Keeping core values helps

Celtics know how to hold it together

Experience and leadership are benefits of keeping the core intact, says Paul Pierce. Experience and leadership are benefits of keeping the core intact, says Paul Pierce. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 30, 2010

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The numbers made it easy for the Celtics to stand pat. Over the past three seasons, the starting unit of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins has won 124 games, seven playoff series, and one NBA title.

The only team in the NBA that went into this season with the same lineup it had in 2008 was the Celtics. While everyone from championship contenders to upstart franchises reworked their rosters, the Celtics held steady. The core, they figured, was their key.

“The core players here have won a championship,’’ said Pierce. “So once you get that under your belt, that’s experience you can’t take away.’’

The Celtics will head to their second NBA Finals in three years with eight players who were there for the first run. Players such as Glen Davis and Tony Allen have seen their roles increase from one title run to the next. The dynamic among the starters has morphed as well, with Rondo emerging as an All-Star peer of Allen, Garnett, and Pierce.

The Celtics have added pieces, but by and large the players that were there to bring Boston its first NBA title in 22 years are the ones who have led the charge toward banner No. 18.

“Regardless of who you bring in here, the number of players that come in from free agency and who we pick up, the one constant that we’ve had was the great leadership on this ball club because of the starting five that’s been together for a few years now,’’ Pierce said.

The Magic beat the Celtics in seven games last season, then stunned the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. They responded by letting Hedo Turkoglu leave for Toronto as a free agent in the offseason and trading for Vince Carter. In Turkoglu, they lost a player who hit big shots against the Celtics. In Carter, they added a player who was all but invisible in this season’s Eastern Conference finals loss to Boston.

The Cavs added Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Parker to their starting lineup, hoping the added manpower would give LeBron James enough help to get back to the Finals. But for the third straight year, they fell short.

“If you look at the contenders, you look at Orlando, they changed their starting five,’’ Pierce said. “You look at Cleveland, they’ve got a different starting five. But the one constant Boston had as a contender, we have the same starting five that won a championship.

“So at the end of the day, when the playoffs start, we know we have that kind of experience and know how to win games because of the team that’s been together over the last few years.’’

The Celtics tried to salvage their season a year ago when knee surgery sidelined Garnett for the final two months of the regular season and then the playoffs. They reached the second round, where they lost to the Magic, but there was always an internal asterisk because of the injuries that left that team shorthanded.

They knew they would get a healthy Garnett for the start of this season, but they brought in Rasheed Wallace as a reinforcement, fighting the fantasy-basketball urge to put the two towers on the floor together and instead keeping the frontcourt chemistry of Perkins and Garnett intact.

Wallace understood that his role during the regular season was to be an emergency option should Garnett’s health become an issue. Coach Doc Rivers made it a priority to keep his veterans rested and healthy, even if it meant sacrificing wins.

“It wasn’t about us going out there and trying to win every game at the beginning,’’ Pierce said. “It was about getting healthy.’’

The Celtics started the regular season 23-5, and Rivers said, “I thought after 28 games you could say we felt like we were the best team in the NBA.’’

No starter was able to avoid injury during the regular season, but Rivers put a premium on being preemptive. When knee, foot, and thumb injuries hobbled Pierce from Christmas Day forward, he sat 10 games. Thigh and knee soreness cost Garnett 11 games. Back spasms cost Ray Allen a game near the trade deadline. Rondo lost a game because of a tweaked hamstring. Perkins’s sore knees forced him to sit one out.

But Garnett is the only starter who has missed a postseason game — and not because of injury but because of a one-game suspension during the first round against Miami. Rivers maintained throughout the year that if he could get his team to the postseason in one piece, the built-in rest in the playoff format would be in the Celtics’ favor.

Ray Allen said, “The one thing that Doc said all year was, ‘I like this team. I like the guys on this team. We can win it with the guys that are on this team.’ ’’

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