Originally created 05/16/02

Boston savors shot at Eastern title

BOSTON -- For a change, the Boston Celtics were happy to have a day off in May.

They missed the playoffs the last six seasons, but on Wednesday they had time to savor their spot in the Eastern Conference finals. No practice was scheduled the day after they clinched the berth with a 90-81 victory in Detroit.

Instead, they waited to find out their opponent in the next round. New Jersey took a 3-1 lead into Wednesday night's game of the best-of-seven series against Charlotte.

The Nets finished three games ahead of the second-place Celtics in the Atlantic Division. But the defense and depth the Celtics showed in beating the Pistons four straight after dropping the opener provided plenty of confidence.

"Anybody that has to face the Boston Celtics has to go against all 12 guys and realize this is more than a two-man team," Paul Pierce said.

Pierce and Antoine Walker averaged exactly half of the Celtics' 96.4 points per game during the regular season. But when they were on the bench with foul trouble for most of the fourth quarter Tuesday night, their teammates did fine.

Kenny Anderson finished with 17 points and Rodney Rogers had 14 as five Celtics finished in double figures. Pierce had 18 points, and Walker had 16 points and 13 rebounds.

"We arrived as a team, I think," Walker said. "With me and Paul on the bench to see guys continue to keep a comfortable lead until we got back in was huge."

In four games against the Nets, Pierce averaged 37 points, including a career-high 48 in an overtime win Dec. 1.

Boston has an NBA-record 16 titles, but the last one came in 1986 with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. It had eight consecutive losing seasons before going 49-33 this season.

The turnaround began when Jim O'Brien replaced Rick Pitino as coach with the Celtics struggling at 12-22 last year. They went 24-24 after that and kept improving this season.

"Our guys earned everything they're getting," O'Brien said. "I can't imagine a team playing any harder than our guys do."

A few minutes after the win in Detroit, the Celtics already were looking ahead to facing the Nets and Jason Kidd.

"They're probably the best team in transition," Walker said.

But O'Brien has done an excellent job preparing for opponents. He used different strategies and emphasized different personnel in beating Philadelphia in the first round, then Detroit in the second.

One constant has been defense. He's emphasized it from the start of the season and his players have accepted that approach with hustling, scrambling play. In the last four games, Detroit shot 35 percent and averaged 75 points per game.

"A year ago, we were the worst defensive team in the league," Pierce said. "This year we really turned things around."

Only the Los Angeles Lakers held opponents to a lower shooting percentage than the Celtics' 42.5. New Jersey, though, was close behind at 42.9. Last season, Boston's 45.9 percent field-goal defense was fifth worst in the NBA.

The Nets averaged 93 points in the four games against the Celtics but lost the last three after their 95-92 victory in Boston Oct. 31. In those games, Kidd led the Nets with 21.3 points per game and averaged 10.8 assists, 9.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals.

While his players rested, O'Brien turned his attention Wednesday to finding ways to lower those numbers but took time to enjoy his team's accomplishments.

"We don't have any championships behind us, whether the Eastern championships or NBA championships," he said of the current roster. "That's what we want to do. We want to win this next round for a championship."


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