CLEVELAND – For the first time in five seasons, the Boston Celtics marched back to the visiting locker room at the Quicken Loans Arena with a victory. One by one, they discovered the mounted flat-screens flickered with a most obscene spectacle: The commissioner was passing out rings to the Los Angeles Lakers, honoring a championship season that the Celtics never felt they truly had a chance to defend without Kevin Garnett(notes).
“Turn that [expletive] off,” a Celtic screamed to Doc Rivers. The coach arched his neck to the screen and agreed, yes, that needed to disappear.
The Cavaliers had refused to watch the Celtics' ceremony at the Boston Garden on opening night a year ago, ducking back into the locker room per order of LeBron James(notes). Only, LeBron didn’t have the luxury of changing the channel, the way that these Celtics did.
“They were in the building, though, and they still had to listen to it,” Rivers said with a laugh.
Outside the cramped coaching office late Tuesday night, the coach’s tie was loosened, his shirt stained with sweat and his mood transformed. Hours earlier, a livid Rivers had been barking back to Boston on his cell to Glen Davis(notes). Over the weekend, Davis broke his thumb with a right jab to the face of a high school buddy riding with him in his SUV, a reckless act that will cost Davis surgery, thousands of dollars and, ultimately, the respect of the locker room.
Rivers has invested so much time and energy into developing Davis’ character and ethic, and felt far too drained, deflated, for an opening night. Now, everything had changed for him. Down the hallway, the Cavaliers were getting all the tough questions about fitting a thirtysomething All-Star into the lineup, about a sluggish performance where the cast surrounding James looked like perfect strangers in the Celtics' 95-89 victory.
Rivers had come into the season with everyone asking how he would manage the volatility of Rasheed Wallace(notes), and suddenly, in the wake of Big Baby’s self-destructive bent, Wallace felt like a security blanket. Rivers nodded to the dressing room, where Wallace, his free-agent gem, played the part of a gregarious and content soul.
"'Sheed made all the difference for us,” Rivers marveled. “Look what he did for Paul [Pierce] out there, and [Rajon] Rondo. … He changes everything.”
Away from the floor, Wallace fit perfectly into the locker room. On the floor, it’s like he's been with them for years. He made big shots, spaced the floor for Boston’s stars and even took a turn guarding Shaquille O'Neal(notes).
Rivers didn't want to play Wallace and Garnett inordinate minutes in the regular season, but Davis’ surgery on Tuesday changed everything. Wallace had 12 points, three rebounds and two blocks for the Celtics. He was no longer cut out for extended starting minutes in Detroit, where he arrived in 2004 in much the same circumstance: A defensive-minded championship contender that believed he could push them over the top.
The way that he meshed with Richard Hamilton(notes) and Chauncey Billups(notes) and Ben Wallace(notes), he’s blended with K.G., Pierce and Ray Allen(notes). “It’s about the same [as Detroit],” Wallace said. “We set our whole team pride on our defense. Defense wins championships, and offense sells tickets. That’s a motto I always believe, and a motto they believe here. Just go out, knuckle up.”
When told that the Celtics hadn’t won in five years here, he shrugged and said, “I’ve won in this building plenty of times.”
The Celtics had started slowly, trailing 21-12 when he entered the game with a reshaped and resolved bench. He took a look at what those Cavs had coming into the game, and one thing was clear to him: “Our bench is better than theirs.”
He’s so smart, so deliberate, so understanding of everything that the coaching staff instructs on the defensive end. For the Celtics, there’s peace of mind that Garnett is back directing them on defense – “Our traffic cop,” Pierce said – but Wallace has arrived with a communicative voice and a willing spirit.
Wallace has already declared the Celtics can win the NBA record 72 regular-season games, and sounded sold on the way to beat the massive Cavs frontline of Shaquille O’Neal and Zyrdrunas Ilgauskas – now and later.
“They’re not the greatest in pick-and-rolls,” he said. “Just keep running the pick-and-roll and keep moving the ball. You’ll eventually find an open shot someone.
“Basic basketball,” he said.
Whatever Rivers needs out of Wallace now – more minutes with Big Baby out, less when he comes back – that’s fine with him. “I’m too old to be complaining and griping about minutes,” Wallace said. “If Doc needs me for two minutes, then I’m going to go out and bust my ass for two minutes. If he feels I need to play 35 minutes, then I’ll do that … ”
Rivers is the perfect coach for this combustible cast because he doesn’t have an ego that needs to control it. If 'Sheed and K.G. need to explode, take some technical fouls, Rivers insists that he’ll live with it. Yes, he’ll stay on them to keep composed in fourth quarters, but the Celtics led the NBA in techs a season ago, and they’ll lead it again this season.
“I was laughing with Rasheed one day when he said, ‘What are you going to do about all that,' ” Rivers said. “I said, ‘I’m doing nothing. I’m just going to sit there. I’ll help you get to the locker room after, if you need help.’
“Listen, he’s a grown man. I’m sure he’ll have his nights, I’ll have mine. But the reason we are good is because we have great passion.”
There’s a lot of Joe Torre in Rivers, an understanding of the human condition. He’s forever a gentleman in the public eye, but the reason his players respect him comes with his ability to challenge them in private. The Cavaliers looked ragged, sloppy, and that was to be expected as LeBron James and the Cavs tried to understand how to play with Shaq, and without Delonte West(notes).
Only, Rasheed Wallace fits so perfectly, so seamlessly, into these Celtics, it only exacerbated Cleveland’s clumsiness. With Garnett’s knee back to its old bounce, there was just that nagging question about how 'Sheed would fit into these Celtics and that question was obliterated on opening night. Funny how these things go. Hours earlier, Big Baby Davis left such an empty feeling in Doc Rivers’ stomach, a twentysomething knucklehead move for the ages.
And now, on his way to the bus, on his way back to championship contention, crotchety, old Rasheed Wallace had been a saving grace for the Boston Celtics. Yes, he’ll have his night this season. He’ll have his moments of temporary insanity, but mostly he still is a smart and savvy talent. The way Wallace walked into the Pistons, he now walks into the Celtics. Yes, 'Sheed was one of those players who preferred the flat-screen televisions turned off late Tuesday night, because the next championship ring ceremony that the Boston Celtics want to see, they want to witness in living color.
- Rasheed Wallace