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Bob Ryan

No dancing around it: Right steps were made

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 9, 2012
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When Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are dancing outside the huddle during Geno Time, you know good things are happening for the Celtics.

Was that showing disrespect for the vanquished 76ers? Well, maybe a little, but you can bet the Sixers had a chuckle or two at the Celtics’ expense when they were burying them by 32 points five weeks ago. And it didn’t exactly bother the Philadelphia coach, who sounded as if he were an employee of the Boston PR department as he rhapsodized about the team that had just shot 59 percent from the floor en route to a 103-79 trashing of his squad at the TD Garden Sunday night.

With this convincing triumph, the Celtics opened a three-game gap over their ancient rival in the Atlantic Division race in the battle for a guaranteed home berth in the first round of the playoffs. You could argue this was a lot more than just one desultory affair in the Big 66, as we lovingly call this lockout schedule.

“Everybody’s looking at Miami and Chicago, but I would not blink at the Boston Celtics,’’ said Sixers coach Doug Collins. “Doc [Rivers] has got them poised. They’re getting strong at the right time. They’re going to be a handful. I would not like to play them in the playoffs.’’

It’s interesting he should reference the playoffs, because the way the 76ers are going, there may not be any playoffs. The team that got off to a 20-9 start and that ruled the Atlantic Division for almost three months is on a 9-18 skid, and with eight of their 10 remaining games on the road they will be very fortunate to finish ahead of the ninth-place Bucks, who now trail the Sixers by one game, let alone the Knicks, with whom they are now tied for seventh in the Eastern Conference.

Collins pretty much saw this one coming. “I can imagine Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and those guys will be ready for us,’’ he was saying before the game. “They probably feel that if they can beat us today that will be the knockout punch. We had two funky wins over them. The first time we got ’em in a back-to-back coming out of Houston and the second time it was the eighth day of a road trip. That’s two crazy wins. I’m guessing they’re ready to see us today.’’

Rivers didn’t want to take the theory head on. “It comes up in every meeting, but I really don’t want to focus on that,’’ was his response to the “knockout punch’’ theory. “The guys know. I know. But if we’re going to use that as a motivational ploy, we’re really screwed up.’’

We all need to step back and take a deep breath, because to take this game at complete face value would be to assume the Celtics truly have become an elite team that might be about four-fifths as good as chief tub-thumper Collins says they are.

And four-fifths would be a good beginning number because that actually was the Celtics’ assist/field goal tally in this one. The Celtics did indeed have 32 assists attached to their 40 baskets, and you do not see that 80 percent rate very often in this league.

Of course, it’s easy to have an assist when people are making every 15-footer look like a dunk. It began with Pierce (17 points on 7-for-12 shooting), continued with Ray Allen (8 of his 10 points in the first half), picked up with Garnett (20 points on 8-for-11 shooting), and was enhanced by Brandon Bass (18 points, 8 for 10 ).

Rajon Rondo only attempted five shots, but he beat the shot clock on successive third-quarter possessions, the first by picking up a loose ball and tossing in a 15-footer, and the second, described by Collins as a “whirling dervish shot,’’ by making an utterly preposterous right-corner turnaround at the end of yet another thoroughly broken play.

Rondo helped himself to 15 of those 32 assists in a bizarre trick-or-treat performance that included some ill-conceived showboat passes that wound up as fast-break dunks at the other end. And people wonder why Doc wonders where his point guard’s head is every now and then.

The shooting was borderline ridiculous, peaking when a Bass 16-footer pushed the lead to 79-51 with 3:22 left in the third period.

The final evaluation was 99.9 percent good for the Celtics, who continued their recent run of excellent defensive performances and who got solid performances from people who may not be going to the Hall of Fame, no disrespect intended.

That list of auxiliary contributors again was headed by the ever-improving Avery Bradley, who supplemented his suffocating on-the-ball defense with 18 points and five assists. The more he plays this way, the more confidently Rivers can start him and bring a legitimate scoring threat by the name of Allen off the bench. The Celtics scored 25 points in each of the first two periods, testifying to the kind of exemplary bench aid every coach covets.

Other important contributors were Bass and rookie Greg Stiemsma, whose menacing defensive presence enables the Celtics to guard the rim nicely.

Rivers had little choice but to hand out a collective “A’’ on this night’s report card.

“Last two games, really, the defense has [had] just great intensity,’’ he said. “I thought we had active hands. You know, I thought the second unit in the second quarter was as good as you can get. And then offensively the ball never stayed in the same place. It just moved.’’

That said, he and his squad jumped into a plane headed for Miami, where Tuesday night they will be playing a team that isn’t in wretched decay.

If The Captain and KG are dancing outside the huddle with two minutes to go in that one, the league had better start worrying. Doug Collins could be right.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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