This was just what the Doc ordered
Doc made it sound so simple.
"We want to be here, and we're at the exact spot that we thought we would be," said the coach of the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics. "But we still have more playing to do."
Forgotten were the struggles against the young, ath-a-let-ic Atlanta Hawks. Forgotten was the fear that LeBron James would rise up and smite them with a 50-point Game 7. Most of all, forgotten was the thought that perhaps, just perhaps, his team did not have what it takes to win a crucial playoff game on the road.
Twenty games and 41 days after the 2008 playoffs had begun, the Boston Celtics had reached a milestone, their dramatic 89-81 victory over the Detroit Pistons in Game 6 Friday night giving them a berth in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1987, or since 11-year-old Kevin Garnett was home watching on TV in Mauldin, S.C.
"Mom tellin' me, 'Don't get too close to the TV; it'll kill your eyes,' " chuckled the Big Ticket. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I'm looking forward to this."
Right now, he and the rest of his teammates can look forward to a little R&R. They have certainly earned it.
Those 20 games are already two more than the last Celtics team to win a championship needed to play in four series. If the Celtics are to win championship No. 17, they will surely need to break the record for number of postseason games played in a year, which is 24, shared by the 1988 Lakers and 2003 Spurs.
And though Doc Rivers has continually insisted that his team was comfortable with an every-other-day routine throughout the playoffs, common sense says that enough is enough and it's time for a team whose three best players are on the far side of 30 to sit down for a spell and put its collective feet up on the hassock.
In order to get his team where it needed to be, Doc Rivers did what he had to do. All year long he kept a watchful eye on the playing minutes of his - OK, it's permissible to use the term now that they've conquered the East - Big Three.
Garnett, for example, played in excess of 40 minutes only once in the final 75 regular-season games. (That game, it's interesting to note, was the March 5 conquest of Detroit, in which he had a season-high 31 points.) Well, Garnett played 41 minutes in Game 5, and the only reason he was held to 35 in Game 6 was foul trouble. Paul Pierce played 44 and 43 minutes, respectively, in those games. Rajon Rondo put in a season-high 46 minutes in Game 5 and 36 more in Game 6. Kendrick Perkins went 39 and 41. His regular-season high had been 36.
Clearly, the good Doctor wasn't messing around. He was going to win it or lose it with his main horses.
Here we are, 102 games into the Big Three era, and the Celtics are still finding out who they are. But they took a giant step forward by winning a pair of road games in Auburn Hills, and especially by winning a clinching sixth game with a championship-style finishing kick. That's a valuable shared experience that sends them into the Finals against their ancient rival with a very big bounce, indeed.
"I can definitely say that it has been a process," said Garnett. "You guys see some of the finished product, but we do debate and we do debate strongly, but we consider ourselves very respectful of each other, three professionals that know that in order for this thing to work, we all have to give something up. And I think we all not just talked about it, but we've been about it."
Docphobes don't want to hear this, but much of the credit for this situation the Celtics find themselves in all leads back to the guidance provided by the coach. Danny Ainge gave him the keys to the Bentley, yes, but he left no instructions about how to drive it.
"It didn't matter that they were great," Rivers said. "I told them, 'I don't want to hear about the history of what you've done. You have to give yourself to this team, and you have to trust my system, and some of it may not fit what you do, but it's going to be good for the team.
" 'If we have an agenda-less team, we have a chance, and if we don't' - and I was honest with them - 'we have no chance.'
"I gave them the names of other guys that always said they want to win, but on their terms, and, I said, it just can't work. I mean, they were fantastic. They, from Day 1, gave themselves to the team."
The one-ball-for-three-guys thing was never really a big issue. Far more important was what happened when the Celtics did not have the ball. What made the 2007-08 Celtics the 66-16 Celtics was the development of a committed, consistent defensive identity. And that is why they have an excellent chance of putting up banner No. 17. If it takes winning in the 70s, they can win in the 70s.
Doc laid it out for them on the now-famous preseason Duck Tour. The gimmick part was to show them the Red Sox-Patriots parade route. The substantive part was to let them know that defense was going to be the No. 1 team priority.
"He said for us to win, we know we can score points, that's pretty much what it is," recalled Garnett. "But we've got to be more defensive. The more and more we worked on it, the more and more we fell in love with it. There's days when we want to wring [assistant coach] Tom Thibodeau's neck, but he keeps us intact, and the more and more I think we fell in love with it. It's our backbone now."
It helps mightily that the "other" guys have great defensive capabilities. Rondo has extraordinary quickness and ridiculously long arms, as 7-foot Rasheed Wallace discovered when the 6-1 guard swatted away a pass of his to create a valuable turnover during that fourth-quarter comeback in Game 6. And Perkins has turned into an absolute defensive marauder. Throw in the amazingly versatile James Posey, and you've got yourself a very nice defensive team.
There's an old saying in boxing that goes something like this: Everybody has a plan until they get hit. The Celtics got hit by Detroit, and they wound up playing even better.
You know what? This team's best basketball has yet to be played.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.