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Gang green
by Todd Dybas / January 3, 2008

Ah, yes, the good old days

Ah, yes, the good old days.

The 1980s, in this case. Neon. Spandex. Short shorts. Celtics dominance.

Boston averaged 58 wins per season on the way to three titles in the decade. Its success enough to irritate seemingly benign opposition.

"Oh man, that was back in the day when Tom Chambers was talking a lot of noise," Celtics legend and current radio analyst Cedric Maxwell said. "He had a real good game in Boston and we came back up (to Seattle) and I had a real good game against him. I had like 31 and I said, 'I ate him up just like Pac-Man.' "

Pac-Man. Forgot about him.

This year Boston is taking a cue from the famished yellow chomper and the ’80s editions of the Celtics. Relying on defense, pacified ego and engaged role players, the Celtics are gobbling up nearly everything in front of them, compiling a 26-3 record. A Sunday thumping of the Lakers completed a 4-0 West Coast road swing. Boston already carries a swagger and defense that rankles opponents, as evidenced by Lamar Odom’s late-game tackle of Ray Allen.

A mid-summer overhaul brought All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Allen. Those acquisitions raised expectations and questions. The Celtics became instant contenders in the Eastern Conference, but the airwaves filled with traditional queries following any joining of stars. Namely, will there be enough shots to keep the trio happy?

Internally, the Celtics were having a different discussion.

"We made the trade and I got the three guys together," coach Doc Rivers said. "I told them we will not win playing offense, we just can't. We're going to have to win playing defense."

Rivers was right. The Celtics have the No. 1 defense and record in the NBA.

Locking down opponents starts with Garnett. He is equally capable of hedging against a pick-and-roll, trapping small guards normally too elusive for 6-11 defenders, as he is defending the rim. Against Seattle he rejected a Delonte West layup attempt, despite appearing to be out of the play moments before. The block led to a wide-open three for Allen.

The next possession, Garnett swallowed Mickael Gelabale at the rim, the ball bouncing off the Frenchman before going out of bounds. Garnett enjoyed a good scream and self-inflicted beating about the chest following the turnover.

“You don't have to tell Kevin (defense comes first), that's who he is anyway,” Rivers said. “I think this trade has allowed Kevin to be free defensively.”

In a less celebrated move, the Celtics also hired assistant coach Tom Thibodeau in the offseason. Thibodeau formerly worked for the Houston Rockets as part of Jeff Van Gundy’s staff, helping produce teams that appeared to spend as much time working on offense as Van Gundy spent on his hair, defining Thibodeau’s pedigree as a defensive specialist. Now his influence can be seen on the Celtics.

"We're still graduating to that team that believes it can make a defensive run,” Rivers said. “We get caught in trying to make an offensive run, quick shots and blow them out, instead of understanding each stop gives us a chance to score. The next stop gives us another chance to score. We're not there yet, but we're close."

What is there is a strong bench, answering perhaps the biggest question surrounding the preseason roster rework. Eddie House provides streak shooting, James Posey does all the right things. Rivers has chosen to match his bench with at least one of the power troika. All have been the sole source of offense at some point in their career, which enables the role players to be just that.

Even when not in the game, the bench has influence. Against Seattle, the bench was standing and chirping at rookie Kevin Durant. Paul Pierce had been wily and powerful, punishing Durant with savvy offense. The Celtics bench chose to remind the newbie of that in the second half. When Durant hit a jumper right in front of them, he turned, then relayed some comments of his own.

"I heard those guys talking a lot of trash, but it was fun," Durant said. "They did a lot of that."

Despite the preseason hype leading to an unearned moniker of the Big Three, harkening back to the Hall of Fame Boston frontcourt of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, Pierce, Allen and Garnett have side-stepped the title whenever possible. Garnett has even refused to be interviewed without the other two.

Their ongoing spotlight deflection would be received by wrinkled faces covered with doubt were the results not so staggering. The scoring averages for all three are substantially reduced, success increased. In the case of Allen and Pierce, their turnovers are down, assists up.

The biggest bump in Boston, though, comes from a numerically immeasurable category – camaraderie.

"In this locker room we've built such a rapport with each other," Allen, who had a career-high scoring average last season, said. "Statistics don't matter. The other two and myself, Paul and KG, we're not that impressed with trying to make All-Star teams, score 40, or 50. We've done a lot of that."

“It's absolutely amazing,” Maxwell said of the swift bonding. “The camaraderie right now, chemistry, for them to be the way they are right now is absolutely unreal.”

For his part, the amicable Rivers says his approach is basically the same. Finally at the helm of a team that has a shot to win every night, his focus is on teaching the team to play together rather than teaching guys how to play.

Though the Celtics' 26 wins already exceed last season's 24, Rivers chooses to spout Belichickian Philosophy.

“In our mind we've had no success,” Rivers said. “You don't get a trophy after (29) games. You get nothing. We've proven we can play (29) games. That's it. In our mind we have to keep improving, because it doesn't matter right now.”

Best record in the league. Best defense in the league. Team unity. Sounds like an ’80s revival.

Todd Dybas is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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