’

Suddenly the Celtics’ home struggles, an ailing Garnett, a misfiring Wallace, an erratic Rondo, and angry Kendrick Perkins have been eased by a seven-game winning streak.

“Almost there, almost there,’’ Rondo said when asked if the last four games was Celtics basketball. “We’re putting together not just one quarter, we’re putting a couple of quarters together. We’re not quite 48 minutes, but we’re almost there. We keep building and we keep getting better.’’

In the four games, the Celtics allowed opponents 43 percent shooting, including 15 percent from the 3-point line. Yes, the Celtics are more offensively efficient than two weeks ago, but the key to their dominance is defensive emphasis, getting into jerseys, contesting shots, and forcing players into uncomfortable roles.

Durant scored 22 of his 36 points in the first half and Paul Pierce took that personally. So he became more physical and Durant attempted just five shots in 12 third-quarter minutes, leaving Russell Westbrook to shoulder the scoring load.

The Celtics are off today before returning to practice tomorrow. They host Milwaukee Tuesday. Rivers knew his team needed to be ready for a rugged December schedule, with 10 of 14 games on the road. On this trip he saved their legs by canceling two practices.

There was a sense of relief and accomplishment in the Celtics’ locker room. What a difference a week makes. Just eight days ago, following a shaky win over the Toronto Raptors, Pierce pondered the road like a calculus test. Were the Celtics prepared for such rigors? How would they respond against hot teams?

Those questions are almost laughable. Of course, the Celtics would respond like they always have in the Doc Rivers era, with aggression and flawless teamwork.

“That’s the key for us, understanding it’s going to be a long process,’’ Pierce said. “The whole goal for us is to continue to play and get better and I thought we got better on this trip. We know what it takes to be on the road. We’re not new to this. It takes getting out on the road and coming together as a unit and figuring out what we need to do to play better basketball and we are starting to figure that out.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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