Defensive rotation comes full circle

Celtics are filling a glaring need

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 18, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The players shall remain nameless. Two Celtics were staring holes through each other during Boston’s Game 1 Eastern Conference finals win over the Magic.

They were arguing over a defensive rotation, and neither could let it go.

“We had to call a timeout because they couldn’t move past it,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Three plays later and you could see them still staring at each other. That’s what you can’t have. It’s all right to get angry and it’s all right to disagree, but then you’ve got to move forward.’’

The Celtics aren’t the type of team to hug. Their high intensity level, the stakes of a championship run, and the slim margin for error make internal clashes inevitable. It’s also the product of having many strong personalities — established stars and rising stars, starters and sixth men.

It’s a part of the Celtics’ DNA, and it’s something they’ve worked through this season, finding a way to manage whatever problems arise and remain a cohesive unit.

“Teams are just like your immediate family,’’ Rivers said. “You have squabbles and for the most part I try to let them say everything they need to say so I know which side to take. Then I try to get in the middle. I encourage conversation. Even if it’s heated because I think at the end of the day, it’s what you truly feel. Then you can move forward.’’

Clashes crept up throughout the season. When the Celtics were struggling, family matters seemed like dissension. But in-house issues never reached a self-destructive point, mostly because no matter how heated the battles get, the goals remain the same. Sitting three wins from the Finals, it’s easier for the team to see the rewards of patience.

“There was a stretch in the season where we know each oth er so well, we’ve been around each other for a couple of years now, that we were becoming less patient with each other,’’ Ray Allen said. “When things went awry in any quarter or any game or we lost a couple of games, we were getting on each other a little bit too much. We can take it. But we respected each other.’’

Paul Pierce said, “I think we’re around each other so much we get tired of each other. I know I do. I come in sometimes and get tired of seeing the same faces, the same voices sometimes. That’s normal. Just like any kind of relationship. You have your ups and downs, but you’ve been together so long, you get past the differences and you move on.’’

The Celtics have their own blunt brand of conflict resolution. They don’t mince words. Kevin Garnett didn’t coddle Rasheed Wallace when they talked before Game 2 of the second-round series against Cleveland. Garnett demanded more from a player the Celtics brought in to help them push for a title.

In the series clincher, Glen Davis almost instantly heard it from the bench after passing up an open shot to go to the rim, missing a layup and starting a Cavaliers’ fast break. He responded to the bench, “I know, I know. I [messed] up.’’

Even during the grind of the regular season, as the Celtics battled a tendency to stop passing the ball, Rajon Rondo called teammates out for playing with agendas.

“If you have a good team and you don’t have no bickering amongst players, then there’s something wrong with that locker room,’’ said Wallace. “Every player wants to win, whether it’s the first man or the 14th man, so there’s going to be some in-house bickering, some in-house shoving. That’s what makes the team stronger. It shows the character of the team. If you can man up to it — ‘Maybe I was wrong’ — and another guy apologizes, that’s what makes the team stronger and tighter.’’

Often times, Rivers winds up mediating, massaging personalities, egos, and opinions.

“Doc is sort of like the arbitrator,’’ Pierce said. “We go to him when we need him. He’s very important. He’s the greatest coach for this team, for the strong personalities. He’s able to manage them. He knows when to go hard on us. He knows when to ease back on us and it just makes a perfect complement, especially when there’s so many alpha males in this group.’’

Rivers is as much a counselor as he is a coach, and he accepts that part of the job, knowing if his team is going to succeed the players have to be on the same page.

“I encourage conversation, even if it’s heated,’’ Rivers said. “Because I think at the end of the day, it’s what you truly feel. Then, you can move forward.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at

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