MANCHESTER, N.H. – As far as first impressions go, the 2010-11 version of the Celtics couldn’t have asked for much more than what they showed Wednesday night in their exhibition opener.
The 93-65 final (recap) against the Sixers didn’t even do it justice. The Celtics shot 57 percent in the first half and held Philly to a woeful 5-for-31 shooting effort from the floor. Subtract Thaddeus Young from the equation and the Sixers made just two of 24 shots in the opening half.
“It was good,” Doc Rivers said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. Our defense was phenomenal. Defensively, if we can play with that play with that type of intensity and that type of ball pressure every night, we’re going to be tough to score on.”
There were mitigating factors. Philly was playing the second night of a back-to-back and Doug Collins elected to sit Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala. In their place, the immortal Jodie Meeks and Trent Plaisted received starter minutes for the Sixers, which didn’t exactly make this a fair fight.
Still, the Celtics executed their defense and also performed well offensively despite working from a limited offensive playbook. “With the little things we ran, the execution of it was terrific,” Rivers said.
By far the biggest performance of the night belonged to Semih Erden, who scored 13 points to go with five rebounds, and that’s where we’ll start.
ERDEN CAN PLAY
No one really knew what to expect from the rookie from Turkey when he arrived in Boston. His performance in the Orlando summer league invited more questions than answers, but he looked strong in the FIBA World Championships, helping his country reach the gold medal game.
Rivers said before the game that Erden would get major minutes during the preseason because, let’s face it, the likelihood that Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal can get through the season unscathed seems fairly remote.
When Erden took the floor late in the first quarter, two things were obvious immediately: He knows how to play and his teammates have already embraced him.
There’s an air of cooperative encouragement around Erden. When he aggressively cut off a driver on a pick and roll and forced a turnover, assistant coach Lawrence Frank jumped off the bench and pumped his fist.
When he threw down a dunk a few plays later, Kevin Garnett was on his feet with his arm up in the air. By the time Erden returned to the bench for a timeout, the whole team gave him the basketball version of a standing ovation.
“I’m really impressed with how he’s picked up things in training camp,” Paul Pierce said. “He’s been a pro in Turkey for a number of years, so he’s coming in and fitting in nicely. He knows the plays and understands what we're trying to accomplish. He’s looking good.”
Erden doesn’t speak a lot of English yet, but he understands what’s being asked of him. There’s also no problem speaking the universal language of basketball.
“Semih was terrific,” Rivers said. “He knows how to play. He’s very physical. It’s really great for him. He’s playing with Shaq every day in practice. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody because we don’t call those offensive fouls. He has to play through it. For him to play against somebody else, it was probably a joy. You can tell he has a high basketball IQ.”
Rivers was particularly impressed with Erden’s ability to pick up the team’s defensive schemes. “He had some coverages today that were fantastic,” Rivers said.
Again, it was only preseason and the Sixers’ front line isn’t exactly the Lakers, but if Erden can contribute this season it would be a huge lift for the Celtics.
MEET THE GODFATHER OF SUDBURY
Say this for Shaq: The man knows his history. Before the game, Shaq pulled aside a reporter and told him that he wanted to be known as Blackie Bulger, the godfather of Sudbury. Quizzed later about the notorious fugitive, Shaq rattled off an impressive amount of knowledge about Whitey.
Geography, that’s another story. “We’re in New Hampshire?” he asked when a local TV guy asked him about the loud and boisterous crowd in Manchester.
On the court, Shaq needs no direction. He’s been in this league for almost two decades and while it’s still a bit of a shock to see him line up in white and green, it hasn’t taken him long to assimilate.
“We’ve watched him play for 18 years and we’ve marveled at the things he’s done and how dominant he’s been over the course of his career,” Ray Allen said. “He’s still dominant. People still have a tough time guarding him.”
Allen relayed a conversation he had with Shaq on the court and then turned in a spot-on imitation of the big fella. It may seem like a dream, but there’s no question the veterans are all having fun playing together.
Shaq was in the starting lineup while Jermaine O’Neal rests his hamstring and he responded with eight points on 4-for-5 shooting and couple of rebounds.
The big question of course comes on the defensive end, where he can expect to see pick and rolls all night. But Rivers already has a plan in place to help his big man combat the strategy. Namely, the coach is putting it on the guards.
“If they can get up on the ball and turn and get over [the screen] quick, then we can keep Shaq around the basket,” Rivers said. “If we can’t, that’s where we’ll get hurt. Instead of putting the onus on Shaq we decided to put the onus on the guards.”
That’s the key reason why this marriage can work. Rather than letting Shaq’s weaknesses define his team, Rivers is acknowledging them and trying to find a solution while playing to his strengths.
THE C’S WILL RUN DEEP
Don’t expect Rivers to tinker too much with his starting lineup. Once the preseason is settled, it will be the familiar four and one of the O’Neal’s rounding out the starting five. Rivers said he won’t mess with the starters once he settles on the center.
But after that, expect some different combinations with the second unit.
“I think it’s important for us to have a deeper rotation,” the coach said. “Last year there were times we had to stay at eight, we were almost at seven at times. To get there I really think we need a bench and need a great bench. To have an honest chance at winning this whole thing, our bench has to be huge during the regular season. They’re going to have to win games.”
As it stands, Rivers has 10 players he knows he can count on while Kendrick Perkins recovers from knee surgery. Erden is well on his way to making it 11 and if Luke Harangody, Avery Bradley or Von Wafer can earn his trust, they’ll have their chance at getting minutes as well.
Rivers knows he can’t wear out his veterans during the long 82-game grind, but he is also pushing hard to get his team to focus on winning games during the regular season.
It’s about playoff positioning, and homecourt advantage, but Rivers also doesn’t want to endure another season like they went through last season. By his way of thinking, the Celtics got away with it last year and he doesn’t want to be in that position again.
He has the numbers this year. Now he just has to find the right combinations.