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An old formula works to perfection

By Gary Washburn
March 20, 2010

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HOUSTON — In the 68th game, the Celtics found a recipe for beating a more athletic team in what could be considered their most significant victory of the season.

The 94-87 triumph over the Rockets last night at Toyota Center displayed how the Celtics have to proceed for the next several weeks if they hope to make a championship run.

The Celtics didn’t look like an old bunch trying to run with the young guys. Instead, they stopped the young guys from running. They played stellar perimeter defense and forced a 3-point shooting team into contested treys.

Houston missed 12 of 17 from long range and the Celtics limited their turnovers (11) to limit Rockets fast-break points. What’s more, the Celtics scored more points on the break (20) than the Rockets (13), so the old men at the schoolyard showed the youngsters about controlled tempo.

Controlled is the key word. The Celtics didn’t run at every opportunity. They pounded the ball in the paint, ran their offense, continued their recent emphasis on ball movement, and spread the wealth with shot selection.

Paul Pierce, who is on Day 7 of his media boycott, scored 26 points on just 14 shots. And then the Celtics needed him to stave off Rocket rallies in the fourth, delivering 15 points down the stretch, mostly on shots that he had been missing the past few months.

This was vintage Celtics. They are finally getting the message that the way to beat athletic teams — Atlanta, Milwaukee, Orlando — is by containing what athletic teams like to do.

The Celtics scrapped their past pattern of trying to run with athletic teams and maintained a lead throughout most of the game with hard-nosed defense. The Rockets attempted to speed up the pace but couldn’t produce fast-break points, allowing the Celtics to slow things down.

“We controlled the tempo and we got good shots,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “At the beginning of the game, we took awful shots. If we would have continued doing that, we would have lost by 50 tonight. Instead, we stopped [hurrying] we started making the second pass, the second pick. Guys started getting great shots and that’s tough to play against.

“You are on defense longer, you’re fighting through picks, it’s tough to run when you get through all that.’’

This is the way the Celtics have to play in the postseason, where they will face more athletic teams that want to run. This should be an advantage for Boston because postseason games are played as a slow pace and half-court defense will be a critical factor.

Houston shot 39.5 percent as every Rocket save Luis Scola was locked down by the aggressive interior defense. The primary reason Houston remained close is that the Celtics’ aggression led to fouls. Houston had no choice but to go small with Yao Ming sitting on the sideline. The Rockets pounded the ball into Scola and Chuck Hayes.

The positive is that the Celtics have a dearth of big men that could use fouls. So there was not as much concern when Kendrick Perkins and Pierce each picked up their fourth in the third period. That allowed Glen Davis to put his imprint on the game with some valuable rebounds and hustle plays.

Davis and Rasheed Wallace combined for 16 rebounds. Nine by Wallace, his most since Jan. 6. Instead of languishing at the 3-point line — Wallace took just three treys — he was planted in the paint, using his length and savvy to grab boards, that’s why Danny Ainge signed him. His insistence on roaming at the 3-point line has hurt the team but he still has time to become more inside oriented.

The Celtics don’t have to earn the No. 1 seed to win the NBA title but they have to be rested and prepared for the onslaught when they face hungry, young teams such as the Rockets. Last night, the Celtics accepted the fact that they aren’t the athletic team of yesteryear and played to their strengths.

“It was a collective effort man,’’ Kevin Garnett said. “For the most part defense won the game. It’s a recipe that calls for defense, energy and effort for 48 minutes. Again, you have to have 15 guys collectively involved.’’

It doesn’t take youth to win a championship, rather it takes experience. And the Celtics still have enough fresh legs — Davis, Nate Robinson, Rajon Rondo, Perkins — to keep up with those greyhound teams, but Pierce, Ray Allen, and Garnett have enough left to run on occasion and effectively.

“I think their guards are pretty good at denying the ball,’’ said Houston guard Aaron Brooks, whose team-record streak of 39 consecutive games with a 3-pointer ended with just one attempt. “Besides that, their big guys are an excellent rotating team and when they won their championship, that’s what they prided themselves on is their defense. They looked like the team of old.’’

Not an old team.

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

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