ORLANDO — The two Celtics losses before Friday’s impressive 108-100 victory over Oklahoma City are reminders that even the most experienced and savvy teams require reinforcements.
The Celtics were apparently losing themselves and losing direction after losses to the Pistons and Spurs. And after just 12 games, nearly 15 percent of the season, the Celtics were confused about the necessities in Doc Rivers’s system, especially on defense.
And it wasn’t limited to the newcomers.
At Friday’s shootaround, Rivers, playing the role of teacher, met with each pupil individually to discuss his role and the importance of fulfilling expectations in order for the Celtics to be successful.
“Doc sitting us down, letting each guy know what he expects out of them, their role on this team and how consistent you have to be with that role, I thought carried over to guys understanding tonight,” forward Kevin Garnett said Friday.
“I thought it totally reflected in some defensive energy. This is a high-powered offense we played and I thought for 48 minutes we put a whole game together.”
The aging Celtics differ from teams such as the Heat, Lakers, and Thunder. While Garnett and Paul Pierce have been perennial All-Stars, their ability to take over games has waned as years have passed. The Celtics have star power, but not the type where the complementary pieces can be passive.
Jeff Green, who scored a season-high 17 points Friday, wasn’t passive, and neither was Jason Terry (16 points). The Celtics were able to beat the Thunder with all of their weapons, and that’s what they have to do to be successful.
“I think they found out something about themselves,” Rivers said Friday. “I already knew this. But I think they found something out tonight. But we’ve got to keep doing it. That’s the key for us.”
There was a level of relief after Friday’s game but also an understanding that this team is capable of a long winning streak or a clunker Sunday night against the rebuilding Orlando Magic, who feature former Celtics Glen Davis and E’Twaun Moore.
It’s a game the Celtics should win. They have to beat the league’s have-nots with regularity, but that is going to require production from the nine players Rivers trusts each night. Just a month ago, Courtney Lee was the starting shooting guard, but now he’s expected to give the Celtics a defensive lift off the bench and hit the open shot, which has been a struggle.
A month ago, Rivers believed Darko Milicic would play a pivotal role as Garnett’s backup. Milicic is gone, and Chris Wilcox has assumed that job. Terry has spent most of his career as a sixth man, but now he is filling Ray Allen’s old job and needs to be more aggressive offensively, which isn’t an issue for a professional scorer.
Green has been an enigma, but the Celtics are at their best when he is in takeover mode. His teammates often remind him to be meaner and more selfish, and it appeared that playing against the Thunder — the team that traded him — brought out the fury that needs to surface more often.
While the Celtics are still fueled by Garnett and Pierce, they need relief. Garnett’s contributions will come with playing 30 minutes per game. He is among the all-time leaders in minutes played and Rivers is not going to burn him out in December.
“I know it’s hard, going into [Friday’s game], I told our coaches, ‘32 is our number for Kevin,’ ” Rivers said. “I have him two minutes extra because I thought we were going to need it.
“When they made a run, let’s be honest, it was right when we had to take Kevin out. We had no choice. We’ve got to do it.”
Garnett ended up playing 32:04, and the team was plus-19 while he was in the game.
The Celtics are obviously a more potent team with Garnett on the floor. Controlling his minutes is the foremost responsibility of Rivers, to prolong his effectiveness into May and June.
“It’s like a cellphone that you buy at 7-Eleven,” said Rivers. “He had 32 minutes, and if he had went 33, the phone would have been dead. So we had to manage his minutes.”
This isn’t 2008. The Celtics are not going to hammer teams with Pierce and Allen scoring 30 each while Garnett goes for 25 and 15 rebounds. The responsibility had to be spread and that’s supposed to be the difference between this Celtics team and the ones that succumbed to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade the past two years.
The Celtics’ strength is in their depth, and the importance of understanding roles is unquestioned.
“We just need that consistent effort from [the bench],” Pierce said. “As they learn the system, as they learn about Celtics basketball, that’s what we are going to need if we are going to be a top team in the Eastern Conference. And if our goal is to win a championship, that is what we are going to need.’’