Resting up for the playoffs
Payton, LaFrentz get break, sit out finale
Let Detroit coach Larry Brown talk about the integrity of the game. Doc Rivers will do what he deems best for the Celtics.
Last night, that meant keeping Gary Payton (rest, lower back spasms) and Raef LaFrentz (adductor strain) on the bench. If it was Game 1 of the playoffs, both players would have started and played their usual allotment of minutes. Payton and LaFrentz also should be on the floor today for practice in preparation for the first-round series against the Pacers.
But in the regular-season finale last night against the Nets, the Celtics were playing for nothing, having already clinched the Atlantic Division title and home-court advantage for the first round. Kendrick Perkins replaced LaFrentz, while Marcus Banks started at point guard.
Payton was a late scratch. During his pregame press conference, when Rivers was asked if there would be any changes to the starting lineup, he omitted that Payton would be in street clothes. Perhaps the coach wanted to avoid any more questions about the fairness of limiting the roles of the starters in the last two games with Cleveland and New Jersey battling each other for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
After the game, Rivers said he thought about resting Payton on the flight back from Cleveland. But Rivers needed to convince Payton it was the right move to make. Apparently, Payton agreed to sit out the New Jersey game shortly before tipoff. Rivers joked about the whole situation.
"I just figured if I'm taking Raef out, I'd do things in pair," said Rivers. "They call me Noah."
On a more serious note, Rivers said, "I've never been in this position. I don't know what to do when you play two teams [back-to-back] that are trying to get in. I just think the right thing to do is play the same way in both games. I mean play the same guys. I don't mean the same way. I thought it would have been awful if we didn't play any of them and then played all of them today. I think you just try to do the same thing."
Make that sort of the same thing. Of the remaining key starters, Paul Pierce played 27 minutes against Cleveland and 26 minutes against New Jersey; Antoine Walker played 30 minutes against Cleveland and 25 minutes against New Jersey.
"I think they've earned the right [to play who they want]," said New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank. "It would be hypocritical to say anything else. We've been in the same situation for the last three years. We've clinched the division and we've played guys like they did."
Watching the game back in New Jersey, it's likely no one pulled harder for a Nets win than forward Richard Jefferson, sidelined since Jan. 11 with a ruptured ligament in his left wrist. Jefferson was cleared to play yesterday, passing a range of motion and strength tests.
"In the event we do make it, we'll see how he does in practice," said Frank before the game. "I think we have to be realistic. He's been out for four months. He hasn't had any contact. He hasn't had a lot of practice. We're not going to put a lot of pressure on him."
Added Nets president Rod Thorn: "We'll have to see what sort of condition he's in. It's one thing to shoot around and another thing to play. But he brings athleticism, he brings talent. He brings another guy who can score. He's another weapon."
The Celtics shared their thoughts on facing the Pacers, once again, in the first round. "With Indiana, they're more a halfcourt defensive team," said Walker. "Reggie Miller is playing great again. Every team poses a different challenge, but we pose a challenge as well. Teams are worrying about us like we're worrying about them." Added Rivers: "Indiana has the mental edge over us and we have to exorcise that. They swept us last year in the playoffs, so that should give us something. Indiana has been through the wars. They've been in the Eastern Conference finals. I think we're going to be up to the challenge." . . . Taking his cue from one of the area's reigning championship teams, Rivers shrugged off any concern the Celtics would lose their edge with the starters essentially resting the final two games of the season. "A great example is the Patriots and the Eagles," said Rivers. "The Eagles shut it down for three games and they ended up in the Super Bowl. The Patriots shut it down in the last game, but not really, and they ended up in the Super Bowl. The young guys can't shut it down and that's key. That's what's important for me."
The Celtics were sporting green socks last night at the request of Pierce, who called equipment manager John Connor yesterday to switch from the usual white. As another sign of unity the Celtics all wore green and white headbands . . . When asked why he valued home court, Rivers said, "Game 7. You play just in case it's a close series. If it's a tight series, it's probably going to go to the final game. Historically, you win at home in the final game. So, you play all year to try and get that. We've earned that right. That's really important to us. It's also important for us to establish that home court, which we've done this year. We've done a heck of a job playing at home. That was one of the goals coming into this season."