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Loose change really paid off for Celtics

Carefree second unit provided needed lift

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 12, 2010

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Some people sense stress. Others are numb to it.

One thing Celtics coach Doc Rivers noticed when he let Nate Robinson, Glen Davis, and the rest of his second unit loose in the fourth quarter Thursday night was that they seemed almost oblivious to how pressure-packed the moment was. They just played.

For a meticulously focused core like Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce, being carefree was a luxury they couldn’t afford throughout the season. Freak injuries, streaks of inconsistency, plus the pressure of wanting to win another championship made the season one giant knot of stress. And every angle of it seemed to intersect going into Game 4 of the NBA Finals as the Celtics fought to avoid giving up two games on their home floor to a Lakers team that didn’t win one at TD Garden in 2008.

But Rivers noticed that energy balls Robinson and Davis responded to the pressure differently. Considering the hyper-tense situation the Celtics were in, loose wasn’t necessarily the worst way to play.

“I think our young guys are loose,’’ Rivers said yesterday. “They’re extremely confident. You know, just watching Baby and Nate in the postgame interview, you wouldn’t have thought that they were in a world championship the way they were acting. That’s just who they are.’’

The Finals will only grow more tense tomorrow night at the Garden. One way or another, the series will be decided in Los Angeles next week, and since no team has ever won Games 6 and 7 on the road, Game 5 is virtually a must-win.

The Celtics have veterans used to the playoff pressure cooker and young guys playing over their heads, and it’s a mix that Rivers likes.

“Sometimes that’s really good and sometimes it’s really bad,’’ Rivers said. “When you’re down, I think it’s good, because [the young guys] don’t care, they’re just going to play anyway, and that’s a good thing.’’

Momentum has been elusive this series. The Celtics won Game 2 at Staples Center to even the series, then let the Lakers erase an early deficit in Game 3 here. But having been down, two games to one, in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Cleveland, bouncing back was never an issue.

“That’s been their MO of late, at least,’’ Rivers said. “We knew after losing Game 3 that we lost a golden opportunity in that game, didn’t play well. But we also understood that we have two more at home and let’s try to make it — the thought going into [Thursday] night, let’s make it a three-game series.’’

The Lakers were business-like in their two wins. The Celtics erupted emotionally in a haywire fourth quarter Thursday night. Lakers coach Phil Jackson said the peaks and valleys were expected in this series.

“It’s a lot of teeter-totter here, despair and elation,’’ he said.

As the Celtics’ Game 4 rally unfolded, they showed an energy and possibly an urgency that had been missing most of the series. At one point, Garnett dug in defensively, clapping in Lamar Odom’s face, practically daring him to drive, then forcing a miss. Allen got into a small dust-up with Derek Fisher after they crashed along the baseline. Kendrick Perkins jawed briefly with Kobe Bryant.

Everything was bubbling, and when Rivers went to his reserves the intensity boiled over.

The quality that makes the second unit volatile is the same one that makes it valuable.

“We call them the emotional group because they are, and on nights when their emotions and the stars and the moons are aligned right, they can be really effective,’’ Rivers said. “You know when they play hard and with that much intensity, something is going to happen. And that’s one of my coaches’ lines. We don’t know if it’s good or bad, but something is going to happen when that group comes in the game, and that’s what you feel when you’re putting them in to create action.’’

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

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