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Celtics' depth appears improved

10/2/2009 - NBA Boston Celtics

NEWPORT, R.I. -- The doors to the gymnasium at Salve Regina University swung open at the end of the first day of training camp, and soon coach Doc Rivers appeared wearing a look of genuine contentment that hadn't been seen on his face in a good year and a half.

"The biggest thing that stood out was the second unit. The first unit had to play today because the second unit was capable," Rivers said. "First time in two years I've seen that."

They are defending champs no more, but the Boston Celtics are right back where they want to be heading into the 2009-10 season with what they believe will be an even better squad than the one that started last season 27-2 before their campaign was derailed by a knee injury to Kevin Garnett and the Celtics were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Orlando Magic.

The summer brought two huge additions to the second unit that so pleased Rivers on that first day of camp. Rasheed Wallace left Detroit to sign with Boston for the $5.85 midlevel exception, and Marquis Daniels departed Indiana to sign for the $1.99 million biannual exception.

Compared to what he came to camp with a year ago (remember the Darius Miles experiment?), the difference in the quality of the depth is night and day.

"It's experience, and you see it on the floor," Rivers said. "We were young last year. We were old at the Big Three, but then our team got really young. This year we have experience in both units, and you can see that, and I think it'll make the younger guys play better -- especially the younger guys that you put in the second unit. They play slower, at a good tempo, so I think our turnovers will be down."

It was a longer-than-expected summer for all of the Celtics, the season ending with an emptiness that was best summed up with a vulgarity out of the mouth of Eddie House when he arrived for the first day of camp: "Man, this summer was s---ty."

No one was saying similar things a year ago when the Celtics were coming off the 17th championship in franchise history, believing they were adequately loaded and mentally prepared for a repeat. There was a swagger to them that had carried over from the previous June, a level of confidence that you'll normally see in only one or two places across the NBA landscape when teams show up for the start of a new season.

Some of that swagger still remains, but it is muted at this point.

Rivers has already come out and said the Lakers are a better team, and were a better team last season, and Paul Pierce has already acknowledged that he will circle four games -- the two against the Lakers (Jan. 31 at home and Feb. 18 on the road) and the two on the road against Cleveland (opening night, Oct. 27, and Sunday, March 14) as measuring stick nights by which the Celtics will learn whether they really are as good as they believe they are.

Make no mistake, they're confident they're going to be good. Real good.

And if they end up even better than they expect (anything above 61 wins would likely tip the scales), their heads will be held a little higher, the bounce in their step will be a bit livelier, the bravado they give off will be genuine, not forced.

"We have to develop that swagger back," Pierce explained. "You don't go into this season and say 'OK, we're the champs,' so we can't start out with a swagger. We have to develop it, we have to come together, we have to win some games, we have to intimidate people, we have to blow some people out.

"It's like a fighter -- you don't develop a swagger if you lose every night. If you beat everybody up, then you walk around with your chest out. That's something we have to redevelop again, but I think we did have a swagger last year -- how many teams won 19 in a row? We had it, but you sort of lose it when you lose a guy like KG who's the face of the franchise, a guy who's the face of our defense, and we're a defensive team that has a defensive swagger," Pierce said.

The addition of Wallace (if you ask Tim Duncan who defends him best, Sheed will be at the top of his list) makes the Celtics a longer and better defensive team than they were the past two years, when their ability to shut down the opposition (unless he was named LeBron James) became their calling card.

Aside from what the Big Three of Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen bring on offense, the Celtics' other two starters can be efficient offensive producers and defensive titans, too. Rajon Rondo was fifth in the NBA in steals last season, and Kendrick Perkins showed himself in the postseason to be the only Eastern Conference center (prior to Shaq's arrival in Cleveland) with the lower-body strength to move Dwight Howard far enough out of his comfort zone to neutralize his low-post repertoire.

The 6-foot-6 Daniels brings length, too, and the guy who probably is ninth on the depth chart, Tony Allen, may be the Celtics' single best on-the-ball defender.

In a word, "loaded" is what they are.

Confident, too, as evidenced by Pierce's statement prior to camp that the Celtics will be "the team to beat."

Still, Rivers believes the Celtics never reached a point last season -- even during their 19-1 start -- when they were playing at the same high level they had played at the previous season.

"We had swagger as champions, but I thought it was false bravado. I never thought we had that true, 'Let's go on the road and get this win' feeling. I think there were times where we felt we could win anywhere, but it wasn't consistent," Rivers said.

"We didn't set a bar. Our bar was to win a title. People laughed at me, but I kept telling everyone we were not playing well in that [early] stretch. We had another stretch where we ran off 11 or 12 in a row, but at 19-1 we were not playing well -- coming back at the end of games and winning them, the bench was awful for the most part. We just won games, but the way we were winning was not good enough to win anything in the big picture.

"We were good as far as record, not so good as far as team," Rivers said.

Which is why Rivers has emphasized "playing as a team" and then "staying healthy" as his top two concerns entering this season (reducing turnovers is third).

"I thought there was a stretch in the middle of that first year [2007-08] where we felt we were going to win no matter where we went in. In Houston [when the Celtics ended the Rockets' 22-game winning streak] there was no doubt in our minds: We were going to win that game. That was the most confident our team was."

Rivers said that level of uber-confidence reappeared in 2008 following Boston's Game 7 second-round win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the East finals, the Celtics defeated Detroit in six games, and then beat the Lakers in six to give the franchise its first title in 22 years.

"We won those two series [against Atlanta and Cleveland], and all of a sudden we clicked and we realized we're the best team in the NBA," Rivers said. "We knew we were going to win this thing, and we said, 'Let's go get it done.'"

That level of swagger is what Rivers wants to recapture, and he will not have to concern himself with worrying about confidence, depth, length or his team's ability to score. He merely wants it all to come together as a whole, not in bits and pieces, and for his team to maintain that peak once they figure out how to reach it.

That's when the swagger becomes real -- the kind of swagger that appeared to momentarily overtake Rivers after those doors swung open on day one of camp, the head coach secure in the belief that he'll be fielding a team that has the potential to be much, much better than the Celtics of last season, and maybe even as good -- or better -- than those super-swag Celtics of two years ago.

More on the East's elite: Windhorst on Cavs | Hollinger on Magic

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.