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Celtics start to take shape

Defense has been key to sudden resurgence

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 7, 2012
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The source behind the Celtics’ resurrection is no surprise considering the fabric of Doc Rivers’s coaching philosophy. He rarely discussed offense during the offseason and training camp.

He relied on his four All-Stars to score, but defense is why the Celtics have won eight of nine games and it could have been nine straight if not for an improbable streaking layup by Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving in the final seconds Jan. 29. And suddenly a Celtics team that was going to be split up like The Beatles is now the league’s hottest team, closer to re-emerging as a threat in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics have not allowed a team to score 100 or more points since the second game at Miami, when the Heat scored 115. Although their defense has been a strength all season, the intensity and precision has increased the past nine games.

In that stretch, behind the rejuvenated Kevin Garnett and the ball pressure of Avery Bradley, the Celtics have allowed opponents just 81.2 points per game on 38.8 percent shooting. Only the Cavaliers and Wizards have managed to shoot more than 45 percent and the Magic and Raptors combined for 120 points.

Boston is second in the NBA in points allowed (86.7, behind the 76ers), which has been a savior because the Celtics are a stunning 25th in scoring. Unlike the 2008 title team, these Celtics do not win easy or with offensive prowess. The Celtics grind out wins, wearing opponents down with interior defense led by Garnett and a new element of point-guard pressure by Bradley.

The Celtics essentially dismantled the Memphis Grizzlies, 98-80, Sunday, limiting a more athletic team by contesting every shot and throttling the beefy duo of Marc Gasol and Marreese Speights. The goal is to force the opposition into jump shots and make them burn the 24-second clock getting into offensive sets.

“Defense is key the last three weeks for us,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after Sunday’s win. “Our guys have bought into it. To see everybody talking - it was really nice in the second half because the defense was right in front of you and you could hear everything. And that’s nice from a coach standpoint when you can hear all the talking. It can’t get better than that.’’

Bradley was pressed into duty because of Rondo’s right wrist injury and Rivers used him as a full-court defender against point guards. He began by harassing Orlando’s Jameer Nelson during the Celtics’ 87-56 win Jan. 23.

That new wrinkle has made the Celtics even more stingy defensively because teams are taking 10 to 12 seconds to begin running offensive plays, which forces hurried shots. The aging Celtics needed more youth and athleticism and Bradley has provided that.

“Sometimes guys will say, ‘You don’t have to guard me all game like this,’ ’’ Bradley said. “I view it as a challenge. I am learning all I can from the older guys and they taught me defense is important. And I am just trying to make it tougher on my man to get the ball up the court.’’

Although the Celtics were solid defensively despite dropping nine of their first 14 games, they have improved dramatically. And with the resurgence of Paul Pierce, the Celtics are suddenly six games behind Chicago for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Although the players have attributed the comeback to improved conditioning and chemistry, Garnett said natural progression is the significant difference.

“As of late, obviously, everybody knows we’re trying to physically get into a nice rhythm and implement guys back into our system,’’ said Garnett, who is averaging 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 54.2 percent shooting during the streak. “For the most part, I think we’ve been winning games of late with our defense. When we have been turning up the heat defensively, it’s been causing turnovers, which leads to easy baskets, our offensive flow. I have always said we’re a defensive team that can score the ball and we’re getting back to that.’’

Garnett is so focused on the long term he won’t even consider whether the Celtics have returned to their defensive heyday.

“The question of late is ‘Are you guys back to?’ I don’t believe we are because of practice time and the timing of the schedule, it’s been hard to create a rhythm,’’ he said. “But defensively we have a very strong rhythm that we trust. We’re back to being very talkative as a team and that’s leading to easy baskets and better offensive flow. It’s a work in progress. I think we’re pretty happy with what’s been going on lately.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe

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