Ring in the new

Celtics out to defend the title, starting tonight

By Frank Dell'Apa
Globe Staff / October 28, 2008
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WALTHAM - Accomplishing a goal often is a prelude to complacency. But not for the Celtics, judging by Paul Pierce's hunger for more NBA championships.

Pierce exemplifies the Celtics' intention to become the franchise's first repeat titlist since 1969, taking the concept of being hungry in literal terms. Instead of a lengthy postseason celebration, Pierce accelerated his workout schedule and went on a diet, losing seven pounds by the time he returned to training camp.

"Most guys come in full of champagne and caviar after a season like that," coach Doc Rivers said. "Paul realized winning feels good and said, 'I want to do it again.'

"He's quicker and faster this year. He's probably at the age now where he does have to focus on weight and all that other stuff, but it's great to see him come back like this."

Pierce's intent on taking up where he left off symbolizes the Celtics' attitude. They are neither fat nor happy, nor do they seem satisfied.

But don't the Celtics deserve to be allowed to come back a little out of shape, or at least a little relaxed?

"I don't know why people say that," said guard Sam Cassell, the only member of the team to have played for a back-to-back titlist. "When you win a professional championship, you always try reach that goal again. You do things to get your weight down, you do everything you can to get ready for the season, to do it again."

The Celtics might be feeling their mortality, as well. Certainly, they are motivated by the "uneasy sits the crown" theory of succession. Usurpers are lurking, with the Cleveland Cavaliers the first to invade in tonight's season opener.

The previous Celtics championship team, from 1986, seemed capable of contending for titles for many years. But by the next season, Robert Parish would turn 33, Dennis Johnson 32, Larry Bird 31, Kevin McHale 29, Danny Ainge 28. Draft choice Len Bias would not reach his 23d birthday. The last gasp of greatness was stifled by the Los Angeles Lakers in the '87 Finals.

That championship feeling did not return until last year, when Ainge made blockbuster deals that would have made Red Auerbach proud.

But the Celtics are old and wise enough to realize their reign will not last forever.

Pierce turned 31 this month, and he is the youngest of the Big Three - Kevin Garnett is 32, Ray Allen 33. Garnett talks of "two more summers as short as this one was."

They are clearly going all-out this season.

"I'm not saying they are more ready this year, but we know every night is going to be a dogfight," Cassell said. "We know teams are going to attack us, and we have to attack them, too."

A year ago, these Celtics were learning each other's tendencies and the meaning of motivation. Most of the banners at TD Banknorth Garden had been hanging since before they were born.

Now, they have established their own identity. But the past dangles over them like the banners that tell them the 1969 team was the last one to repeat.

"Historically, when you make the trades we made, it doesn't work," Rivers said. "Last year we had nine guys I didn't know. But we played as a team. We had a bunch of star players and they played together. The idea stars don't play together, we proved that was not true. The Olympic team played as a team and won also, and both things were good for league."

The turning point

The framework for the Celtics' strategy was set up five years ago, when Rivers was named coach and changed the team's offense.

"My first year, [Pierce] was used to the ball touching his hands and the action stops," Rivers recalled. "Everything stops, and he took his time. I told him that first day that that day was over. There would be spots for that but the ball had to move, everyone had to touch the ball. That didn't mean his shots would get curbed, though they did.

"And he was good at that, even though the guys on the team he was looking at were not going to be very good. But by midseason, he was trying to do it. He struggled to do it early on, but once he got it, and you could clearly see it, he just needed to get some help.

"I thought one reason it worked last year was because of Paul, because he had changed his game to format that, before we got the other guys. So it was easy for him to give up the rock and trust that he could get it back."

The immediate goal is to gain home-court advantage for the playoffs.

"We are not thinking about repeating so much as we are thinking about we want to win the first game," Allen said, "and somewhere along the line, get a 10- or 15-game winning streak, never lose two games in a row.

"We focus on that stuff and the next thing you know, you look up and it's Game 1 of the Finals. The big stuff takes care of itself.

"It's a whole process - the first day of training, the first game, then the holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, then the All-Star break. We are looking forward to the year, because this is our life. It's our family, our teammates, the organization - all the while we work and then you get to the point where the weather gets better and we are still playing basketball."

Taking it personally

Preseason games signify little, the Celtics using their eight-game schedule as a laboratory for breaking in new players and trying combinations of reserves. Rivers started Allen, Garnett, Pierce, and point guard Rajon Rondo with center Patrick O'Bryant in the preseason opener against Philadelphia in Amherst, the Celtics scoring on seven of their first eight possessions. They had taken up where they left off in a 131-92 victory over the Lakers in Game 6 of the Finals. The Big Three were on the same page.

"Our No. 1 goal is to be better as a team overall," Rivers said. "A lot of teams will be better than last year. Our mind-set has to be that everyone is trying to take it away from us. Last year, our mind-set was we were taking it away from someone else.

"You have to take it personally. We have to understand how much we are going to be attacked every night, all year. I don't think you can mentally prepare for that. You have go through it as a team, look forward to it, get fired up, and concentrate.

"We should be better than last year. We should know each other better, have better chemistry. We need to get to the point where we get our timing back, to the point where we are game-ready instead of preseason-ready.

"We have to understand it's 82 games of being attacked every night, and that'll be a good thing for us in the long run. Other teams will be better this year and we know we have to be a better team to win it."

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