It’s NBA Finals time, so we present to you SLAM’s latest cover story on the Boston Celtics. This one appears in SLAM #119.

words: Khalid Salaam, additional reporting by Jonathan Evans

It’s the 81st game on the NBA schedule, less than a week before the Boston Celtics successfully open their postseason campaign against the Atlanta Hawks with a 104-81 thumping. The visitor’s locker room at Madison Square Garden is devoid of unnecessary emotion; other than forward Kendrick Perkins’ angry rant about a missing shirt, these dudes are strangely stoic and giving interviews in quiet, measured tones. This team has nearly completed the greatest one-year turnaround in NBA history and given a once proud but surely deflated fanbase reason to believe again.

They did it by playing a brand of defense that you usually see in NFL games. Every single team says that they have to take it up a notch defensively for the Playoffs, that they know defense wins championships and that they will commit to the defensive end. Only a few actually mean that—just getting into the postseason or winning a round will generally suffice. But these Celtics are obsessively defensive, stingy even. They don’t want you to score at all and it seems like every point scored by the opposing team is treated as a personal affront.

“We took a stand, Doc and Coach (Tom) Thibodeau, they asked us early on to be the best defense in the League,” says Kevin
Garnett. “They asked us to take it to another level and to get stops. It just naturally came to us after a while. We got challenged numerous times by teams and even though we knew we could score the ball, we locked in and put forth 100 percent on the defensive effort. That’s a rarity, especially when you have guys who can score. But we are a defensive team, we take pride in our defense and if we want to be anything in this Playoff run, it’s gonna have to continue to be like that.”

You should believe him. As evidenced by this year’s success, his teammates certainly do. “I attribute our defensive intensity to KG. He expects a lot from us and you don’t want to miss an assignment because you know he’ll get on you,” says forward Leon Powe, who has come into his own under Garnett’s tutelage. “You don’t wanna hear Coach Rivers’ mouth either. But when we’re on the floor, KG is really hard on us and it has an impact on how we play.”
The Celtics were second in points allowed at 90 per and Garnett, with his powerful personality, was the catalyst for the team’s defensive achievements. Being seven feet off the ground and athletic helps—nobody is disputing that. But the intensity KG brings is the secret behind his success. Check his eight All-Defensive Team selections and his award for Defensive Player of the Year this season. Dude goes all in and because of that, so does everyone else.
“The MVP goes to the guy who is most important and wins,” Coach Rivers testifies, with the seriousness reminiscent of someone on the stand in a courtroom. “And honestly that’s the argument to make for all the stars. But Kevin changed our culture not only on the floor but also off the floor. He changed our mindset. He’s been very important. And I knew we would have won games, but not 66. Kevin has changed us.”

“Kevin’s impact was immediate and dramatic,” Rivers continues. “You knew he had great intensity but you didn’t know it was full time. His character has made it amazing and his intensity, even in practices and shootarounds, has been phenomenal. They listen to every word, there is no talking and that’s from Kevin. The biggest thing I didn’t know was that he’s a great teammate. When the best player on your team is a great teammate, it’s very important.”
Everything in this season has been important. From the moment they brought in Garnett and Ray Allen, the spotlight has been on this team. For players like Paul Pierce and Allen, a season like this, capped off with a championship, will mend the pain of all those losing years and accusations of selfish and irrelevant play. Allen, whose three-point range is the perfect complement to KG’s post game, is an especially focused player from the tailored suits to the extra practice time. It’s in his mind that winning a ring is now his destiny.

“I don’t think about anything stopping us. Not injuries, nothing. We don’t even consider that,” Allen says. “We don’t worry about losing. We are here to win this thing, seriously.”

For Pierce in particular, it’s a helluva turnaround from last year, when the Celtics fell to laughable levels of mediocrity, winning only 24 games, suffering through an 18-game losing streak and then being accused of losing on purpose to better their Draft position. He was also hurt most of the year, and when he did play, his penchant for going mano y mano that has existed throughout his career bubbled to the surface. Taking and missing bad shots was his deal, but that seems like a lifetime ago. This season he averaged 19 points, his lowest output since the ’99-00 season and though he’s had better years, he’s never had a better year.

“It’s a lot different. Actually, I was on my way to the airport right after the last game of the season last year. That’s a true story,” he says. “You assume it’s gonna be a great team but usually teams have turmoil or have to have team meetings or something, but we didn’t really have that. This season has been great from day one. It all started in Rome.”

Rome, Italy. A city of worldwide historical significance and a city referenced by several of the guys when asked why things coalesced so seamlessly for this team. The Celtics were there for training camp and a preseason game against Toronto as part of the NBA’s never-ending acceleration to global acceptance. Doc put the hammer down and banned cell phones. Dudes had to talk to each other. And they did.

