LOS ANGELES - As the end of regulation neared Monday night at Staples Center, a visiting scout watched coach Doc Rivers go through a series of fiery paroxysms and asked, "Is Doc always this emotional?" Yes, but as Rivers watched the Celtics rally from a 12-point, fourth-quarter deficit, his display was clearly different.
He worked the officials for every small advantage he could get. He pumped both fists in the air with every big shot down the stretch. He even half-hugged, half-chest bumped Tony Allen in celebration.
Sitting a few rows behind the Boston bench, executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge was, perhaps, more intense as the contest headed into double overtime. He yelled at referee Mike Callahan to "quit choking" as the officials awarded Corey Maggette a pair of free throws that made it a one-possession game. Paul Pierce, who fouled out late in the fourth quarter, felt a rush of adrenaline so strong during the decisive minutes of the second overtime he thought he was still on the floor.
Rivers, Ainge and Pierce sensed something special happening on the court and all three wanted to be a part of it any way they could. Clutch baskets from just about everyone Rivers put on the floor propelled the Celtics to a 134-127 win over the Clippers. The Celtics finished their West Coast trip 2-3, returning home with a two-game winning streak.
When asked if he would look back on the trip as a turning point in the season, Rivers said, "I'll tell you in a month. Right now, the answer is yes."
The last two games, against the Clippers and Sonics, revealed a more mentally tough side of the Celtics. Instead of collapsing in the second half and down the stretch as happened throughout November and earlier in the trip, the Celtics stayed unselfish and composed. Rivers saw signs of a turnaround after a potentially devastating loss to the Warriors Dec. 6. In the second of back-to-back games, the Celtics fell apart in the closing minutes, most notably by failing to box out on a missed free throw by Derek Fisher that allowed Jason Richardson to seal the game with a tip shot.
After the Golden State game, the second of the trip, Rivers said practices were more intense, like they were during training camp. He heard players talking about moving the ball and sharing the ball, which had not happened to that point. The Celtics did not see immediate results against the Trail Blazers last Thursday. They committed a shot-clock violation with 5.4 seconds left, then watched Shareef Abdur-Rahim hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
But it all came together against Seattle last Saturday. The Celtics became the first opponent to win at Key Arena this season. They held the high-scoring Sonics to 28 points in the second half. Applying lessons learned throughout the trip, the Celtics did not panic when Pierce exited early in LA.
"We can definitely use this win and the last two games as building blocks for what we're trying to do," said Pierce [33 points in 27 foul-plagued minutes against the Clippers]. "We got down and we kept fighting. That showed a lot of heart, poise, and strength. If we show those characteristics on a regular basis, we're going to be a tough, tough team. The game was back and forth and you didn't know who was going to get the momentum. It came down to who was going to be the tougher team."
When the trip started, no one could have predicted the Celtics would emerge a tougher team. But Ricky Davis picked up where Pierce left off against the Clippers, scoring 18 of his team-high 34 points in the closing minutes of regulation and two overtime periods. Davis hit two free throws with 8.7 seconds remaining to send the game into overtime.
"We should have won the other two games [Golden State and Portland] at the buzzer," said Davis, who also had 6 assists against LA. "But we learned from it and tried not to make the same mental mistakes we did in the fourth quarter - I thought we were going to be here till tomorrow. I was just hoping it would end our way."
On the East Coast, the game stretched well into the early morning hours. The Celtics needed extra time in the first OT to come back from a 4-point deficit. Davis played a big role in the rally. He went in for a layup, then found Gary Payton (15 points, 9 assists) for a 3-pointer that pushed the Celtics ahead, 114-113, with 1:30 left. But after a dunk by Allen, the Clippers forced a second overtime with a 3-pointer by Maggette (career-high 38 points).
The second time around, the Celtics established a 5-point lead (125-120) when Jiri Welsch nailed a 3-pointer. The Clippers tied the contest with a 3-pointer from Kerry Kittles, but the Celtics executed on offense, finding easy basket after easy basket. Boston's final three field goals were layups. A layup from Payton gave Boston the lead for good with 35.1 seconds remaining. Davis sealed the victory with a pair of free throws and a 3-point play.
"That was an amazing basketball game," said Rivers. "Our guys really fought. Being in a funk for three quarters, it was really just a gut effort. We had a lot of reasons we should have just gone home. But that's the mental toughness I've been talking about. I can feel us starting to become a team and coming together."