Anyone Know What Number Havlicek Wore? Then You Know More than Big Al
November 2, 2004
WALTHAM - When Hall of Famer John Havlicek visited Celtics practice last week, it seemed like the perfect time for a quick history lesson. Coach Doc Rivers said he would cancel practice if 19-year-old rookie Al Jefferson could tell him Havlicek's number. A couple of the Boston veterans stole glances at the banners featuring retired numbers hanging above the practice court, hoping to help Jefferson narrow his options. Jefferson never got the hint and blurted out, "44."
Laughter exploded from the ranks. Jiri Welsch, No. 44, stood right next to Jefferson.
Though it was a humorous episode, it illustrates just how much the younger players have to learn, and may even show that the Celtics lack the kind of chemistry that would help them read each others' physical cues. With the season opener tomorrow night at the FleetCenter, the Celtics are still figuring out each other and the NBA game as played in Boston. Whether they enjoy a successful campaign this season depends largely upon how well they come together and how quickly the less-experienced players get up to speed on a team that wants to run.
Chemistry, said Rivers, "was something I was concerned with coming in the door because of the way the season ended last year. But for the most part, when anybody gets knocked out of the playoffs, the chemistry [is poor] at the end of it, even when you're not swept. The reason you usually lose in the playoffs is because one team fell apart. Usually issues arise from that and the negative baggage from that year carries over to the next year. Maybe because we were so bad, that was washed away. But so far, so good.
"Our guys are trying to fight through any negative baggage that may have been left as a residual of losing last year. I can see where things could have happened last year, just because of the personalities of our guys. But they've been great."
Either Rivers packed rose-colored glasses when he relocated from Orlando or he truly believes the talented triumvirate of Gary Payton, Paul Pierce, and Ricky Davis can be something special. When executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge acquired Payton in August, many basketball pundits wondered how the veteran point guard would coexist with players like Pierce and Davis, who also demand the ball. It seemed inevitable that someone would wind up unhappy.
But throughout the preseason, Rivers elected to put Payton, Pierce, and Davis in the starting lineup along with center Mark Blount and power forward Raef LaFrentz. Barring any further problems with Payton's fractured right thumb (it hampered him during practice yesterday and he will be held out of contact drills today), that starting five should be in place tomorrow night against Philadelphia. Pierce believes he can prove the critics wrong playing alongside Payton and Davis.
"Things are really coming together," said Pierce. "We've grown a lot these last couple of weeks. Guys really like playing with each other. That's going to be the key.
"I could understand where [the critics] were coming from. Between all three of us, we're all demanding of the ball. But people don't understand the unselfishness that we possess among all three of us. Gary's been in the top five in assists pretty much his whole career. Ricky Davis has gone through a season where he's averaged like five or six assists, and I have myself. Guys are willing to sacrifice for the good of the team."
Added Davis, "You never know until you try it. You have three guys who can score the ball real well, so one guy has to be a key role player and a key defender in that thing. My role is just to bring the energy, be the role player, and play in the offense."
Talking about team play may come easy now, but the true test of the chemistry will come when the team struggles. Payton, Pierce, and Davis will have to resist the temptation of trying to carry the team individually. After all, they will be part of what Rivers hopes eventually can be a 10-man rotation.
In addition to the starters, the coach envisions Jiri Welsch, Tom Gugliotta, and Walter McCarty receiving regular minutes. Rivers believes rookie Tony Allen will find his way into the rotation. Jefferson should see some playing time, but it may be a while before fans see Delonte West. The rookie point guard fractured his right thumb during practice yesterday and the team promptly placed him on the injured list, meaning he will miss at least five games.
"We are a competitive group of guys," said Rivers. "We are a group of guys who are still learning each other. But at the end of the day, I like the fact that we have a lot of athletes. We have a lot of guys that can create their own shots. And we have a lot of guys who can play defense if they focus on it. If we get that right, we can be pretty dangerous."
Rivers also should have mentioned that the players have proven eager to learn. Before practice yesterday, Jefferson told Rivers about his latest history lesson. Watching ESPN Classic, the rookie caught the coach playing for Atlanta in the game in which Larry Bird scored 60 points - a game played the year Jefferson was born. Moving from Havlicek to Bird in a matter of days, Jefferson is just the kind of quick study the Celtics need to get things moving in the right direction.
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