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Focus on prevention is finally paying off

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 18, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The focus of the Celtics’ resurrection can be attributed to the revival of Kevin Garnett, the evolution of Rajon Rondo, and the sparkling play of the bench. Largely ignored has been the increased execution of the defense, which was critical in containing the Magic in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday.

The Celtics have earned the reputation as one of the league’s stingiest defenses the past three seasons, but that mind-set was missing most of this season. The Celtics allowed 100 points or more in 30 games, their defense slashed and overwhelmed by young, eager opponents who capitalized on their age.

It wasn’t that coach Doc Rivers and associate head coach Tom Thibodeau adjusted the defensive sets or stressed help any less than two years ago. The problem was focus. Although the Celtics worked feverishly on defense every day, the players lacked the fervor to execute.

Despite the slew of injuries, the Celtics had little trouble scoring. Their trouble originated from their failure to stop scoring barrages, especially in the second half of games. Interior defense suffered. Hard fouls and challenged shots were scarce.

So it was no surprise the Celtics limped to a 50-32 record. The foundation of their past success appeared to be crumbling.

Five weeks later, the Celtics have regained that defensive prowess. The Magic could do nothing yesterday but compliment the Celtics’ defensive effort in the 92-88 win. A team that many opponents relished facing during the regular season is now stymieing the league’s top scorers. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James showed flashes of their All-NBA form, but neither — especially James — dominated their series.

On Sunday, a team that relies on balanced scoring and contributions from a bevy of 3-point shooters were relegated to one-on-one play from Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter.

“I just think the focus is definitely up and the sense of urgency is definitely there,’’ Paul Pierce said. “We are able to maintain our focus, our intensity level for 48 minutes and I think that was a problem with us throughout the course of the season, since it’s such a long season, a lot of mental fatigue had a lot to do with it.’’

As the playoffs approached and the Celtics realized they were an afterthought behind Cleveland and Orlando, Rivers’s message began to resonate. The players were kidding themselves if they believed they could get by the Heat and Cavaliers with strictly an improved offensive approach. The Celtics had to lock down opponents as they did two years ago.

“You put a group of guys in a situation where basketball means so much more now,’’ Pierce said. “Regular season means a lot, but you are talking about basketball that means everything. And I have to attribute it to being veterans, being focused. Because it’s the same principles we had during the regular season but it was a matter of going out and doing it night in and night out. The stakes are so much higher, guys’ urgency is there and we’re more consistent now.’’

The numbers show a team that’s more committed to defense. Entering tonight’s Game 2, the Celtics have allowed 91.4 points per game during the postseason compared with 95.6 in the regular season. Opponents are shooting 44 percent compared with 45.1, and 31.3 percent from the 3-point line compared with 34.2 in the regular season.

“Boston’s defense is very stingy,’’ Carter said. “They don’t leave you with open space and many opportunities. That’s what they do. That’s their staple. They come in waves with their big [men]. And they all play on their strengths and they all trust each other. And they’re tough to beat when they trust each other.’’

That improvement on a national stage should get Thibodeau his first head coaching job and it is why Rivers remains one of the league’s most respected coaches. This year has tested his patience more than even some of those losing seasons in Orlando and here because there was a perception his veteran crew was tuning him out.

Instead, it took the Celtics the regular season to realize the consequences of defensive slippage. It resulted in bad losses, decreased playing time for the culprits who missed assignments, and no playing time for those who never quite understood the system.

Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels are mostly watching from the bench because they have not mastered Rivers’s sets, while those who have been around Rivers for years have realized that long-term success is based on stopping the opponent. Scoring is secondary.

“They buy in and that’s really important,’’ Rivers said. “We sell what we want. We make it to a point where if you don’t buy in you don’t play. They know with a bad defensive rotation you are being held accountable. If you want to say what makes us a good defensive team, it’s that.’’

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

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