Celtics’ improved play speaks volumes

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / December 6, 2009

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The Celtics’ season did not seem to be going in the hoped-for direction as they lost four of seven games in mid November. But they might have turned the corner during a road trip that went through Miami, Charlotte, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City.

After defeating the Thunder, 105-87, Friday night, the Celtics (16-4) have a 9-1 road record. They lost three home games from Nov. 6-20, appearing to lose their way by abandoning their defense-first and inside-out offensive emphasis.

But coach Doc Rivers noted the team was getting its act together before this road sweep, though some doubts remained after home losses to Atlanta, Orlando, and Phoenix.

“We’re playing better, I said that before we left on the trip,’’ Rivers said. “You can see it coming -- we’re playing better. Would we want the playoffs to start today? No. We have to be better. But we’re happy where we’re at, for sure.

“I think our mind-set is back, for sure. Last year’s team - I said it all year, no one wanted to hear it - as good as our record was, I never thought we were that good. I never thought we had the right mind-set the entire year last year.

“We had too many things going on. Two years ago we had a one-agenda team and that was to win a title. I think this team has the same thought process. There’s no other stuff going on. This team is focused on winning. That doesn’t mean we’re playing well yet. But we are focused on one thing and that gives you a chance to be a good team.’’

The next test will be to re-establish home-court superiority, starting with Tuesday’s game against Milwaukee.

The Celtics are regaining their tactical identity, establishing their inside offense and turning up their defensive concentration - and volume, according to Kevin Garnett.

“For the most part, what gave us this hope on the road has been our defensive communication,’’ Garnett said. “I think we’ve been loud, we’ve been talking, and we’ve really been into it.

“It’s no easy thing to do. You had Charlotte and these [Thunder] guys playing unbelievable basketball and San Antonio and Miami, veteran teams who can blow you out. Those teams have been together for some time now so they know how to win. So this has not by far been easy. We just made it look easy.’’

The Celtics are executing offensively at an accelerated rate of speed, thanks to the prompting of point guard Rajon Rondo, who turns defensive rebounds and turnovers into a devastating transition attack.

“Our defense could be better,’’ Rivers said after the Oklahoma City game. “We know some things we need to work on, there’s no doubt. The first half, they were shooting 50-whatever percent, and we had a lead. But we can’t allow teams to shoot that high a percentage. The second half we were better, defensively.

“But it is our defense, that’s what is allowing us to win. Our offense has been pretty good all year, really, percentage-wise. But our defense has got to be great for us to be a great team. And then we’ve got to rebound, and we did that well.’’

The Celtics had been outrebounded, 55-32, by San Antonio Thursday. But they corrected mistakes in boxing out and focused on securing the ball against the Thunder.

And they shifted the transition game into another gear, a remarkable feat for a team concluding a road trip with back-to-back games.

Paul Pierce set the defensive tone, leading by example. After scoring 21 points in the first half against Oklahoma City, Pierce took only one more shot the rest of the game, concentrating on slowing down Kevin Durant.

“We’re a defensive unit and that’s what we’re built on,’’ said Pierce. “That’s what we’ve been built on over the last few years.’’

The Celtics felt a sense of accomplishment after taking their seventh successive victory.

“I don’t think we have any reason to be content,’’ Ray Allen said. “Defensively, we’ve been stronger, more solid, the communication on defense has gotten better.

“I think we’ve made the adjustment to our games to take away whatever the other team is doing. We’re talking it through. The communication has been good.

“Teams are going to score, they’re going to go on runs. But, for the most part, we adjust, we adapt to what they’re doing, we put together a string of stops. And then it makes our offense easier.’’

The Celtics are now on pace to challenge their 66-16 record of two years ago.

“We don’t keep track of that, to be honest,’’ Garnett said. “For us, it’s just about getting better. We know we’re a better team than what’s been on the court.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at

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