BOSTON -- Twenty one months ago, in the cramped visitors' locker room at Madison Square Garden, Celtics coach Doc Rivers insinuated that his team was soft after getting pushed around by the Knicks in the first half of a divisional battle.
Mind you, Rivers swore he never actually used the word "soft" that night, suggesting, in fact, he never had done so in the Big Three era because of just how insulting that four-letter adjective can be to an NBA team.
The Celtics staged a feverish comeback in a bloodbath of a game that night in New York and emerged with a rather satisfying win that propelled them to the finish line of the 2010-11 regular season.
It's almost as if Rivers scribbled down a note to himself that night, one he tucked under glass in his office with a warning to break only in the event of an emergency.
But after getting pushed around by divisional rival Brooklyn on Wednesday night, and having displayed no hallmarks of what had made Boston so successful in the Big Three era during the early stages of the 2012-13 season, Rivers dipped into his coaching toolbox and dusted off the "S" word.
Mind you, he never actually called his team soft. He again insinuated Wednesday that Brooklyn and the rest of the league probably think the Celtics are soft considering their play to that point. But like a bad game of password, by the time the message landed in the Boston locker room, it had been tweaked to bare bones: Your coach thinks you're soft.
Despite playing without point guard Rajon Rondo, who was serving the first night of a two-game suspension, the Celtics responded Friday with maybe their finest defensive effort of the season while breezing past the visiting Portland Trail Blazers 96-78 at TD Garden.
All it took to get his team back to basics was Rivers' insinuation that they were a bit pillowy.
"I don't know any man that likes to be called soft, maybe some women," barked Kevin Garnett. "But where I'm from, most men don't like that."
Garnett went on the radio Thursday afternoon and was asked if he agreed with Rivers' insinuation that the Celtics were soft. There was a long, awkward pause and a deep breath before Garnett begrudgingly admitted he never thought a team he'd play for would be considered soft. Simply having to address the potential of being soft was enough to raise Garnett's blood pressure to a dangerous level.
Fifteen minutes later, he was on the court leading the Celtics through a spirited practice, players displaying a little extra physicality among one another with the goal of showing their coach just how wrong he was in labeling them as mushy.
Heck, Friday morning's shootaround had a little extra gusto and the Celtics played with a previously missing determination Friday night.
It was clear that no one -- from veterans like Garnett to new faces like Courtney Lee -- liked being dubbed doughy.
"Nobody wants to be called soft," Lee said. "Me, individually, I took that personally because I felt that I'm far from being soft. And I think our team took it personal, too, so we came out and had a good practice the other day. Doc was still going on his rant, so we had to respond and we did that in practice by going hard, beating each other up. Then we came out here and had a good start. We threw that first punch.
"[Rivers] can continue to call us soft, if we're going to respond like this and come out here and play. I guess we need to be told that for us to wake up."
Lee, inserted in the starting lineup in Rondo's absence, put together maybe his best all-around effort in a Celtics uniform, chipping in 10 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals over 37 minutes. On the defensive end, he seamlessly bounced from guarding rookie point guard Damian Lillard and preventing him from attacking in the pick-and-roll, to chasing (and smothering) Portland's shooters on the perimeter.
That defensive energy was contagious and Boston limited Portland to 34.8 percent shooting (24-of-69 overall, 3-of-15 on 3-pointers). The Celtics led by as many as 27, allowed Garnett and Paul Pierce to play manageable minutes on the first night of a back-to-back, savored a little Gino Time on the JumboTron, and emerged with a confidence-inspiring victory.
One that was anything but fleecy.
The danger, of course, is putting too much stock in one win, especially against a Blazers squad that offered little in the way of resistance (particularly with its defensive indifference). But in danger of falling to .500 with a loss, the Celtics responded with a quality effort that included Jeff Green erupting for 14 of his season-high 19 points as Boston tore the game open in the second quarter.
Rivers' boggy babble clearly resonated with Green and the rest of the Celtics' locker room.
"No player, in any kind of league, whether it's football, hockey, anything, wants to be called soft," said Green. "We had to change our demeanor, change the way we approach the game, change the way we come out, and we've just got to be the aggressor. We can't allow teams to be aggressive towards us first."
Echoed Garnett: "The onus falls on each and every last one of us, not just one or two guys. But, yeah, [being called soft] was disturbing. Who likes to be called soft at anything, if you're a man?"
Pierce, the Celtics' captain, insisted the gooey gab offered no motivation for him, that he's inspired by every new opportunity to step on the court. That said, Pierce took great pleasure in watching Boston get back to its roots on the defensive end Friday.
"When we come out and set the tone defensively like we did tonight, that's the type of team that we are," Pierce said. "That's the Celtics that I know."
And that's the Celtics that Rivers has been looking for. He has been looking for them hard.