- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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"We've lost to New Jersey, we've lost to [other teams with poor records], but if we make a run in the playoffs, will you forget it? That's my question. If we don't, then it's probably who we were all year -- an inconsistent team -- at least in the second half of the year. We'll find that out."
-- Doc Rivers, April 9, 2010
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Consider it forgotten.
When Celtics coach Doc Rivers appeared at the podium for his postgame news conference following an embarrassing loss to the Wizards last month, he immediately cracked a joke. Reporters were almost baffled by his easygoing demeanor; shocked that he wasn't more outraged by an effort that left fans booing the Celtics unmercifully as they trailed lowly Washington by 28 points in the first half of a 106-96 defeat.
But clearly Rivers knew something the rest of us didn't. Even as the Celtics ship dipped near rock bottom at times while playing the type of basketball that resembled an EKG monitor, Boston's skipper stayed the course and told anyone who would listen that he still liked his team.
But teams are like your kids -- you have to like them. That doesn't make them championship contenders.
The Celtics dropped seven of their final 10 games. They missed out on the third seed in the playoffs, which would have afforded them the chance to play a banged-up Milwaukee squad in the first round and avoid LeBron James and the top-seeded Cavaliers in the conference semifinals.
It appeared this team couldn't do anything right, and the inconsistent brand of basketball it played seemed certain to spell a quick demise in the postseason. All of which would have confirmed the notion that the Celtics simply weren't as good as they thought at the start of the season.
Then the playoffs began and the Celtics looked nothing like the team that sleepwalked since Christmas. Here we sit, one game into the Eastern Conference finals, and Boston is three wins away from playing for a shot at Banner 18.
So when, and how, did this team turn the corner?
"Honestly, I don't know," Rivers said during Monday's off-day practice at Amway Arena. "I felt we were close, but I don't know if we have [turned the corner]. We're playing well, obviously. Like I said, training camp and those first 28 games, that gave me confidence. It's the same group that showed they could do it, we just had to figure out a way to get them back to that -- healthy and the right mindset.
"We had a terrific mindset coming out of camp, but injuries threw everyone off. We had to ask guys to play different roles, then tried to get guys back to their old roles and some of the guys kinda liked their new roles, so that was tough. But they're there now."
Better later than never.
Rivers acknowledged that with about 30 games to go in the regular season, the Celtics made a conscious decision to focus on staying healthy. That meant scaling back minutes and resting players in situations in which they'd typically be on the floor.
That made for a bumpy ride down the stretch, but the Celtics were in peak health when the playoffs started, which Rivers noted numerous times was far more important than a higher seeding.
The Celtics have posted a 9-3 mark since the playoffs began, winning four in a row since a lopsided Game 3 defeat to Cleveland at the TD Garden threatened their season 10 days ago.
What's more, Boston is playing an inspired brand of ball. Its defense -- ultra-physical and unapologetic -- rivals the 2008 championship squad at times, while the offense is displaying more balance than most tightrope walkers. A bench shortened to the barest of bones is providing key contributions on the biggest of stages after being frustratingly inconsistent all season.
Who could have possibly seen this coming? Rivers did. And during Monday's workout, players heaped much of the praise on him for never letting players take their eyes off the ultimate prize.
"Doc Rivers is everything, he's the glue that keeps us all together, the captain of our ship," said Kevin Garnett, who seemed more stung than any other player after the brutal booing the team received that April night against Washington.
"We listen to [Rivers], follow his direction. We believe in him 100 percent. He hasn't proven us wrong yet. He's a true soul, who speaks his mind. That's what you want from your coach. You want your coach to be brutally honest, among each other, and follow that lead."
On numerous occasions this season, Rivers asked Garnett to shut it down, even if just for a practice session, to keep him fine-tuned for when games mattered most. Garnett joked that he lives on the "planet of Doc Rivers" and obliged.
On a team hardly short on opinions, everyone defers to Rivers in the end.
"I call him an arbitrator," joked Celtics captain Paul Pierce. "He keeps things in line. We go to him when we need him. He's a great coach for this team full of strong personalities. He's able to manage them. He knows when to go hard on us, he knows when to ease back. It's the perfect complement, especially when you have so many alpha-males in this group."
Rivers shrugs off the words of praise. Asked how he reels all his players back in, he suggested that sometimes the best medicine is to just let them bicker it out.
"Teammates are just like your immediate family, you have squabbles," said Rivers. "For the most part, I try to let them say everything they need to say, so I know what side to take. Then I get in the middle.
"I encourage conversation, even heated. At the end of the day, it's what you truly feel. Then you can move forward."
After that Washington game, Rivers simply expressed how he felt at that time and didn't overreact to a single loss. Maybe he knew all along it would come together like it has.
But even if he didn't, he never let his team feel that way. Rivers always stressed a positive outlook, even when his team gave him no reason to think that way.
The Celtics have already exceeded expectations by advancing to the conference finals. They could lose the next four games and it'll be hard to complain about what they accomplished in the postseason.
But in the past month, the Celtics have proved exactly who they are, and it's not the team we saw on April 9. All that is forgotten. Now these Celtics are trying to give us something to remember them by.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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