BOSTON -- Doc Rivers likes to hearken back to the words of wisdom from his late father when things get difficult. Grady Rivers told his son that whatever he started, he should try to complete. He had a phrase for it: "Just finish the race."
For so much of this season, the Boston Celtics looked like they were moonwalking to the finish line. Rivers told anyone and everyone who'd listen that he didn't care about wins and losses, or playoff positioning, or anything other than universal health care for his fellas. If that came about, the coach said, then he'd be content to see where things went from there.
The Celtics are still in the race, improbably. They have taken care of the two best regular-season teams in the playoffs. They have done it by doing a lot of the things they didn't do in the regular season. Now, this implausible postseason run has them in the NBA Finals and, if you've been watching any of the Suns-Lakers series, you have to wonder: What are either of those teams going to do when they go up against a team that actually plays defense?
We can break things down a la Hubie Brown but, bottom line, the Celtics are the Eastern Conference champions in 2010 because they dominated Cleveland and Orlando the same way they dominated everyone two years ago. They played suffocating defense in their wins, they got great performances from their key men at key moments (how about Paul Pierce coming up ultra-large in Game 6 with 31 points and 13 rebounds?) and eased a worrisome Celtics Nation with a convincing 96-84 series-clinching dispatching of the Magic on Friday night.
The Celtics didn't just win their four games: They controlled them as if Rivers had his own personal joystick. In two of the wins, Game 1 in Orlando and Game 3 in Boston, the Celtics never trailed. In the Game 6 clincher, they trailed for all of 12 seconds, by 1 point, and that was in the first quarter. They trailed for fewer than five of the 192 minutes in the four games they won.
And, in this series, as in the last three games of the Cleveland series, the Celtics played DEFENSE, the kind of defense we rarely saw after Christmas this season. In their four wins, the Celtics held the Magic to 88, 92, 71 and 84 points. In those same four games, the Magic shot 40.5 percent from the field. In the series-clincher, the Magic were held to 27.3 percent shooting from 3-point territory after nailing 13-of-25 in Game 5.
Those are championship-like numbers. In the regular season, opponents shot 45 percent against the Celtics.
So, in the space of four weeks, the 50-win Celtics have sent the 61-win Cavaliers and the 59-win Magic home for the summer. They did so without having home-court advantage. They did so by winning not once, but twice on the road in each series. They still have unfinished business to attend do, but who amongst us a month ago could have envisioned this? Remember when we were talking about playoff seeding? Good grief! These guys got healthy, got religion and, just as Rivers predicted (and many of us rolled our eyes when he did), they now have a legitimate shot at championship No. 18.
"They just beat two very good teams and made us look like we're not very good teams," said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy. "So Cleveland is upset with the way they played. We're certainly upset with the way we played. But when you go through two series like that, I think you have to be fair and say a lot of it has to do with them. They are playing very, very well right now. I think you've got to admire them as a team."
The Celtics haven't merely been different in the playoffs, they've basically been transformed. They were an indifferent (to be charitable) rebounding team in the regular season. In the postseason, that has changed. They dominated the glass in Game 6 and are the third-best defensive rebounding team this postseason. They still are rather woeful on the offensive glass and have their issues with turnovers, but those problems can be offset when a team defends the way the Celtics have defended in the playoffs.
But, as Van Gundy reminded everyone, "You've still gotta make shots." Rivers concentrated on ball movement for nearly all of the shootaround prior to Game 6. He didn't like what he had seen in Games 4 and 5, when the Celtics had reverted to isolation basketball and the ball didn't move. "I told them the ball has to touch hands, not the floor," Rivers said.
"They're a very unselfish team. They don't care where it comes from," Van Gundy said. "In the last series, they really rode Kevin Garnett in the post. I thought we took a lot of his post-ups away so they went other places. Nobody seems the least bit concerned by that. You've got to give them a lot of credit. I think they did a great job at both ends of the floor against us."
Game 6 was another example of this. How many out there put Nate Robinson on their fantasy team for the clincher? In the first five games, he had played 16 minutes and scored six points. He then went out and, with Rajon Rondo ailing, torched the Magic for 13 points in the second quarter. Pierce and Ray Allen took over from there.
There still is one more series to play. Rivers acknowledged that the great Celtics championship teams of the past have won titles in bunches. The Russell-era Celtics won 11. The Havlicek/Cowens-era Celtics won two. The Bird/McHale/Parish-era Celtics won three. This group has one -- and counting?
"Obviously, one is special, but the other groups have a couple, and we'd love to join that club," Rivers said. "But we've got a tough road. Phoenix or the Lakers, it's not going to be easy for us."
There's also this to consider: The Celtics have not a lost a playoff series with the current starting five. They are 7-0 with Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Rondo and Kendrick Perkins as their starting five.
They now have a few days to rest (it could have been even longer had they taken care of business in Game 4) and, by the sound of it, Rondo, Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace can all use the down time. The whole team can use it. They earned it.
And if they can keep their defensive mindset and intensity intact, who's to say they won't raise another banner? They've already gone farther than most of us figured they'd go, so what the heck, why not just finish the race?
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.