BOSTON — If Brian Butterfield is unavailable for any reason next summer, the Red Sox could always place a call to Doc Rivers. In the fourth quarter of Boston’s win on Friday, the Celtics coach resembled a third-base coach urging his team to continue pushing the ball against the reeling Oklahoma City Thunder. The only thing Rivers was missing was the exaggerated windmill motion with his arm.
Encouraged by their coach to stay aggressive, the Celtics put the Thunder on their heels and never gave them time to recover in catapulting Boston to its signature win of the season thus far. From tipoff to the final buzzer, the starters and reserves maintained a steady level of pressure on the defending Western Conference champions and gave the post-holiday crowd at the TD Garden another reason to be thankful in a 108-100 Celtics victory.
“This was big for us,” Paul Pierce said. “We’ve been up and down for most of the season, playing well here, playing well there. We were real disappointed with the way we lost the last game, so this is a gut-check type of win, a look-yourself-in-the-mirror type of win.”
Pierce scored 27 points to lead the Celtics, who bounced back from two losses to Detroit and San Antonio that were excruciating for very different reasons. The loss to the Spurs was particularly frustrating because the Celtics were within two points with two minutes to go before losing by eight. The 20-point loss to the previously one-win Pistons was simply embarrassing.
Pierce was not alone in his heroics on Friday, though. Kevin Garnett delivered 18 points and nine rebounds, Jason Terry came through in the clutch and Rajon Rondo finished with the sort of line that has become typical of the point guard: six points, 16 assists, eight rebounds, two steals. Jeff Green scored 17 points to lead an effective Celtics bench that contributed key plays by Jared Sullinger, Leandro Barbosa and Chris Wilcox.
The performance may have started Friday morning, when Rivers limited the actual “shooting” portion of shootaround. Instead, Rivers met with his team and went through the roster one by one, explaining to each player his role and what is expected of him every game. Perhaps not coincidentally, the players seemed much more in sync than they had all season.
“This was a must-win,” Garnett said. “Doc kind of set us aside and broke us down as a team in what he was expecting from each individual, and I thought it was very helpful. It kind of clarified people’s responsibilities, their roles, and we came out and played like it. There wasn’t any hesitation on anything. The guys played with confidence. We played together. There’s always that question mark with consistency, so we have to see if we can ride this momentum for a while.”
The Celtics got off to a fast start by taking a 7-2 lead before settling in and alternating leads with the Thunder for the rest of the first half. Pierce jump-started the Celtics by scoring their first seven points of the second half, and they led by as many as 14 points in the final quarter.
The Thunder gradually whittled the deficit to three points and were still in striking distance after Garnett hit a pair of free throws with a minute left. But with Rivers imploring his players to push the pace, Terry faded behind a screen on the left wing, and Rondo found him for the dagger 3-pointer.
To Pierce it was a “gut-check.” To Garnett it was a “must-win.” To Rivers it was what he has expected all along. This was not a matter of the coach finding out what his team is capable of.
“No, but I think they found out something about themselves,” Rivers said. “I already knew this, but I think they found something out. But we’ve got to keep doing it. That’s the key for us.”
The Celtics fancy themselves a contender for the NBA Finals. If that is the case, they could end up facing the Thunder. For most of the first month of the season, the Celtics did not look ready for such a challenge. On Friday, though, they lived up to the moment.