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7.27.2009

1990-91 Celtics: First on Defense, First on Offense

1990-91 Boston Celtics
Remembering the 29-5 Start


It sounded so simple and, to some, probably unrealistic. The new coach was promising things from the 1990-91 Boston Celtics, things heretofore unthinkable.

The Celtics would run, coach Chris Ford promised after taking the head job last June. The Celtics would get easy baskets, he said. They would defend as if the motherland was under siege, he also vowed.

Inheriting a team that did none of the above particularly well, his promises sounded like so much campaign rhetoric. At least he didn't say "read my lips."

Well, guess what. As the Celtics prepare to close out 1990, they are running, getting easy baskets, and defending. They are doing so at a frighteningly successful clip that, if maintained, would establish this year's team as one of the best statistically of the Larry Bird era. Already, at 19-4, they are opening eyes around the league.

The Celtics lead the league in field goal percentage (53.1). That would be third best in NBA history and a franchise record. Even more remarkable, they lead the league in defensive field goal percentage, holding clubs to a stark 44.1 percent. That would be the second lowest league mark in 18 years.

Only one team in the last 17 years has led the league in both shooting percentage departments: the 1980-81 Philadelphia 76ers. The 1985-86 Celtics, the 67-15 team that Bird said is the best he's seen in his 11-plus years in the league, was No. 1 defensively and second to the Lakers in shooting percentage. Last year's Utah Jazz were first in shooting and second in defense after Detroit.

"To me, those are the numbers that stick out," Ford said yesterday before attending the Celtics' Christmas party. "That tells me that we are getting easier baskets, particularly on transition, because we are not being double- and triple-teamed.

"It also tells me that defensively we have taken away the easy basket. We are putting a hand in a shooter's face. And those have been points we have emphasized since the beginning."

Only twice in 23 games has an opponent shot better than 50 percent against the Celtics: the Chicago Bulls shot 53 percent in a 120-100 victory in Boston Nov. 9 and the Charlotte Hornets also shot 53 percent in a 135-126 defeat in Boston Nov. 14. Since then, the Celtics have played 16 games and only one club, the 76ers, has been able to shoot 50 percent. In those 16 games, the Celtics have held opponents to 42 percent or worse on eight occasions.

"We're doing what I want on defense," Ford said.

And how can he complain about the offense? If Bird wasn't bricking them up from hither and yon on the road, they'd be on target to be the most accurate team ever. They still may do it despite the franchise anchor, er, forward.

Already, the Celtics have shot 60 percent or better on five occasions. They did it only four times all last season. They've had two bad shooting games all year; 41 percent in the debacle in Milwaukee and 43 percent at home against Sacramento. That's it. Their next worst shooting game is 47 percent.

Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Kevin Gamble are 3-4-5 in shooting. Brian Shaw, who shot 43 percent as a rookie, is shooting 51.9 percent. Reggie Lewis (51.5) and Dee Brown (54) give Boston six regulars shooting 50 percent or better. Bird is at 46.8 percent, but he also leads the team in assists.

"We're getting the easy baskets, but we're also taking good shots," Ford said. "I like our shot selection."

There is other impressive data. They are winning games by an average of 9.1 points a game, third behind Portland and Chicago. Only one team in NBA history has had a 9-point or better differential without winning 60 games: the 1985-86 Milwaukee Bucks. (A disclaimer: the Red Auerbach-coached 1946-47 Washington Caps had a 9.9 winning margin; however they only played a 60-game schedule. They went 49-11.) Eight other teams have had 9-point winning margins and seven won championships; the 1971-72 Bucks are the exception.

The Celtics have won 11 of 12 at home and the average margin of victory is an astonishing 17.5 points. Portland (15.7) can't match that. Neither can undefeated Milwaukee (13.1).

Predictably, there are less scintillating numbers in other categories. The Celtics are seventh in rebounding, ninth on the defensive boards. With the opposition shooting so poorly, there are more opportunities for defensive rebounds. And the Celtics aren't getting as many as they perhaps could.

They are committing an unsatisfactory 17.1 turnovers a game, but the coach attributed much of that to "concentration dips" during blowouts. For example, the bench played most of the fourth quarter in Saturday's rout at Miami and committed 11 turnovers.

And, as usual, they still lag at the bottom of the "turnovers forced" category. Some things remain the same.

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