Green giants?

Rivers hopeful his Celtics will pick up where they left off

A visit to the White House this month was one offseason perk Doc Rivers and the Celtics enjoyed as NBA champions. A visit to the White House this month was one offseason perk Doc Rivers and the Celtics enjoyed as NBA champions. (Chip somodevilla/Getty Images)
By Frank Dell'Apa
Globe Staff / September 28, 2008
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Doc Rivers is setting the bar high for the Celtics this season.

Rivers and his players went separate ways after celebrating their NBA championship in June, only recently gathering in preparation for training camp, which starts tomorrow in Waltham and continues in Newport, R.I.

"It was the first time we've had a long sit-down since last season," Rivers said of a meeting with Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce. "I told them we did not show who we really were until the last game. That's who we are, and when we are that balanced at both ends of the court, that's how we should be."

Does that mean the Celtics, who took a 131-92 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the Finals, can defeat any opponent by a similarly decisive margin? If so, could this be an even more dominating team than the one that won 66 games last season?

"We won [80 percent] of the time in the regular season [66-16] and we didn't do that in the playoffs [16-10]," Rivers said. "I just think we're better than how we played in the playoffs. That doesn't mean the other teams we're playing aren't going to be better. And they will probably say they didn't play their best in the playoffs, either."

Rivers does not believe motivating the Celtics will be difficult.

"We'll see when we get into it," Rivers said. "At the end of the day, I can give them a great rah-rah speech, but it's got to come from them.

"They set their minds to do something last year and they did it. The question is, do they want to do it again? It'll be harder, no doubt about that.

"In some ways, we were blessed by being anointed last year. That forced us to be a better team during the regular season."

But, Rivers notes, the bar for the Celtics was raised long before the current group won the franchise's 17th NBA title.

"We're the Celtics, is the way I look at it, and if you want to be put in the conversation, you have to win more than one," Rivers said. "You can be a one-hit wonder. You can be Milli Vanilli or Vanilla Ice, or you can be part of the Celtic tradition."

Pierce set the tone for the upcoming season during his first visit to the team's Waltham training facility since a replica championship banner was raised above the court. Pierce looked past the previous championship (1986) to the 1967-68 and 1968-69 banners, the Celtics' last consecutive league titles.

"Paul pointed out a couple things already that are really neat - he noticed the last back-to-back championships," Rivers said. "I'm proud of all of them but I'm really proud of Paul."

After being hired by general manager Danny Ainge four years ago, Rivers said, he had to persuade Pierce to adjust his style of play.

"When I took the job, I told the staff, including Danny, that Paul and I would not see eye to eye," Rivers said. "He had had success playing that way, but I was not playing that way, and that was going to cause some friction.

"But Paul has improved every day, not only as a player but as a person. It's been really neat to watch him. The other day he was on the floor with some of our young guys going through one of our sets and I told him later I didn't know he knew it that well - he actually broke off some cuts during the regular season. Now I know.

"You just don't know how guys are going to come back after they win it. He's come back hungry. He's had a taste of it and he wants more."

Competition in the Eastern Conference could be more difficult this year, but, as Rivers said, East beat West last season.

"It's better, but last year, the East took a lot of hits and I said all year the best three teams were in the East," Rivers said. "The West had gaudy records, but the bottom of the West almost guaranteed wins. You could get 15 to 20 wins against those teams, so almost everyone had a good record. I thought our bad teams, the bottom teams of the East, could beat anybody."

Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Toronto have improved, according to Rivers.

"Before, Toronto played small ball, and now they will be able to do both," Rivers said. "Detroit will be tough again because they still have the same guys. Miami will be back in the picture a little bit - watching Dwyane Wade this summer [in the Olympic Games] was scary, and they have added [Michael] Beasley. Philly with Elton Brand.

"It's not like we aren't going to be attacked, anyway. I like it, I look at all that stuff as good. It's going to be tougher but it's more rewarding."

The Celtics rose to the occasion in the playoffs, but it took a while. The team had an 10-8 postseason record before rallying to defeat Detroit in the semifinals and coming within 6 points of a five-game rout of the Lakers.

"I thought we grew in the playoffs as a team," Rivers said. "We were concerned we hadn't been tested going into the playoffs and that really worried me. We had a test-free season last year and, usually, going into the playoffs you have to have some battle scars. We got our scars during the playoffs. We had to grind out some wins. A couple games, we played both ends fantastic.

"We never gave in. We came back a ton in the regular season and won, and in the playoffs we were down 10 points in the fourth quarter in Detroit and we came back to win the East. We had proven to ourselves we could come back in games, and our guys never thought they were out of any game.

"That's a great team trait. As a coach, your job is to keep them in it, keep them believing. I think if you are getting beat, it's more you not doing something you usually do and not the other team doing something to you. So, every timeout, I kept reminding them to get back to playing the way we play."

The signing of guard Sam Cassell is expected to be announced soon . . . Forward Darius Miles "has looked terrific in the summer," Rivers said. "But, clearly, you don't win it in the summer. He deserves a shot. The way I look at Darius, he's only 26, it's not like he's 40. He does have knee problems and we will have to navigate through that and he will have to fit in, like everyone else. And he will have an opportunity to do both."

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