Celtics thrive with secret weapon

Times Staff Writer

After blitzing through their first three playoff opponents for 105.8 points per game, the Lakers are scoring about 14 points less against Boston in the NBA Finals. The Celtics defense is so stingy that in 16 quarters the Lakers have topped 25 points only four times.

Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau, with 18 years as an NBA assistant, is just now being hailed as a defense-minded guru, capable of containing offenses potent and meager.

Jeff Van Gundy, former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach, is irritated that Thibodeau is pigeon-holed as a defense-oriented coach when his knowledge encompasses the entire game. “Heck,” Van Gundy said, “the guy’s been a good coach for years.”

Better late than never.

Thibodeau’s name has not emerged on a public stage before, but he is conducting a penny-pinching Celtics defense that is limiting the Lakers’ prolific offense, shepherding them to the cusp of an NBA championship.

Celtics assistants are not allowed to talk to the media, so don’t expect to hear the man’s story in his own voice. But those who know Thibodeau say he’d prefer it that way, quietly going about his business away from the limelight.


Van Gundy had Thibodeau on his coaching staffs with the Knicks and the Rockets. “You get an honest day’s work from this guy every day. There’s no tidy two paragraphs that will capture 30 years of coaching.”

He credits Thibodeau for helping Yao Ming show his great offensive potential in Houston. But it’s on the defensive end where Thibodeau has made a name for himself this season.

Only, he’s been at it for a while.

Just ask Kobe Bryant, who came to know Thibodeau as a high schooler in Pennsylvania when Thibodeau was an assistant for the Philadelphia 76ers.

“He has an unfair advantage,” Bryant said recently, only half kiddingly. “He started drilling me, NBA basketball drills, when I was 14. So he kind of has inside information on what I like to do because he taught me most of the stuff. I’ve been facing his defenses here for some time, and they’re tough, very, very tough.”

Celtics Coach Doc Rivers had the confidence in his own coaching ability to hand the defensive reins to Thibodeau in his first season with the team.

During the regular season the Celtics gave up 90.3 points per game, the second-fewest in the league. And when their offense has stagnated in the Finals against the Lakers, they could always turn to their swarming defense.

“You can’t stop or limit Kobe Bryant,” Van Gundy said. “They’ve played very good defense on him at times, and he’s made difficult shots. But what you do have to do is stop the guys you can stop. And they’re doing a good job of that.”

Some of the credit has to be tossed to Kevin Garnett, this season’s defensive player of the year, and his formidable wingspan. And to his Celtics teammates for wholeheartedly following every defensive scheme.

“If you watch the games, Thibodeau is right on top of every player,” said former NBA coach Jack Ramsay. “You can tell by the players’ response, not only do they understand it, but that this is the way it has to be done.”

Said Garnett: “There were days when we wanted to wring Tom Thibodeau’s neck, but he keeps us intact, and the more and more, I think, we fell in love with [his defense]. It’s our backbone now.”

That defense can be broken down into its foundation (overloading the strong side and then recovering on a rotated pass), its spine (contesting every shot) and its base (allowing only one contested shot by controlling defensive rebounds).

And repetition, repetition, repetition.

“Tom will come up with a defensive scheme that we’ve never heard before, and he’ll say it like we’ve been talking about it all year,” said guard Ray Allen. “But he makes sure we’re all on the same page with it. So, he’s definitely kept us keyed in.”

Thibodeau, who attended Salem State College in Massachusetts, has also worked for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Seattle SuperSonics and San Antonio Spurs. While with the Rockets and Van Gundy from 2004 to 2007, he helped Houston place in the top five of the NBA in defensive scoring and field-goal percentage defense each season.

So, it’s quite puzzling -- “shocking,” Van Gundy says -- that Thibodeau hasn’t received a chance to run his own team. Among the NBA coaching musical chairs this season, the Knicks briefly had an interest in him before hiring Coach Mike D’Antoni.

“Tom has been around this game for so long,” Rivers said. “I can understand when you hire someone else, that’s fine. I just don’t get the no-interview part of it.”

At least in the public arena, Thibodeau is finally getting his deserved due.