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Celtics coach Doc Rivers winning the chess match

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 3, 2012
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WALTHAM - The most important days of these playoff series are not always game days. For the Celtics, who took Saturday off to get treatment and address the media, it was a critical day of preparation. Coach Doc Rivers watched film and made adjustments for Sunday night’s Game 4.

The Celtics can’t stand pat after their 101-91 win in Game 3, because the Heat most certainly are going to come with a different approach to try to take control of the series. Rivers has used three strategies in the three games, starting with a standard game plan for Game 1, which the Celtics executed for about a quarter and a half.

His Game 2 plan was a major upgrade, and his team carried that out for about 2 1/2 quarters of the 115-111 overtime loss. In Game 3, the Celtics emphasized Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo became more of a distributor, and Rivers also used reserve Marquis Daniels to defend LeBron James.

Also, the Celtics covered James full-court, making it more difficult for him to drive to the basket because a defender was on him constantly. So James often settled for jump shots, which is the best way to approach the three-time MVP.

Those adjustments have kept the Celtics competitive; overall, in fact, they have outplayed the Heat. Miami has dominated in spurts, such as the third quarters of the first two games, but Rivers is winning the chess match so far with Miami coach Erik Spoelstra.

Rivers has consistently outcoached Spoelstra, considered one of the game’s bright young minds, over the last few years. The Celtics have hardly matched Miami’s talent in playoff series the last two years, but Rivers has scripted ways for his team to remain competitive, and last season, Miami’s athleticism and the 3-point shooting of James were the only reasons they won the Eastern Conference semifinal duel with Boston.

“I’m so focused on beating Miami and figuring out a way to beat this team,’’ Rivers said. “They beat us last year and we want to break through against them. Really, that’s my focus.’’

Rivers has worked tirelessly breaking down film to exploit the Heat’s few weaknesses and to use the Celtics’ staunch defense to make James and Dwyane Wade uncomfortable. So far, it’s worked on Wade, who has gotten off to slow starts in three consecutive games, and scored just 18 points in Game 3.

The Celtics realize they have lesser talent and older bodies, but those days off allow the players and Rivers to devise plans to overcome that.

“The game is so fast that you have to make decisions in a split-second,’’ Garnett said. “But you have the time to prepare and you know a lot of the different plays of the other team, what they want to do, what they ate for breakfast, for dinner, so it kind of makes it a little more difficult because margin of error is an issue.

“You can mess up a couple of times in a series and that could cost you the whole series. The importance of the margin of error and perfection are the biggest keys when you get into series.’’

The players trust Rivers to make those adjustments to give them a fighting chance, even when they are prohibitive underdogs. While the Heat have been one of the league’s top teams since James and Chris Bosh joined Wade, Spoelstra has lost some coaching battles, including one against the Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle in last year’s Finals.

The Celtics enter each series confident that Rivers will have them prepared, even if they are less talented and ravaged by injuries, such as this season.

He is getting productive stints from players such as Ryan Hollins and Greg Stiemsma, who were hardly in the team’s blueprint for success when the season began.

“I’m biased, but I think he’s the best coach in the league,’’ said Rondo. “I put in tips here and there, but I don’t try to overstep my boundaries. He’s the one up there watching film six, seven hours, and his coaching staff having meetings two or three hours before we come into shootaround.

“I make suggestions but obviously they watch film four or five times and I only watch it once. So they know what to look for, and that’s his job.’’

Winning a championship will increase the trust level with your players, but Rivers is one of the top coaches in the NBA because of preparation, especially when given ample time to scout.

The consensus is that the Celtics own the coaching edge in this series because of Rivers’s ability to put his players in positions to succeed, such as the little-used Daniels in Game 3. So the Celtics enter Game 4 supremely confident that they are the more prepared team, and sometimes that trumps talent.

“Before the game [Sunday] some [players] will text [tips], we have an open communication,’’ Rivers said. “I always kid them; I usually say, when you want to make an adjustment, your guy’s kicking your [butt] so you want to try to change the coverage somehow. I joke and just say only team adjustments. We laugh about that a lot.’’

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

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