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Celtics’ backbone back in a big way

Defense allows Green to stand tall

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 24, 2010

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WALTHAM — There was a stretch at the end of the regular season when it seemed like anybody who came into the Garden could hang 100 points on the Celtics. Oklahoma City came in at the end of March and ran up 109 points, with Kevin Durant blowing up for 37. Houston came through the next game and dropped 119 on Boston, raining 3-pointers. The next game, Boston survived a rush from Cleveland but couldn’t stop the Cavaliers from scorching them for 113 points.

Over the last two weeks of the regular season, eight teams ran up 100-plus points on the Celtics, each instance a blow to a team that views its defense as its backbone and the century mark as a personal breaking point.

Being optimistic, coach Doc Rivers figured the defense would be better in the postseason. Being realistic, he knew if the Celtics wanted to win, they had no choice.

“It had to be [better],’’ Rivers said yesterday. “During the regular season, teams were hitting 110. We clearly are a different team.’’

Indeed, the Celtics have had the Magic boxed in for the majority of the Eastern Conference finals, taking a three-games-to-none-lead with a 94-71 win Saturday night. The Celtics, who can close out the series tonight at the Garden, have given up 100 points just three times in these playoffs — their only three losses. In their 11 playoff wins, the Celtics have held opponents to 84.9 points a game. The defense that struggled to keep teams from hanging 100 at the end of the regular season is now playing as well as it has all season.

“We’re playing well,’’ said Rivers. “We’re playing as a group. There’s a lot of individual defenders on our team. [Rajon] Rondo can be terrific. So can Kevin [Garnett] and Perk [Kendrick Perkins]. But the reason we’re playing well is because as a group, we’re doing it together. We’re doing it in system.’’

It didn’t take the Celtics long to see how potent their defense could be. Charlotte was the guinea pig in the home opener, forced into 51 misses and scoring a franchise-low 59 points. But during the regular season the same ‘D’ that looked mighty in stretches malfunctioned at others. Part of the explanation was lack of execution, missed assignments, or as Rondo called them, “My faults’’ that led to costly breakdowns. But another factor was that teams were adapting.

“What y’all got to understand, man, is on nights where we make it look easy vs. nights where we look like we’re stuck in the sand, to me it’s no difference,’’ said Garnett. “A lot of times teams are scouting your teams. To me the defense really never went anywhere. We always said that was a primary [focus] and this is what we want to hang our hat on. But I can honestly say that every night the onus has been to stop teams.

“Some nights it looks just like that, just like we wanted it. Some other nights, it’s like, ‘Man, they were waiting on us to do this.’ They were prepared or they adjusted to the defense. In my eyes the defense never went anywhere. Just some nights it looked like it was perfect.’’

With Garnett absent when the Celtics met the Magic in the second round last year, Rashard Lewis averaged 20.4 points. He’s gone missing in this series, making only six of the 24 shots he’s been able to take.

“Being healthy makes things a lot easier,’’ Garnett said. “It makes things a lot better. I will say that.’’

In the first quarter of Game 1, the Magic missed 16 of their first 20 shots, and only got two looks from 3-point range. In Game 2, Vince Carter missed all three of his shots in the third quarter, Jameer Nelson was the only Magic player with more than one field goal, and Orlando missed 13 of 17 shots.

For the series, the Celtics have forced 49 turnovers, creating 62 points. They’ve outrebounded Orlando. Aside from Dwight Howard’s 30 points in Game 2, no one on Orlando’s roster has been able to put up a big number.

“As far as turning it over, as far as us rebounding the ball, as far as us setting down the star players, this is one of the best defensive efforts we’ve [had] all year,’’ said forward Paul Pierce. “It couldn’t come at a better time — towards the end of the season, crunch time in the playoffs.

“So this is the type of effort we’re going to need if we’re going to close out the series.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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