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Uncharted territory

Posted by Scott Souza February 19, 2009 05:56 AM

Asked prior to the season how it would be different guiding an aspiring champion compared to an actual one, Celtics coach Doc Rivers tried to be honest.

He didn’t know, because he’d never done it before.

He wasn’t worried about the team coming into the season fat, happy, and content. He was confident the presence of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce would ensure that wouldn’t happen. He knew the date against the Celtics would be the focal point of every other team’s schedule. He just didn’t know to what extent, or how his crew would respond to the unrelenting pressure.

As Rivers took a step back from the title defense for a few days during the All-Star break, he said the biggest difference he sees between this year and last is one of mission statement.

Last year, the team was looking to prove it could be the best. This year, it is looking to prove it is still better than everyone else.

“I think the losses hurt them more this year in a strange way,” he said of his players. “Last year, we were so focused they didn’t even react to it as much. This year, they really hate to lose.”

It’s the difference between the quest for the golden ring and having that ring in your possession as others try to pry it from you. It’s yours now. You’ve felt it on your finger. You know what it’s like to wear it and, perhaps more important, have others see you wear it.

It becomes hard to fathom it will ever belong to anyone else.

“The expectation now that you’ve won it is that they assume they are going to win games,” Rivers said. “Then the games you lose, you have to tell them that they actually have to go out and get it too.”

Which, Rivers noted, hasn’t really been too much of an issue. At 44-11 through the All-Star break, the Celtics are one game ahead of last year’s 55-game pace even though they have a lot more company this time around in the race for best record in the NBA.

Last year, they relished the idea of being the scariest new hunter in the forest. This year, they have had to adjust to being just as scary as the hunted.

“We’ve had our stretches of ups and downs,” said Paul Pierce, indicating the team’s incredibly high threshold for success. “The thing for us is understanding that every night teams are going to be up for you and going to be ready. Everybody was kind of new last year with us coming together. It was a good little high of us just being together, and teams didn’t really know what to expect from us. This year everybody knows what to expect. We’re the defending champs, and it has been a little tougher road than it was a year ago, because the target has grown bigger.”

“I think we have more confidence knowing that we have done it and we can do it again,” Rivers said. “Sometimes that can hurt you or help you. I felt that San Antonio had circled the game [a 105-99 Celtics loss on Feb. 8] more than we had circled San Antonio. I was thinking: What the hell is that? If you think about that alone, that was different. We have to definitely be mentally ready for every regular season game now.”

That means being ready for the physical challenge of having teams bringing their best game to you every night, and also being ready to meet — or resist — the challenge of teams trying to prove their toughness against you as the baddest men on the block.

“It’s knowing that teams that normally don’t play as well are going to play their best against you,” Pierce said. “That it is going to be a little more physical, a little more trash talking, a little more grabbing, more holding.

“It’s all about being the champs because everyone is trying to take you down.”

The captain said, overall, he is pretty happy with the way the Celtics have stood up to the tests so far.

“I think we’ve done a great job for the most part,” Pierce said. “It’s a long grind, and we understand that. We talked at the beginning of the season about how teams were going to come at you, but you really don’t know until you get into it. Now that we’ve gone through 50-plus games, we have a better understanding of it and that’s going to prepare us for the rest of the games and the playoffs.

“I still see the same motivation. I still see the same hunger. It’s a lot of the things I saw last year. We talk a lot about what happened to us last year, that we’ve already put it behind us, and that now we are in search of a new banner.”

Scott Souza covers the Celtics for OT and can be reached at ssouza@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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