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Defense was a sight to behold

Celtics rediscover winning formula

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 18, 2010

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The second quarter was ugly offensively for the Celtics. They scored 13 points, had more turnovers than baskets. Ray Allen missed all four 3-point attempts. They collected one assist.

For the entire regular season, the Celtics paid dearly for such offensive lapses. (See the 32-4 run by the Washington Wizards on April 9). During the past six months, their defense was directly linked to their offense and that led to massive swings in momentum. When the Celtics scored, they were more motivated on defense. When they didn’t score, they didn’t play defense and were dominated on several occasions by good teams as well as downright bad teams.

Last night at TD Garden, the Celtics’ second quarter may have been a sign of things to come defensively. Despite a 13-point quarter and total confusion at times on offense, the defense responded and held the Miami Heat to 15 points. That execution carried over into the second half of a sparkling 85-76 win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Defense was the reason the Celtics rammed their way to a championship two years ago. They could always rely on it. They had the ability to hold down and discombobulate opponents. Nothing was easy.

Such was the case last night against the Heat. The Celtics ended the game on a 38-15 run in the final 19 minutes, even though they shot just 44 percent. Ray Allen was uncharacteristically timid from the field. Paul Pierce made a third-quarter offensive surge but finished just 4 of 12 and Boston drained just one 3-pointer.

In several games this season, the Celtics had no idea how to react when they went cold from the field. They panicked and that resulted in poor defensive possessions and bigger deficits.

Credit the Heat for their aggressive halfcourt offense that forced 17 turnovers. But the Celtics won last night because they began challenging everything that Miami offered beginning in the second quarter and smothered the Heat after an early third-quarter run put Miami ahead, 61-47.

Quentin Richardson’s struggles exemplified Boston’s defensive adjustments. Richardson is an above-average 3-point shooter and he drained two in a two-minute span for an 11-point lead early in the third quarter. That would be Richardson’s final long-range contribution.

The Celtics used Ray Allen and Pierce to chase him each time he received the ball at the 3-point line. The disruptive approach turned Richardson into a driver and that is not his game.

After scoring methodically early, Miami was in a hurry most of the second half. Even Dwyane Wade, who led the Heat with 26 points on 11-for-18 shooting, never took off on one of his patented scoring shows.

Wade scored 9 points in the first quarter, then 2, 9, and 6. The Celtics understand Wade is going to score at least 25 per game; they wanted to contain his complements and reduce the Heat to a one-man operation. The rest of the Heat finished 20 for 60 from the field and Richardson was the lone teammate to score in double figures.

“Their defense kind of speeds you up a little, but at certain times,” Wade said. “That’s not really the way we play. We just gotta tell everybody to relax, calm down. This team is gonna try to bully you, to speed you to get you to play the way they want you to play.”

That wasn’t just poor shooting. Heat players had someone in their face each time they approached the paint and eventually became hesitant and anxious.

There’s no question the Heat need someone to aid Wade if they want to win this series. Jermaine O’Neal started strong but Rasheed Wallace and Davis pushed him so far off the block that he was slapping hands with Hubie Brown on the sideline.

Defensive execution beats athleticism every time. And the Heat are obviously the more athletic and agile team. But Michael Beasley can’t soar for tip-jams if he is boxed out 15 feet from the basket.

The defensive mastery was stunning considering the Celtics had just allowed Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich to combine for 69 points four nights ago. They often looked helpless and old.

“We’re disappointed because we missed some shots, and our offense for that stretch was starting to dictate our defense,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “And I said, ‘We’re a defensive team; we can’t worry about missed shots.’ We executed our defensive plan and we executed our offensive game plan. But the urgency in playing hard was the key.

“Whether things are going right or not, we can’t be a team that functions only when things are going our way. We showed some resolve, something that in the second half of the year we haven’t had.’’

The rhetoric the Celtics had been presenting about changing for the better when the postseason spotlight grew bright was true for at least one night, after they had yielded at least 100 points in eight of their final nine games.

The Celtics’ foundation had weakened. Teams did not respect their defense or their swagger. The Celtics responded by using defense to get their swagger back. And the result was beautifully ugly.

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