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In post-Big Three era, Celtics back at square one in finding identity

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In the quest to help the Celtics forge a new identity, Doc Rivers starts with a focus on defense. (US Presswire)  
In the quest to help the Celtics forge a new identity, Doc Rivers starts with a focus on defense. (US Presswire)  

NEW YORK -- The disappointment and competitive sting, the tendency to blame himself for the premature breakup of the Big Three, have worn off. Doc Rivers is now doing what he does best -- coaching, experimenting and working the locker room over with his motivational magic.

He's a rarity among NBA coaches, and all coaches, really. He's an optimist in a sea of pessimism and worrywarts. Rivers always finds a way to see the bright side, even in the Boston Celtics' most desperate moments of the conference finals against LeBron James and the Heat last spring.

Even in the aftermath of Ray Allen's decision to cross enemy lines and bolt to Miami in July.

"I embraced the challenge right away, so I moved past that part," Rivers was saying Thursday night in Brooklyn, where the Celtics beat the Nets 115-85 in a preseason game that brought out some early signs of the identity he's trying to rebuild. "I'll always be disappointed with that because of the way it went down, but it is what it is. So I'm over it, but you're always disappointed. As far as our team, I moved on the next day."

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Rivers knew he already had Jason Terry coming aboard from Dallas, and his next target was Courtney Lee. Nobody replaces a Hall of Famer like Allen, but Rivers allowed himself to contemplate visions of backcourt versatility the likes of which he never had with the Celtics of the Big Three era. Lee, a rugged defender and capable wing scorer the last time he was on a winning team in Orlando, wasn't a tough recruit.

"Courtney lives in Orlando, so I saw him all the time," Rivers said. "That was an easy recruitment. He works out with Austin every single day, so you just invite him over for dinner after the workout. That helped."

Some of the faces are new, but the goal remains the same. It's championship or bust in Boston, and that road begins -- and may very well wind up again -- in Miami.

"It'll be strange," Rivers said, and he didn't have to specify that he was talking about Oct. 30, the night the Celtics will trudge back to South Florida to face the enemy again -- with one of their own on the other side.

"It's important to know that we're going to be so far from our best basketball on opening night compared to later," Rivers said.

In the locker room afterward, Rajon Rondo exhibited none of Rivers' patience -- talking as much about the Heat as he was about the Celtics. There's no mystery in that. If no Celtic was more determined than Rondo to get past the Heat in the conference finals last spring, just imagine how laser-like his focus is now.

"Right now we've got to beat the Heat, and that's what we're focused on," Rondo said. "It's in the back of our heads. ... They're the team to beat. They're the champions. So we've got to give them respect and we've got to go out there and put it to them. And not just them -- everybody."

Put it to them. Words that will resonate all the way to the season opener, less than two weeks away.

If Allen's departure is a disappointment for Rivers, you get the feeling it's a relief to Rondo -- or at least, a source of motivation to one of the most combustible competitors in the league. His rift with Allen proved to be one that Rivers couldn't repair. That and Allen's perception that he wasn't the Celtics' first priority during the summer were too much to overcome -- so much so that Allen took less money to cross over to Miami with James, who has tasted that first championship and undoubtedly will want more now, at the Celtics' expense.

"He has one, and now it's going to be hard for everybody," Rivers said. "But I'm hoping there's enough good teams -- and we can be one of them -- that we can knock him off. The good thing is, he's the clear target. We know who we're going after, there's no doubt about that. He's awfully good. He's a good guy, he's great for the league and he's a great player. But now, let's beat him. It's always good to knock off the best."

Rivers' quest with this new group starts with defense, where it always began and ended with the Big Three-era Celtics. With his knack for massaging egos and telling hard truths, Rivers has a way of shaping the Celtics' identity. He did it when Tom Thibodeau was coaching the defense, and he does it now with defensive assistant Mike Longabardi scripting the identity on that side of the floor.

"We've got to be a defensive team, No. 1, and after that we'll figure it out," Rivers said. "I think every team, every year has its own thing, and you kind of let that happen before you tell them."

It's a new year with a new roster and a gaping, Hall-of-Fame-sized hole in it, but Rivers hasn't lost his touch. Not long after he'd impugned his team's defense before the game, the Celtics held the Nets to 38 percent shooting and forced 19 turnovers leading to 27 points. Transition is one area where the new Celtics might just be better than the old Celtics, even without Allen. Another is wing defense, as Lee held the Nets' Joe Johnson to 4-for-14 shooting.

"Courtney is a heck of a defender," Terry said. "People will get to know him a lot more."

Terry isn't the best 3-point shooter in NBA history -- he's fourth on the career list for 3-pointers made -- but I'll say this: Looking like a born Celtic even in these early stages of the team's rebirth, Terry knows how to run to the 3-point line in transition and knock it down. He also knows how to stick his arms out and circle the court doing his patented Jet maneuver. And surprisingly, it looks perfectly normal for him to be doing that in green and white.

"I knew he was smart, and clever," Rivers said. "I think you appreciate it more when you have him yourself. I didn't know he was such a great pick-setter. You kind of had that in your scouting report, but you never really paid attention until you got him. If you can get him in a set where he's the pick-setter, the play's going to work. He's an amazing picker."

And in the locker room? Terry is a quote-maker too, but Rivers said he's much more than that.

"He's the best," Rivers said. "Our locker room is fantastic. Having said that, let's make sure it's a winning locker room."

Rivers has a way of making that so. He did it with the Big Three when Allen and Kevin Garnett joined Paul Pierce in 2007-08, and it's easy to forget just how difficult that was. Egos collided, sacrifices had to be made, and players who'd spent their entire careers as leading men had to sometimes hear things only Rivers can deliver without causing chaos.

Now comes the next challenge, the reinvention of the Celtics for another shot at LeBron and the Heat. Miami is back for seconds after adding Allen and Rashard Lewis. The Knicks have surrounded Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler with veteran help (and when we say veteran, we mean veteran) plus championship experience. If the Bulls get Derrick Rose back in time, they can't be overlooked. Then there's this potentially dangerous team has seemingly dropped out of the sky and landed in an opulent basketball playpen in Brooklyn, something that Rivers -- a Knick from way back -- never imagined.

"When you were with the Knicks, you didn't know there was another team, honestly," Rivers said. "I think this is terrific. I've been in the league a long time and I've never seen a team rebrand themselves in six months. It's like -- it is -- a whole new franchise. It feels that way. It feels like they just plucked this team out of space and now all of a sudden they've got a hell of a team in our division that wears black uniforms. It's unbelievable. It's terrific, though. I'm not crazy about it being in our division, but this is great. I don't know that they could've done anything better."

Time marches on and the landscape evolves, but one thing never changes in this era of basketball. It is Rivers, pushing and prodding the Celtics toward the next challenge, the next collision with LeBron and the Heat or whoever is standing in the way.

"I don't know who we are yet," Rivers was saying Thursday night. And you got the feeling that either he knows more than he's telling, or he's really going to enjoy finding out.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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