“I don’t think we would have been a 66-win team without that trip to Rome,” Pierce continues. “We would have been good. I can’t put a number on it, but not 66 wins good. That trip really brought us together. It just had to happen. The team really got together. This team was built with all these new players and we needed to get together to see how we wanted to be…what we were gonna do this season and how we’re gonna approach the season. It brought us a lot closer.”
It didn’t take a genius to see that this team was going to be successful; the roster alone mandated those thoughts. But there was a real concern about the point guard position. Not counting Eddie House, who is a killer shooter but not much of a creator, the only PG on this roster was second-year player Rajon Rondo. He was good at times last year, but it’s not like anyone could automatically assume he’d be able to control things, especially on a team with veterans of this caliber. The pressure to please everyone is high and everybody wants the ball, and Rondo had to make the right decisions. Add to that whispers of a shaky jumper and it gave prognosticators reason not to believe. Of course, Rondo has put the haters on shush mode by evolving into one of the best young players in the game (and destroying veteran Hawks PG Mike Bibby in Game 1 of Rondo’s Playoff career).

“With Rondo, he didn’t always use his speed enough last year and there were times when he predetermined the play,” Rivers says. “He did it a little this year, but not lately. He’ll tell a guy he’s getting the ball and then would do it even if the play wasn’t there. But that’s no more. He’s made great strides, he’s improved tremendously.”

“I see the floor better now and can read what the other team is doing,” Rondo says. “I’m a quiet person, I don’t talk much, but I’m a confident person. Not cocky though, just confident,” he explains. “I knew I could do the job and the Rome trip helped us to bond. I got accepted from the start, especially by KG and Paul.”

Being accepted doesn’t mean it’s all good, though—there’s too much at stake. The regular season is one thing but the postseason is a different species altogether. Toward the end of the season, Sam Cassell was signed as an insurance policy.

There’s been a lot of discussion on the addition of Cassell and whether it’s a sign of weakness or strength. Was he added because of his proclivity for making high-stress shots? Don’t they have three All-Stars for that? Was he added to play the point? Don’t they have Rondo for that? But Doc has it all worked out.
“I’ll run them out at the same time,” he says. “Playing them together is good because they are good defensively and it’s a lineup we can use because they play off each other well. Two high-IQ players on the floor at the same time who can handle the ball makes you pretty good offensively. Sam’s not gonna know the whole system because he came so late and then he got injured, but that’s fine. We’re comfortable with what he knows and we’ll run that when he’s in. Mainly put him in pick and rolls because that’s where he excels.”

More so than with other sports leagues, the NBA Playoffs are set up to favor the better teams. Last year notwithstanding, the better teams almost always advance. But the Celtics are taking no chances. Almost every member of the team is looking to sing a redemption song, to rewrite their scripts.

This team has a lot of horses, a little bit of everything you’d need to make a serious title run. Youth (Glen Davis, Powe) savvy (the big three plus Cassell and James Posey) athleticism (Tony Allen), half-court efficiency and their aforementioned defensive ability. But mostly they have an appetite for destruction as they fiend for the chance to make their careers complete. Look at them in comparison to teams in the East first: they have more talent than any team except Detroit (and even that’s highly debatable), but the Pistons’ Achilles heel is their arrogance, something that doesn’t exist for the Cs. As for the West, Boston is deeper than any team out there except maybe the Lakers or Spurs. While teams usually have to go through growing pains before they can ascend to the top, this collection of big and small names seems poised and equipped to win the championship right now.

I almost never give in to hyperbole, especially in regards to sports and our underappreciated armed forces. There obviously is no real comparison, but I will say this in regard to the Celtics: Their focus and trust in one another, particularly on the defensive end, has a military construct to it. It’s subtle, but it’s there in their behavior. Doc serves as the General creating the mission, Kevin Garnett is the Colonel, Pierce and Allen are the Majors and Rajon Rondo is the young but talented Captain entrusted with responsibility. The rest of the team fills out the unit. The obvious camaraderie and respect given to each person has a higher than usual level of formality. Even the regimented answers they give to questions don’t really sound like jock-speak but a coded language. Each guy is devoted to the other guys with a common goal: survival. In this case the survival we’re talking about is of the rigors of the NBA postseason, but survival nonetheless. Do not doubt them.

“Doc and P both said it, they said we had a good season,” KG says. “But to make it great we have to go through this journey and finish the way we want it to. There are three different seasons, pre, regular and post, and there are three different energy levels for each one. We expect to win this thing and nothing less than that and that’s the focus, that’s the mentality and that’s what we want to manifest.”