"We were playing a style that in essence our hand was forced to play because of our lack of depth. We just didn't have enough players to even think about what we do now. We were basically trying to survive last year."
Last month, shortly before the start of training camp, O'Brien and his staff gathered just outside Naples, Fla., for a coaching retreat. They discussed how they would transform the offense. They knew what they wanted to do. O'Brien had known since the day the Celtics officially named him head coach -- removing the interim title -- in April 2001. They would run and play a passing game.
When camp started, just one obstacle remained: How could the Celtics push the tempo and still play the necessary halfcourt defense when they had two players (Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker) on the floor for close to 40 minutes? That "challenge," as O'Brien characterized it, was overcome when Boston traded Walker and Tony Delk to Dallas for Raef LaFrentz and Jiri Welsch last week.
Director of basketball operations Danny Ainge has supplied O'Brien with the depth to run the kind of offense the coach desires. Without depth, without a more athletic roster, the Celtics would be the same grind-it-out squad of the last two seasons. Now, they plan to fast break for easier baskets. If that doesn't work, they will flow into a passing game, emphasizing movement with purpose. The offense remains a work in progress. But it has the potential to be both entertaining and unpredictable.
"We've got our team understanding the importance of defense," said O'Brien. "Now, the transformation has to come offensively. And I don't use the word transformation lightly. We needed transformation on defense and we went from 27th to third in defense in one year, helped by the new defensive rules. And now, we need to make a similar transformation offensively. If you can combine them, you'll be a pretty good team."
Last season, the Celtics averaged 92.7 points (22d in the league) and 19.2 assists per game (27th in the league). They shot 41.5 percent from the floor (27th in the league). They averaged 79.4 shots per game, and of those attempts, an average of 38.4 (or 48.3 percent) were taken by either Walker or Pierce. The Celtics averaged just 8.7 points on the break, and in four contests they did not score a point in transition.
This season, the most obvious mechanism of offensive change is the running game. The players came into camp in condition to play an up-tempo style. O'Brien and his assistants spent much of preseason conditioning the players' minds for fast-break basketball, drilling home the importance of the first two passes and rebounding.
Rebounding is fundamental to running, a simple but essential point. Now, the Celtics have the luxury of four capable big men (Vin Baker, Tony Battie, LaFrentz, and Mark Blount) to hit the boards. Last year, Boston was one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA.
Movement is afoot Although some of the Celtics may describe the passing offense as a freelance system, they'd better not use that term when talking to O'Brien. The coach recoils at the suggestion his players are doing whatever they want. Without traditional play calling, the passing game is designed to be unpredictable and difficult to scout, but it requires organized, strategic thinking.
The coaches want player movement and ball movement with a purpose. At first, the staff introduced the passing game by simply asking the players to move. Now, they want the players to move in ways that take into account the strengths of the players around them. For example, if the ball gets reversed to Pierce, it might be better to clear out than to set a pick, so the All-Star has room to operate.
"I love it," said Baker. "One of the things that Coach has allowed us to do with the passing game is use our basketball intelligence and not just our ability. A lot of the players enjoy that part of the game. We're not just setting up, running this, getting it in to Paul. The passing game is working out well for us. It's going to make us such a tough team to defend with so many weapons on the floor."
The passing game potentially works as a complement to the running game. For the Celtics, an up-tempo style is not an either/or proposition. Rather, the coaches want the running game to flow naturally into the passing game. They want the players to set random pick-and-rolls, flash to the post, dribble with a purpose, set screens to free up teammates.
All the plans for this season rest upon depth. O'Brien will need a continual supply of fresh legs rotating into games. For all the speculation about the O'Brien/Ainge relationship, this much remains certain: Within the financial parameters established by the owners (and some flexibility on their part), Ainge delivered the players O'Brien needed.
"Jim and I have different views here and there about basketball," said Ainge. "But when we talk philosophically and how the game should be played and what we're doing to go forward, we're 100 percent on the same page.
"I think Jim saw a need for the natural progression of his coaching. I think Jim wanted to establish this team on defense. Now, the natural progression is, let's score off this defense."
O'Brien indeed views the implementation of the running game/passing game as part of "a natural progression of our strategic plan that we had in place from the time I became a head coach."
That plan started with an overhaul of the defense, and now, it has progressed to the offense. O'Brien was willing to spend even more time installing the defense -- three seasons instead of two, if needed. But with the arrival of Ainge and the makeover of the lineup, the timing was right to reconstruct the offense.
"Let's compare this year to last year at this time," said O'Brien. "We had no depth. Running, then continuing to run in the halfcourt, crossing guys underneath, then playing defense the way we play, you can't do that if you don't have depth. It's hard to play a running game when you have, like, six guys on the team that can play basketball. It's hard enough in the college game. It's almost impossible over 100 games.
"This is a byproduct of the depth that we perceive ourselves having now, which was frankly enhanced somewhat by the moves that we've made since last year."
In it for the long run The Celtics believe they are building a team deep enough and versatile enough to last through the rigors of an NBA season -- not just 82 games but a substantial playoff run. Last year, it was painfully obvious how worn out Boston was during its second-round series against New Jersey. O'Brien readily admits he left players on the floor too long, that the offense was too predictable. He had no choice.
This season, the Celtics may start slowly as they adjust to a new style along with new personnel, but they plan to gain momentum.
"I think the style complements the players that we have," said Pierce. "I think we have better athletes. All our big men can run the court with any other big men in the NBA.
"From what we've been doing in practice and the preseason, I know we're going to push the ball more than we have in the past. I think we're definitely going to be a more exciting team. I can't wait."
And, for a change, O'Brien cannot wait to watch his offense and see what develops.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.