November 1, 2005
WALTHAM Few sports experiences are more boring than watching a national telecast of a Nets-Knicks exhibition game. But last week, Celtics coach Doc Rivers sat through the entire mind-numbing display in preparation for tomorrow night's season opener against New York at the TD Banknorth Garden. What he saw did not surprise him. Typical exhibition fare with mix-and-match rotations.
But what he did not hear from the broadcasters left him astounded. While dissecting the Atlantic Division race, they never mentioned the Celtics. They completely forgot about the reigning division champions. Knicks coach Larry Brown made the same omission in a national teleconference. At this rate, the Celtics may need a second bulletin board.
"If someone's just going to give us ammunition, you use it," said Rivers. "This year it's a lot easier to use. There's a lot of things being said. There's been several statements by other coaches, by other teams and even other publications with the names of teams in our division and they never mention us."
Rivers may owe the doubters a big thank you. When training camp started, the Celtics were a young squad without an identity, searching for anything that would bring them together. If it is discounted from the playoff picture because of its youth, the team figures it can use that to its advantage.
The average age on the Celtics roster is 24.1 years. Only six of 15 players have spent more than two years in the NBA. They will deal with the inexperience and inconsistency and embrace the energy and enthusiasm that comes with youth.
"There is Delonte West youth and Gerald Green youth and Ricky Davis youth and Paul Pierce youth," said executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge. "There's differences. Every player is completely different.
"When I look at our team right now, I think Gerald Green is real young. I don't see Orien Greene as young. He doesn't have NBA experience, but he knows how to play. Delonte West knows how to play. They're ready to win games in the NBA right now. I believe if they were on any team, they could contribute.
"I look at Justin Reed and Ryan Gomes as guys that need to help us win right now. There's a big difference. I don't look at them as being young.
"If you watch our team play, you see the youth and what benefits that brings. When you see older teams with lots of veterans, they might outsmart you here and we might outhustle them there. But I think we have a good combination of veterans and youthful energy. I don't think youth is a handicap."
Given the rotation Rivers expects to use opening night, the Celtics cannot let youth slow them down. The 22-year-old West will start at point guard alongside veterans Davis, Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, and Mark Blount. Average age: 26.8.
Although West played only 39 games last season because of injuries, he displays a maturity and poise beyond his years. He understands the tempo at which Rivers wants the game played and tries to establish it from the opening tip. He usually makes the right decisions offensively and is always alert defensively.
If West has an off night, Davis and Pierce can share the ball-handling duties, though Davis will be spending a fair amount of time with the younger second unit. Rivers plans to start Davis at shooting guard, pull him early, then reinsert him with the reserves as he did late in the exhibition season.
More often than not this fall, the starters handed the second unit a lead. One of the many challenges facing the Celtics this season will be whether the bench players can stay ahead. Rookies Greene and Gomes, along with Al Jefferson and Brian Scalabrine, will fill out the rotation, with appearances by Reed and Kendrick Perkins. Average age: 22.7.
With his 6-foot-5-inch frame, athleticism, and ability to make smart passes and pressure the ball, Greene eventually could move into the starting lineup.
The second unit primarily will look to Jefferson and Davis for offense.
Despite the overwhelming youth, Rivers and Ainge do not plan to sacrifice wins in favor of development. Rivers announced yesterday that Green, along with injured Tony Allen (right knee surgery) and Marcus Banks (stress fracture in his left tibia) would be inactive for the opener. But Jefferson is proof that even the youngest players grow up fast in the NBA.
"Last year about this time, I didn't know what was going on," said Jefferson. "At the end of last year, I really didn't know what was going on. But now, things are making a lot of sense to me.
"We're a young team, but we're ready to learn. One thing about being young is we're going to practice even harder, play harder, and let people know we're ready to play. A lot of people look for us to be good in the future, but we set a personal goal to be good right now."
No matter what the so-called experts say.