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Silas had something else in mind entirely

Paul Silas got a good look at the defense Rajon Rondo and the Celtics play, the type of D he’d like his young Bobcats to apply. Paul Silas got a good look at the defense Rajon Rondo and the Celtics play, the type of D he’d like his young Bobcats to apply. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 15, 2011

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Retirement was uncomfortable for Paul Silas, especially since it was somewhat forced. The former Celtic had been fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005, one of the franchise’s first regrettable moves to make LeBron James happy, and he wanted to return to coaching.

The NBA is not big on reemploying older coaches if your name isn’t Larry Brown or Doug Collins. So Silas waited, experienced some health issues that he eventually solved, and waited some more in his Charlotte home.

Brown’s continuing frustration and disinterest in the Charlotte Bobcats presented Silas with another opportunity, one he had been thirsting for. Silas had been closely following his hometown team, wondering why a bunch of 20-something freakish athletes were walking the ball up the court, playing at a meticulous pace, a style that did little to draw fans.

Second-year swingman Gerald Henderson wondered why he wasn’t getting consistent minutes, especially for a team that appeared headed for the lottery.

Silas had a conversation with Charlotte general manager Rod Higgins about returning to coaching after the Bobcats were blown out at home by Oklahoma City Dec. 21. The next day Silas was named interim coach after Brown and team president Michael Jordan agreed to part.

With five days off after the Oklahoma City drubbing, Silas decided to hold an in-season minicamp because many of his greyhounds were out of shape. That Dec. 22 practice was the first indication that the Bobcats would soon transform into an entirely different outfit.

He may not have carried the big game — Silas admitted that many of his players had no idea he won three NBA titles (’74 and ’76 Celtics; ’79 Sonics), let alone played 16 seasons — but the message was clear.

“The style that I wanted them to play, they really bought in,’’ said Silas. “I wanted them to gain confidence because their confidence was shattered. Letting them run out and letting them shoot open shots, that was my philosophy. It changed their whole mind-set. Once they bought in, it became a lot easier.

“They just didn’t seem to have energy. That’s the one thing I felt like they needed. They were losing to teams like Washington by 30 points and Memphis by 30 points. That just didn’t follow. When I got in, I said this whole style has to change.’’

The Bobcats (6-3 under Silas) were competitive last night in their 99-94 loss, more than they have been in recent memory against the Celtics. But the process of rebuilding confidence is going to require patience. Once the Celtics jumped ahead, 87-76, on an 11-2 run, it was apparent the Bobcats lacked the confidence and execution to rally.

They made defensive miscues, turnovers, and mental mistakes, including a Stephen Jackson foul on Ray Allen, who was attempting a desperation 3-pointer as the 24-second clock expired.

“I’m looking for the mental aspect to continue to rise,’’ Silas said. “We are not there yet. When we say we are going to do something, we have got to do it. They have not been used to doing that. When we reach that point where we come up with a defensive scheme and we play it throughout the game, that’s when we’ll have a chance.’’

While Silas believes the Bobcats are still approaching respectability, his impact on the team has been apparent.

The Bobcats are averaging nearly 8 more points, 5 more shots, and a plus-3.4-point differential since Silas took over. What’s more, the Bobcats scored 100 or more points seven times in Brown’s 28 games. They already have four under Silas.

The NBA hasn’t always been kind to Silas. Directly out of playing, he received his first job leading the San Diego Clippers in 1980. After three losing seasons, he didn’t get another head coaching job until he was promoted by the Hornets midway through the 1998-99 season. He led the Charlotte/New Orleans franchise to four straight playoff appearances before he was fired after a first-round elimination in 2003.

He opened the following season with the Cavaliers, but never got to see his rebuilding of Cleveland come to fruition because he was fired deep in the 2004-05 season despite having a 34-30 record. Brendan Malone took over, lost 10 times in 18 games, and the Cavaliers missed the playoffs in a tiebreaker.

The layoff distanced Silas, 67, from the current NBA player and he pondered whether he could relate to his team after the sudden takeover. His likely claim to fame for the players was being LeBron’s first NBA coach. They don’t show many Silas highlights on NBA TV.

“It was tough being away because I would watch a lot of basketball because I wasn’t involved,’’ said Silas, who briefly worked as an analyst for ESPN. “It was tough to get back in and be responsive as to what they were doing out there and let them understand that I know what I’m talking about.’’

The difference, Silas said, between playing now and when he played for Tommy Heinsohn or Brown (Denver, 1976-77) or Lenny Wilkens is that the players ask why. Respect is not automatically given.

“They want a voice, whereas we would listen to whether the coach said and didn’t say anything,’’ he said. “These guys want to know if you know what you’re talking about. And if you don’t, they are going to say so, which I think is perfect. These guys are so smart. People think these guys aren’t smart. They are some of the smartest people I’ve ever been around. You have to be on your game in order for them to respond.’’

Henderson is one of the beneficiaries of Silas’s clean slate. A victim of Brown’s “rookies are useless’’ philosophy, he missed 14 games this season with a sore left knee and found it difficult to crack Brown’s rotation.

“We needed that change,’’ Henderson said. “Our record was awful. With that you don’t have the most confidence in the world because you’re not winning. [Silas’s] personality and his style is to give his players confidence. That’s the way he speaks and the way he wants us to play. That’s his style of coaching and that’s helped our team a lot.’’

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

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