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Celtics on the rebound under their calm, consistent coach
BOSTON -- The coach of the Boston Celtics paced silently in front of the bench, his hands dangling at his sides, his eyes watching when Antoine Walker missed a shot.
The coach didn't yell and the player didn't look nervously in his direction, like a wayward child awaiting a scolding.
The coach, of course, is not Rick Pitino.
And the team, under calm and consistent Jim O'Brien, has one of the best records in the Eastern Conference after finishing with losing records the last eight years.
"I don't think too much about the Celtic tradition and the championships simply because to dwell on that would be somewhat overwhelming," said O'Brien, a Philadelphia native.
But he added: "I'm honored to be part of the tradition."
The tradition built by Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Larry Bird includes 16 championships, still an NBA record. But it took a beating the last 3 1/2 seasons under Pitino, whose impatience led to frequent personnel changes and a 102-146 record.
His habit of calling plays from the bench slowed the offense and kept the best two players, Walker and Paul Pierce, from displaying their natural skills.
"I have a lot of respect for coach O'Brien," said Walker, who played for Pitino at Kentucky. "I couldn't have gotten to this level without coach Pitino, but I felt he is best at the college level and coach O'Brien is best for me at the pro level."
When Pitino resigned last Jan. 8, the Celtics were 12-22 and had lost five straight games. But point guard Kenny Anderson and center Tony Battie, two starters, missed nearly all those games with injuries.
O'Brien moved up from his assistant's job and led them to a 24-24 record. They still missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season, the longest drought in the Eastern Conference.
That could end this season.Team in first place
Entering Sunday's action, O'Brien had the Celtics at 16-8 and in first place in the Atlantic Division.
"I'm surprised that we jelled as quickly as we did," Walker said. "I knew we could be very good."
O'Brien spent seven seasons at Kentucky and Boston as an assistant to the more publicity-conscious Pitino after serving as head coach at Dayton from 1984 to 1994.
He prefers to give his players the spotlight. In fact, he's not even the most famous coach in his family; father-in-law and Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay is.
"I believe team chemistry comes from the players more than the coach," said O'Brien, who spends time before each game analyzing video on a computer screen. "Our guys respect one another, and I think it's one of the strengths of our ballclub."
Pierce has come a long way since being stabbed at a nightclub before last season. He made it back for the opener and, this year, he's one of the NBA's top scorers while the 6-foot-9 Walker is one of the best all-around players, an excellent ballhandler who ranks among the leaders in points and rebounds.
"The best thing about the team right now is the two superstars," said Cedric Maxwell, a member of the 1981 championship Celtics and now a team broadcaster. "They seem to flourish because they both want to play together and they both want to make each other better."
They also added two valuable players, rookie Joe Johnson and veteran guard Erick Strickland, and have a solid nine-man rotation of players who know their roles.
"Under coach O'Brien, he just kept it really simple," Pierce said. "We try to do the same things basically every day in practice, every day in the game. There's not a lot of defensive schemes that we're changing up each game."Long winning tradition
Red Auerbach coached the Celtics to their first nine titles, in 1957 then 1959 through 1966. Russell was in charge for the next two in 1968 and 1969, Tom, Heinsohn was at the helm in 1974 and 1976, Bill Fitch in 1981 and K.C. Jones in 1984 and 1986, the last two championship years.
"It's important to continue the winning tradition," said Jones who played on eight championship teams in his nine years with Boston. "It's been too long and this team could bring us back."
Johnson was five years old in 1986, the last time The Big Three -- Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish -- led the Celtics to a title.
"I know they had some great runs," Johnson said. "It would be great for us to get back to that level and I think we can."
But the Celtics have had a relatively soft schedule and aren't getting carried away by their early success.
"The Eastern Conference, when all is said and done, is going to have to go through the two teams it went through last year and that is Philadelphia and Milwaukee," O'Brien said.
Still, after years of disappointment, fans are flocking to the FleetCenter to see their own players rather than visiting stars.
"There's a buzz back. The fans here for the longest time have wanted perfection. When you have so many championships and so many great players, they expect to win and they took a lot of that for granted," Maxwell said. "Reality has set in and now they have two good guys, hopefully barring injury, that this team can build on."
And they have O'Brien, who stays cool when trouble strikes.
Pitino lashed out last March 1 after Vince Carter's 3-pointer at the buzzer gave Toronto a 96-94 win in Boston.
"There are no quick solutions," Pitino said. "Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is nor walking through that door."
But Pitino walked out, proving that there was, indeed, a quick solution.
"We've had six or seven years where we didn't do it," Walker said. "So now, hopefully, we'll have six or seven years in the playoffs and maybe contend for the title."