November 3, 2004
It has all the gossipy intrigue and social awkwardness of seating the still-respected ex-wife and the sexy new girlfriend at the same table for a family wedding. Former Celtics coach Jim O'Brien returns to the FleetCenter tonight, with the Philadelphia 76ers in tow, for the season opener against the Celtics.
O'Brien, who resigned his position in Boston last January, will get a first-hand look at what new coach Doc Rivers has done with the Celtics. Whether or not the stoic O'Brien admits it, there will be mixed emotions about the entire affair.
"I still have a lot of fans in that organization," said O'Brien. "To say this was just another game, that wouldn't be the whole truth. Certainly, I'll approach it as another game, but it will be an odd experience being an opponent in the FleetCenter and staying at a hotel in Boston and preparing to play against the Celtics. That will be a foreign experience and a little bit of a weird experience."
Knowing O'Brien, he will try to keep the focus on the players and on defense. He probably prefers it that a Red Sox delegation is scheduled to appear with the World Series trophy, thus making his return a little more incidental to the festivities. But given his abrupt departure and the fact that his former players still hold him in high regard, O'Brien cannot avoid being a significant story line. His familiarity with the Boston personnel, and vice versa, will inevitably factor into the game plan.
"We all know each other's games," said the Celtics' Walter McCarty. "It's just how you go out and execute.
"It was a lot of fun [playing for O'Brien]. You knew what to expect. Coach O'Brien was the same person each and every day, and we were very comfortable with him. We had a lot of good times and we had a lot of fond memories. But we're going out there wanting to win.
"That was a tough situation last year. We all knew it was a tough situation. I'm very close with Coach O'Brien, so I know what went on behind closed doors. To say he quit is kind of tough, even though he left. If I was in that position, I would have done the same thing."
With Philadelphia, O'Brien likes the balance of young players and veterans. He likes Andre Iguodala so much that the 20-year-old rookie will start at small forward. Allen Iverson officially moves to point guard, while Aaron McKie completes the backcourt, Kenny Thomas starts at power forward, and Marc Jackson starts at center. O'Brien made it clear who's in charge of decisions on the court by bumping anticipated starters Samuel Dalembert, Glenn Robinson, and Willie Green to the bench. The team also has begun pursuing a trade for Robinson, who is on the injured list with ankle tendinitis.
The Sixers' defensive scheme, which puts an emphasis on keeping opponents away from the rim, should look familiar. What worked in Boston appears to be working in Philadelphia. While compiling a 6-2 exhibition record, the Sixers held opponents to 43 percent shooting. But it may come as a shock to hear that O'Brien believes Philadelphia is "becoming a good fast-break team." The Sixers averaged 98.0 points in exhibition games, among the best in the league.
So the coach who found himself on a different page from Danny Ainge - reportedly because he didn't develop young talent and couldn't coax the Celtics into playing up-tempo ball - will start a rookie and look for easy baskets in transition. But it wouldn't be an O'Brien team without defense coming first.
"One of the first things [Iverson] mentioned, and a couple of other veterans mentioned, was, 'Could we teach them the kind of defense the Celtics played on the Sixers in the past?' " said O'Brien. "They all mentioned how difficult it was to get the ball to the rim. I said, 'Well, not only can we teach that, but we will insist upon teaching it.'
"It's nice to have [Iverson] on your side and it's nice to see him pushing the ball up the court and having other teams worry about getting back to the paint and loading up to him."
On the Celtics' side, Gary Payton will be pushing the ball with a nondisplaced fracture of his right thumb. Rivers said Payton will start, though it will be a wait-and-see proposition as far as minutes are concerned. The veteran point guard will wear some form of protective padding and expects to be pressured. But Payton has fared much better than rookie Delonte West, whose fractured right thumb will keep him out anywhere from two to eight weeks.
Payton, McCarty, Paul Pierce, Mark Blount, and the other Celtics veterans will have to find a way to beat the defense they know so well. On the court and off, it will be a tough reunion in many ways.
Asked if he could see Pierce trying to do more in an effort to beat an O'Brien team, Rivers said, "I hope not. You always want to beat your ex-coach. You want to beat your ex-teammates. That's why they're pros, because everybody's competitive. Even when you like them, you really want to beat them.
"This game has nothing to do with Jim O'Brien, honest. I think it has to do more with the Sixers. These two teams have had something going for 25 years or longer. I think it's more that than anything to do with Jim O'Brien."