Commentary

Celtics toughen up in time

After Doc Rivers suggested his team was soft, it rallied to beat the Knicks

Updated: March 22, 2011, 12:50 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

NEW YORK -- Appropriately, it's a four-letter word, maybe the only one that isn't uttered on a routine basis in the team's locker room. But Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers was incredulous at his team's lackluster play Monday night against the New York Knicks and so, for the first time maybe in the Big Three era, he dusted off the dirtiest word in basketball.

Soft.

Now, truth be told, Rivers swears he didn't actually utter the word. As if even a mere mention might be taking it too far. But he certainly insinuated it, probably doing everything short of drawing a picture of a pillow and a melted marshmallow on the dry erase board in the visitor's locker room.

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
Jeyhoun Allebaugh/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Garnett responded to coach Doc Rivers' call by connecting on 7 of 9 shots after halftime.

Boston limped there at halftime trailing by 14, but it wasn't just the deficit that drew Rivers' ire. Glen Davis got his bell rung by a Carmelo Anthony elbow and Troy Murphy managed to bust up his nose. What's more, Amare Stoudemire was holding a parade in the paint and Anthony was getting whatever he wanted offensively.

So Rivers told his players what he thought of their play. Emphasizing, in so many words, how every aspect of their game was soft. You can sort of imagine Kevin Garnett ripping down a locker stall at the mere suggestion.

Unfortunately for the hosts (and fortunately for the locker room attendants), Garnett saved his anger for the court. He connected on seven of nine shots in the second half while pouring in a game-high 24 points with 11 rebounds, four steals and one very important jump ball forced as the Celtics rallied from as much as 15 down to emerge with an anything-but-soft 96-86 triumph at Madison Square Garden.

"Honestly, I haven't used the word 'soft' with us in maybe four years, but at halftime, that word came out a lot," Rivers said. "We just played basketball. We didn't make one adjustment. Not one. We just played in the second half. We played the way we're capable of playing: With a sense of urgency, we were more physical and we made some shots."

If Rivers only insinuated the cushy state of the Celtics, the message wasn't lost. Garnett, who fancies banging his head against a padded metal stanchion before the start of each half, didn't particularly like the idea of being the pad and not the stanchion.

"I think we're all men in here -- even some women -- and I think if you call them soft at some point, when you're in an aggressive mode, it's not what you want to hear at the time, you know?" Garnett said. "So you can't take that a couple of ways. You take that one way and that's how we took it."

Fortunately for Boston, Garnett and Co. didn't just take it offensively, they took it defensively as well. While the Celtics shot 57.5 percent in the second half (23-of-40), New York connected on just 31.4 percent of its shots after the break (11-of-35) and Boston nearly bettered the Knicks' second-half output (35 points) in the final quarter alone (33).

But the stat sheet can't showcase the real difference in the second half: The Celtics' grit and desire. You've heard us talk about the fictional WIM category -- short for "wanted it more" -- in this space before, obviously a non-quantifiable metric.

It can only be judged by the eye, and Boston was the obvious winner Monday. It showed in Delonte West's hustle on a steal at the end of the third quarter, drawing a clear path foul that helped knock a double-digit lead with 26.2 seconds to play in the frame, to six before the quarter break. (West landed hard on his surgically repaired right wrist after being tripped from behind on the play, but bounced right back up.)

It continued in the fourth quarter. With Boston down four with little more than six minutes to play, Ray Allen misfired on a 3-pointer. As the ball skipped toward the Knicks' bench, Rajon Rondo raced to the sideline and deflected the ball off a New York defender to maintain possession.

Pierce promptly drilled a 14-foot jumper, and Rondo then tossed an alley-oop to Garnett to tie the game with 5:32 to play.

But Boston wasn't done. Garnett produced perhaps the play of the game a minute later when he sprawled like an overthrown wide receiver trying to chase a loose ball near midcourt. Garnett essentially tackled Stoudemire in the process, but referees declared a jump ball for his effort.

Spry-legged Garnett then won the tip and canned a 20-foot jump shot at the shot-clock buzzer for an 86-82 advantage with 4:18 to play. Boston would score the final 10 points while emptying the Garden before the final whistle.

"[When] we had to make plays, we made them," Garnett said. "We got on the floor, we got grimy, we made it a dirty game."

No home run trot needed this time around, but Garnett exulted with a scream and some colorful language after pulling in the game's final rebound in the closing seconds. Boston hadn't just rallied from its second 15-point deficit in as many games, it handed the Knicks, a potential playoff foe, a demoralizing loss on its home turf for the second time this season.

Allen emerged from the locker room with seven fresh stitches above his right eye, the result of a Jared Jeffries elbow that left him gushing blood in the third quarter. Team trainer Ed Lacerte didn't have enough hands -- and maybe not enough supplies -- to put this Boston team back together.

But like any team that's not soft, it didn't go without retribution (even if it was unintentional). A collision between Rondo and Anthony left New York's star with five stitches and a shiner around his left eye.

Surveying it all, Rivers smiled at a solid win.

"I didn't use it," he said of the word "soft." "I kind of danced around the word. They knew where I was going, but I didn't use the word. I just said, 'I'd like to see us today. Let's see if we play our game, and if we lose, let's go out that way.'

"It was a good win, a bloodbath. But I thought it was beautiful."

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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