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On Basketball

Their study is producing answers in test

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 21, 2010

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It seems Doc Rivers had us fooled. He maintained, insisted, and even pleaded with the media that the Celtics were a team he genuinely liked, despite its shortcomings and inconsistencies.

And the players, regardless if they believed it, stood by their assertion that they could transform into a different team come the postseason. Miami entered the playoffs as the hot team (sorry for the Heat pun) with 18 wins in 22 games and the best player in the series in Dwyane Wade.

So there was little reason to believe things would change when the postseason switch was flipped up. Rivers is not one for “I told you sos’’ but he will look at the critics, pause with a wry smile, and explain that this team has prepared all season for April and those warts, bad memories, mental breakdowns, and nagging injuries dissipated when the Celtics finished their regular season a week ago.

Last night’s 106-77 Game 2 victory over the Heat more than likely stunned a national television audience and relayed a clear message that the Celtics will be a tough out because they have responded to the urgency of their surroundings, something that was not the case in the regular season.

There are a few good reasons the Celtics have shifted from an apathetic bunch into a determined group. The players took their work home with them in the past week. When it was apparent Miami would be the first-round opponent, the Celtics studied the matchups, tendencies, and habits.

Facing one opponent over 10 days allows a team to be more focused. The Celtics have responded to the critics and their own doubts about whether they would be prepared for the postseason.

And it hardly mattered that Kevin Garnett was sitting at Danny Ainge’s home watching the game. Glen Davis came through with 23 points and eight rebounds in just 29 minutes. The Davis who played hesitant and timid after missing the first 27 games with that embarrassing broken thumb is gone.

He is playing with the same confidence as in last year’s playoffs. The Celtics didn’t have a double-digit rebounder but pounded Miami on the boards. A team that averaged 38 rebounds collected 50, an example of the Celtics’ increased passion and execution.

This is the big show and the Celtics are not yet content to accept a supporting role.

“Everybody knows what their job is,’’ guard Ray Allen said. “Toward the end of the regular season, you are looking at who you are going to play in the playoffs. Once the playoffs got here, Rasheed [Wallace’s] is in there getting his exercise. You can see the focus. We know what we’re playing for. We’ve got to know these plays.

“We have the time to learn every single thing that D-Wade is doing. Everything that Quentin Richardson is doing and all the guys on the team. So when they call a play, we know exactly what it is. In this sport, there’s no cheating.’’

Of course, the Celtics are only halfway to advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals. But a team that endured a disheartening home season defended its court with two impressive wins.

As we are learning, home playoff wins are difficult. Cleveland has hardly looked like the NBA’s premier team in two grinding victories over the Bulls. The Lakers are struggling with eighth-seeded Oklahoma City, and Denver and Phoenix both dropped home games to injury-depleted teams.

The Celtics backed up a gritty win Saturday night with the most impressive win of the playoffs. And a team that is more confident on the road now heads to South Florida with all the momentum. The Celtics refused to create more adversity for themselves as they did in the regular season.

Miami is not exactly a hostile road environment. What’s more, the Heat were 24-17 at home this season, same as the Celtics. And Garnett will return after his one-game exile.

“We’ve got to do a better job as a team against this team,’’ said Wade, who is averaging 27.5 points in the series. “One player can’t [win] it. First game I felt we gave it away. The second game, they took it. They came out and took it. Give them credit.’’

That old Celtics mystique isn’t back in full stride, but they are taking steps toward regaining that confidence. The metamorphosis probably has occurred quicker that many players believed. Remember, Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich sliced the Boston defense for 69 points just a week ago.

The Wizards slapped the Celtics into delusion 12 days ago. The Celtics have withstood their share of embarrassing stretches, but the regular season is the distant past. Teams don’t enter the playoffs with seeds tattooed on their shoulders. The reset button has been pushed.

“It’s more mental off the court,’’ veteran Michael Finley said of the renewed focus. “It’s all or nothing. Everything goes up another level. The coaching. The players, they take the scouting report more seriously. This team has a lot of players who have been around the block for a long time and they know the importance of this time.’’

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

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