Celtics' Defense Coming Alive

December 13, 2004

LOS ANGELES - After 14-plus years in the NBA, Gary Payton is an unapologetic realist. He has no use for morale-boosting optimism.

So, when asked what the Celtics' 98-84 win over the Sonics meant, he said, "One game, one game, one game."

   He knew not to read too much into Boston's victory Saturday night at Key Arena, even though Seattle entered the game as the league's hottest team and had yet to lose at home.

The Celtics have been a one-step forward, two-steps back kind of team and Payton didn't see anything in Seattle that would indicate an end to that pattern.

Experience as an NBA coach, player, and broadcaster can turn even preternaturally optimistic Doc Rivers into something of a realist. Following practice at UCLA yesterday afternoon, he echoed Payton's sentiment.

"It's only one game and that's why we're here [working out]," said Rivers. "But to me, the success is the last two games [against Seattle and Portland], even though we didn't win but one of them. You can see us starting to play better, starting to do better things. The more we do it, the more success we have, the more they're going to believe in it and buy into it. Offensively, we've been good. Now, we're more efficient. Defensively, to me, is where we're starting to make strides."

That may be an understatement, considering what happened in the second half against the Sonics. Or, rather, what didn't happen. Boston held Seattle to 28 points in the second half (13 in the third and 15 in the fourth). Seattle shot 22 percent (9 for 41) from the field and 6 percent (1 for 17) from the arc. The Sonics were ranked sixth in the NBA in points per game (100.7) before playing the Celtics. And they led the league in 3-point field goal percentage (40 percent).

In the end, Seattle shot a season-low 33 percent, which also marked a season low for a Boston opponent.

Part of the Celtics' success could be attributed to matching up well with the Sonics' relatively small lineup. But Boston also has responded to increased emphasis on defense. The Celtics are less likely to fall victim to bad habits, namely letting the offense dictate the intensity of the defense.

"It was our defense from the jump," said Paul Pierce. "We really concentrated and focused in on our defense. That's been a key for us the last two games. We knew Seattle was a high-powered offense. They shoot a lot of threes and put a lot of pressure on you all game. But you're always going to be in the game, even if your offense is not going well, if you can get stops.

"[The second-half defense] was tremendous. I don't know if I should say I'm surprised or what."

It would be understandable if the numbers - which included Ray Allen finishing the game 5 for 23 from the floor (0 for 10 from 3-point range) - left Pierce a little shocked. With their youth, energy, and athleticism, the Celtics are capable of playing stifling defense. But rarely have they sustained their defensive effort for an entire game.

"We stayed aggressive and stayed humble," said Payton. "Usually, we relax and we'll be passive."

The evaluation holds for the Celtics' play on both ends. Boston sustained its unselfishness throughout. Although Jiri Welsch shot poorly from the field (3 for 9), his teammates kept feeding him. Rivers thought efforts to repeatedly find Welsch showed a tremendous amount of trust.

Boston recorded 24 assists, just three shy of its season high, with Welsch (six) leading the way and Payton (five) second. Marcus Banks finished with four assists as he strives to involve his teammates more.

There were plenty of positives to build upon. And plenty of optimism to go around as Boston wraps up its trip tonight against the Clippers at Staples Center.

"You have to be optimistic," said Pierce. "Getting a win on this trip, after losing three in a row, it's just like as a player when you're out there and you're 0 for 10 and you make the next one. You feel all the rest of them are going to go in. You feel this is the one you can build some confidence on and build a winning streak. I think we'll feed off it.

"Seattle was the hottest team in the league. We came to their home floor and got a win and nobody was able to do that the whole season. Hopefully, we can finish off this road trip right."

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