C's Not Short on Swagger

March 18, 2002

There was a moment Saturday night in the third quarter at the Alamodome when the Celtics' Paul Pierce swore he saw fear in the Spurs' eyes.

Such a suggestion would have produced laughter at the start of the season. After all, the Spurs blew out the Celtics by 46 points in October for the biggest exhibition win in franchise history. But this is not a story about how far Boston has come this season. That's been written, with more installments to come as the postseason picture becomes clearer.

   This is a story about the Celtics' confidence and swagger, and the thought that maybe, just maybe, teams like San Antonio might find a few things about Boston to fear. No one in the East wants to face Miami, Philadelphia, or Charlotte in the first round of the playoffs, but the prospect of drawing Boston should not be welcome, either.

The Memphis and San Antonio games marked the 18th back-to-back set Boston has played this season. But this time, none of the players brought up the fact they were playing two games in two days on the road unless specifically asked. They don't sweat the small stuff like scheduling quirks anymore. If you didn't know any better, it seemed the Celtics were just as rested as the Spurs, who had a day off after beating the Bulls Thursday night. Boston matched San Antonio's energy and battled down the stretch. So, fear factor No. 1: Energy in reserve.

The main reason the Celtics didn't experience a second-game hangover was that they now have legitimate depth. While trade acquisitions Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers immediately come to mind, note that Eric Williams, Erick Strickland, and Walter McCarty are always available to offer different matchup possibilities. The Celtics have become a more versatile team capable of morphing into a more unpredictable opponent. Fear factor No. 2: Depth and versatility.

More shooters translates to more offensive production. With the ability to spread the court and get points from a number of sources, the Celtics are more able to make quick runs that can keep them from falling too far behind. It also gives them the ability to score in bunches. When the Celtics closed with a 14-0 run for a 103-97 win against the Grizzlies, they received contributions from Antoine Walker, Pierce, Delk, and Rogers.

"Once a team makes a run, we have enough offense to make a run back at them," said Delk. "Sometimes a team doesn't have that. We put four or five guys on the floor that can score at one time and we play good defense together. I think we can offset most runs in this league and that's the good thing about having Antoine, Paul, Rodney, and myself on the floor at the same time. We don't get worried. We know we can come back on anybody because we have enough scorers."

The Celtics also got a big steal from Kenny Anderson during their spurt against Memphis, emphasizing that strong defense has been their biggest constant this season. They lead the league in steals, with 9.62 per game. They also are holding opponents to 43 percent shooting from the floor (sixth best in the league) and 33.8 percent from 3-point range (third best). Fear factor No. 3: The offense to make runs and the defense to slow opponents down.

Nothing keeps the points coming like the Celtics' fearlessness when it comes to hoisting 3-pointers. If someone is open at the arc, coach Jim O'Brien expects him to take the shot. As a result, they don't think twice about throwing up 31 3-point attempts, like they did against San Antonio. They made 12, setting a season high for a Spurs opponent. When Boston is hot from 3-point range, it is very dangerous. When the Celtics force the issue, it becomes a dangerous proposition. But now, with the ability to fill the floor with 3-point shooters, the real and psychological threat of someone on the Celtics getting hot from the arc is always there. Fear factor No. 4: 3-point shooting.

"They're a tough team to play against because they shoot so many 3s," said Tim Duncan after leading the Spurs to their 111-104 victory Saturday night. "They spread the court with all of their small guys and they have five shooters on the court. They were getting up and down early, shooting a whole bunch of 3s, and [the shots] were going down for them."

The same thinking that applies to the Celtics and 3-pointers also holds for Walker and Pierce. When one or both cocaptains get hot, Boston is very dangerous. They scored 62 of the Celtics 104 points against the Spurs. Walker and Pierce both had 7 points in the fourth quarter against the Grizzlies. Fear factor No. 5: The distinct possibility of Walker or Pierce or both taking over a game.

"We feel like we can compete with anybody," said Pierce. "We're not going to back down from whoever, regardless of whether it's San Antonio. [The Spurs] may be one of the top teams in the league, but that doesn't really mean anything to us. We're a competitive group of guys. We're going make it a war every night out, regardless of it being the fifth game in five nights, or whatever. We want to win all the games. This is a crucial stage for us. That's our best asset:  the way we compete night in and night out."

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