Celtics Owe Defensive Success to Tom Thibodeau


They always say that defense wins championships.

The Celtics proved that two years ago, hoisting banner No. 17 to the TD Garden rafters in 2008. And with a happy, healthy team on the verge of opening the Eastern Conference finals this weekend, No. 18 might not be too far off.

It's always been all about the defense in Boston, and for a while, the defense in Boston has been all about Tom Thibodeau.

Thibodeau is a former assistant with the Timberwolves, Sonics, Spurs, Sixers, Knicks and Rockets with over two decades of experience as an NBA journeyman coach. But it wasn't until he arrived in Boston three summers ago that he established a name and a basketball identity for himself.

Thibodeau is now the NBA's foremost defensive guru. It's gotten him attention from the national media, respect among his peers, and countless job interviews from GMs around the league looking to fill head coaching vacancies. He's the next big thing in NBA coaching, and he's right under our noses here in Boston.

It's no coincidence that the Celtics brought him in the same summer as Kevin Garnett, trading for the Big Ticket at the end of July 2007 and then hiring Thibodeau on Aug. 30 as associate head coach. The C's re-established their team identity that summer: defense. And Thibodeau was the right man for the job.

He's a big reason the Celtics won a title in 2008, immediately translating their new team philosophy into success on the court. He's part of why they persevered in 2009, despite chemistry and injury issues that threatened their season, and nearly made the East finals again. And he's the driving force behind a defense this spring that slowed first Dwyane Wade and then LeBron James, carrying the Celtics past Miami and Cleveland to where they stand right now — four wins away from another Finals appearance.

But he's gone under the radar. Head coach Doc Rivers doesn't let his assistants talk to the media, so Thibodeau has silently gone about his business without much exposure. But whatever he's doing, it's working. He's the Celtics' secret weapon.

You have to wonder what the future holds for Thibodeau. He's too good to spend the rest of his career as an assistant coach — he not only expects more, he deserves it. And he's worked hard for it.

Rumors about Thibodeau have resurfaced lately, as they seemingly do every May — the Hornets and Clippers have been the two teams connected to the Celtics assistant most prominently. And with a chance to go on to greater acclaim, and a chance to win with a great talent like Chris Paul or Blake Griffin, Thibodeau has to be deep in thought about his future.

But then of course, there's the secret option no one's talking about — Thibodeau could take over the reins in Boston.

Rumors have swirled within the past month of Rivers stepping down and spending more time with his family after this season. Thibodeau, a respected figure in the NBA and a big part of the Celtics' recent success, would stand first in line for the job.

So what will happen? That depends on a lot of factors, including Rivers' decision about his future and a lot of other moves being made this summer on the coaching carousel. It's still May, and nothing is for certain yet.

But one way or another, Tom Thibodeau will have a bright future in the NBA. Defense wins championships, and Thibodeau knows defense. The man's a hot commodity for a reason.

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