Commentary

Celtics turn to defense in nick of time

Updated: April 19, 2011, 3:07 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- The Boston Celtics tightened up their defense against the New York Knicks in the second half of Sunday's Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series solely through effort. But no amount of desire seemed to help them slow down Amare Stoudemire.

After the Knicks were limited to only five third-quarter field goals, Stoudemire connected on six of seven attempts over the first 9:13 of the final period, pretty much single-handedly fending off all of Boston's advances. His driving slam with 2:47 to play had the Knicks out front by four, and Celtics players were openly asking coach Doc Rivers to make an adjustment.

Rivers implored his team to simply stick with the game plan.

[+] EnlargeCeltics Defense
Elsa/Getty ImagesStoudemire can still shrug off defenders in the paint.

"We didn't do anything different; we just did what we should have been doing," Rivers said before Monday's practice session at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint. "We didn't make one defensive adjustment the entire game. But if you looked at the two halves, you would have said, 'Man, they changed a lot.'"

Nope, only the effort changed. For a team whose catchphrase has become "flip the switch," the Celtics essentially proved Sunday that they are a completely different team when they apply themselves and follow the game plan laid out by Rivers and his staff instead of freelancing.

The first thing that stopped Stoudemire in the fourth quarter was Jermaine O'Neal stepping up and taking a charge with 2:16 to play. During the timeout that followed, Rivers simply reiterated to his players what he had laid out for them in the scouting report four days earlier.

"We were shading [Stoudemire] way too hard instead of playing him square," Rivers said. "When we started doing that and denying his catches on the elbow, that was the game plan. We put more pressure on the ball so they couldn't throw it to Amare easier; that was all part of the game plan four days ago. We just got off of it."

Pushed out of his comfort zone (and simply ignored by his teammates at times), Stoudemire didn't touch the ball on any of New York's final seven possessions, the Knicks settling for isolation looks. Carmelo Anthony, laboring through a dreadful 1-for-11 performance in the second half, missed a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute as Boston surged ahead.

The Celtics simply made things uncomfortable for the Knicks, ramping up their intensity in the second half. The Knicks shot 54.3 percent from the field in the first half (19-of-35), including 62.5 percent beyond the arc (5-of-8), but after intermission, the Bockers shot a mere 32.6 percent (14-of-43), including 20 percent from 3-point land (3-of-15).

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Knicks averaged 1.19 points per play in the first half, scoring on 55.8 percent of their total plays. In the second half, those numbers were practically split in half, the Knicks averaging 0.67 points per play and scoring on 31.4 percent of their plays.

If the switch is on, the Celtics are hoping it stays there when play resumes with Game 2 on Tuesday night back at TD Garden.

"I want to see that [effort] in the first quarter, just to start the game," Celtics captain Paul Pierce said. "It was intense, guys were getting on the floor, going after the ball. Everybody was talking, and that's the Celtic team -- the Celtic defense -- that I know, that I recognized there.

"You just felt it, coming out there and just how everybody was up on their man and the energy was there to start. And I think another thing that added to that was the rebounding. When [point guard Rajon] Rondo comes in and has rebounding games like that, we're tough. I mentioned that to him in the game because he's the quickest guy on the floor, and sometimes we have trouble getting to long rebounds, and he's good at that. So that's what we're going to need from him."

Defense and rebounding fueled the Celtics at the other end of the court, as Boston was able to get in transition and generate easy baskets with Rondo at the helm. Rondo missed all four of the shots he took in the second half, but he grabbed eight of his nine rebounds and handed out seven of his nine assists while flirting with a triple-double.

The question is whether Boston can put that sort of effort together for 48 minutes. Rivers acknowledges his team is extremely tough to beat when that happens. The fourth-quarter defensive dominance disappeared during Boston's late-season struggles, so Rivers is encouraged to see it return in the postseason.

He's even more encouraged that his troops were able to turn things around by simply following the game plan instead of some elaborate change.

"What's frustrating for a coach is when [your players] are not following [the game plan] and they want to change it," Rivers said. "We had a timeout and we talked about [Stoudemire]. I said, 'Hey guys, let's put pressure on the ball, try to deny catches and make him catch it higher.' Then let's see. And I told them that, if that doesn't work, I promise you, we'll make a change."

The Celtics never made a change. But they changed the game -- and perhaps this series -- by simply doing what they've done best throughout the Big Three era: playing gritty defense.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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