An old coach used to tell us that good defense is talk, help and hustle. Around the Celtics, it's more than that. It's a culture.
Danny Ainge can make someone a Celtic by drafting him, signing him as a free agent or trading for him. But he can't make him one of the guys.
To be accepted by your teammates, you have to be willing to dig in and play defense. No one who doesn't can hope to be in with the In Crowd.
``Absolutely not,'' said cultural minister Kevin Garnett. ``There's no way you're going to have the top guys on this team play the way we play on defense and the effort that we give and you be isolated and not give an effort. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't even have to be the one to say something. I think everybody on this team holds each other accountable for a defensive effort. On this team, you HAVE to play defense.''
The change from last year is stark, and it stems mainly from the presence of Garnett. His quickness, timing and nearly unrestrained ferocity have raised the tide around him.
``It's the best in the league,'' said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy after his team scored 12.3 points below its average in a 103-91 loss to the Celts last night. ``Look at their numbers. I mean, it's a great, great defensive team.
``I think what's happened here is obviously a huge infusion of talent compared to what they had a year ago, but I think Kevin Garnett has brought a totally different mentality to this team - a real hard-nosed mentality. It's showing in their defense. Now you've got not just a role player but a lead guy who wants to work his (butt) off at the defensive end of the court. I think that really carries over to everybody, and I think that's what's changed things here as much as the talent.''
Doc Rivers and his vocal cords are among the main beneficiaries.
``It's not just his energy and attitude,'' the coach said of Garnett. ``It's his focus that he enforces on everyone else. If someone misses a rotation, he beats me to the punch. And that's nice.''
Teams tend to play better defense when they realize there is something on the line. Clubs with no honest hope of winning big in the postseason generally break down into a collection of individual goals.
That's partially what happened to the Celtics last season. Not only was the team populated with youngsters who were still learning the rudiments of a rotating defense, but those kids were also caught up in the need to establish themselves on this level. And the primary way to do that is to produce numbers. Defense doesn't have a lot of individual numbers. Box-outs and deflections aren't listed in the paper.
The stats that say the Celtics are the best defensive team in the league are all group figures - 86.6 points against per game on 41.1 percent shooting. If you look behind the curtain on the 22-3 record, you'll see a foundation of defense. It's not nearly as shiny as Garnett wiggling away from the Magic for a turnaround jumper or the five straight 3-pointers the Celts hit in the third quarter yesterday, but it's what's allowed the Bostonians to win whether they've scored 80 or 119 points.
Offense can be fickle. The same shots that connect on one night can go clanging off the iron on another. Defense is Cal Ripken. It shows up every night. Sure, there are errors. Sometimes veteran point guards fake younger defenders into the banners. And sometimes opponents are good enough that they simply get their share. But defense is ultimately what separates the good from the great in this league.
``I think scoring is going to fluctuate,'' said Garnett. ``Defensively, we take pride in having each other's back, knowing our assignments, playing defense with effort and energy. That's got to be a consistent thing night in and night out. I feel like if we play defense every single night, we give ourselves a chance to win every single night.''
Or, as Tony Allen put it, ``Ain't no getting around it. If you want to be on this team, you have to play defense.''