- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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NEWPORT, R.I. -- The jokes and quips surfaced almost immediately at the offseason meeting of the NBA coaches.
"Geez, Doc, how are we ever going to get our guys to concentrate on the regular season after what you guys did?" Or, "Thanks a lot, Doc. How on earth am I going to tell my guys that the games in December and January really do matter?"
Faced with no other choice, at least as he saw it, Celtics coach Doc Rivers basically put a blowtorch to the 2009-10 regular season. Injured players sat and watched the others underachieve. But while they sat and watched, they healed. That was Rivers' grand design. He saw it as the only chance his team had to get healthy and make any kind of extended playoff run.
And when they did exactly that, coming up just short of the franchise's 18th title, Rivers was vindicated.
But now what? After last season, how can he tell his guys that the 2010-11 regular season is important? How can he look at them with a straight face and tell them about all those critical games in January, February and March?
After all, most of the guys who stumbled to a 27-27 finish over the final 54 games are back. That team will always be referenced when the discussion turns to, "Can Team A turn it on in time for the playoffs?" It's the gold standard. A fourth seed winning 50 games steamrolls through the conference playoffs and comes up a few points shy in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
So how do you make things relevant going forward?
By noting that had the Celtics been a shade more successful last winter, things might have turned out differently in June? That's the tack that Rivers is taking.
"I do not want to repeat what we went through last year,'' Rivers said after the opening day of training camp at Salve Regina University. "What you can say to them is that if we had won more games and taken care of business at home, then Game 7 would have been in Boston and that would have made a huge difference.
"But that is on us. What we did last season was out of necessity. It wasn't planned. But when we had all the injuries, we had to make a tough call. Guys were in rehab. We were resting guys in the middle of the season. We were dropping games to teams you know you can beat. That is difficult for a coach to sit there and take. I am really, really hoping we don't have to do any of that this year. Because it's no fun. It's no fun at all."
So when you ask the Celtics about repeating last season, they want none of it.
"The focus now is playing a great regular season,'' Ray Allen said. "It has to be. What we went through last year, it was a classic example of saying, 'What we are about to do is going to be the hardest thing we've done in our lives.' Regardless of the process, or the road we took, we got to where we wanted to be."
Rivers was asked if he was going to stress the importance of all those Dog Days games in the winter.
"Yeah,'' he said unhesitatingly. "With this group, no doubt."
The great unknown, of course, is whether factors outside of Rivers' control will force him to audible again at midseason. He already knows he won't have Kendrick Perkins for a while. But Danny Ainge went out and loaded up in the summer, adding two big men to the roster ("the O'Neal brothers," as Rivers calls them) and bringing back the hyper-competitive Delonte West to provide depth in the backcourt and on the wing.
So there are more reinforcements this time around than there were last season. Kevin Garnett is a year removed from surgery (and many, many doctors will tell you it takes a year to get back to normal after surgery, especially the kind of surgery that Garnett had). You don't ever have to worry about Allen taking care of himself. Paul Pierce is looking positively giddy.
And there will be no shortage of competitive games. The Eastern Conference looks much tougher, starting with SportsCenter's favorite team, the Miami Heat. The Magic will be there. The Bulls look to be better. Atlanta stayed the same. The Western Conference is, as usual, brutal.
"You go through a lull this year like we did last year and you'll end up being a seventh seed,'' Rivers said. "There simply are too many good teams. Everyone has to play."
But, he added, he wouldn't mind if other teams this season tried to duplicate the Celtics' underwhelming regular season with an eye to the playoffs.
"I'm hoping all the other teams do that,'' Rivers said. "That would be terrific. Then we would slide right through."
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
9hChris Broussard and Brian Windhorst