By Shirley Coshatt
The success of the Celtics so far this season has taken even the most diehard fans by surprise. Most expected them to do well but very few of us expected them to win this much this early. Many would contend that at the heart of their success are the Celtics’ three stars. Others would point more specifically to Kevin Garnett as the driver behind Boston’s success. The primary reason for this team’s phenomenal start, however, actually rests elsewhere. It’s in their defense.
Consider the evidence. In the span of one season, the Celtics have gone from one of the worst defensive teams to one of the best. Last season, Boston ranked 18th in points allowed, 24th in field goal percentage allowed, 12th in 3 point field goals allowed, 10th in rebounds allowed, and 24th in the point differential. This season, they are first in every one of those categories (Editor’s Note: This was still true at the time of writing, before the team inexplicably gave away the store in their first two games of their west coast swing).
Kevin Garnett is well known as a defensive stopper. On the other hand, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have never been known for their defensive play. It isn’t hard to realize that it isn’t a player or even several players who have made the biggest difference in this team. It is a coach.
During the off-season, Danny Ainge brought in Tom Thibodeau to serve as an assistant coach specializing in the establishment of an effective team defense. Prior to his arrival in Boston, Thibodeau had coached in the league with 17 seasons with Houston, New York, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Seattle and Minnesota. During that time, his teams have finished among the top 10 in fewest points allowed 14 times. Perhaps his most notable stint was as an assistant with New York (1996-2003). In 2000-01, the Knicks set an NBA record by holding opponents to fewer than 100 points in 33 consecutive games. In his first year in Houston, Thibodeau helped the Rockets set franchise records in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense.
A native of New Britain, Connecticut, Thibodeau graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and a then a Master’s in Counseling from Salem State College. He lettered in four seasons at Salem State. He was inducted into the New Britain, CT Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.Thibodeau entered the NBA in 1989 as an assistant coach with the expansion entry Minnesota Timberwolves under the late Bill Musselman. After two seasons with the Timberwolves, he joined the Seattle SuperSonics in 1991 as an advance scout. The following year, Thibodeau moved to San Antonio, where he worked with Jerry Tarkanian and John Lucas as a Spurs assistant coach for two seasons. He left San Antonio to become an assistant coach under Lucas with the Philadelphia 76ers. Thibodeau stayed in Philadelphia two seasons before joining the Knicks. With the Knicks, Thibodeau worked with Jeff Van Gundy for five years and Don Chaney for two more seasons. He has coached in 87 career NBA playoff games, including New York’s appearance in the 1999 NBA Finals.
During his four seasons with Houston, the Rockets advanced to the postseason in three of those seasons and won 50 games in two seasons. Thibodeau guided the Rockets to a top five ranking in the NBA in both opponents’ scoring defense and field goal percentage in each of the past four seasons. Thibodeau also led the Rockets’ summer league teams to a 10-0 record over the past two seasons. In 2005-06, he worked with All-Star Center Yao Ming as he became the first Rockets player to average 20 points and 10 rebounds in a season since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995-96. Thibodeau has gone to China the past two summers to help Yao work on his individual skills. Yao speaks often of Thibodeau’s role in his breakthrough play after coming back from the toe surgery last season. A look at tape of Yao from three seasons ago, before Thibodeau began working with him, and a tape of him from this past season would be compelling evidence of Thibodeau’s effectiveness.
Before taking the Celtics job, Thibodeau interviewed for several head coaching jobs and agreed with Washington to be an assistant for the Wizards. He worked several days with the Wizards and then had a change of heart and didn’t sign the contract. Reports are that he was promised the head assistant position and then wasn’t given it and that is why he backed away from working with the Wizards. The Celtics had shown interest in him and it is reported that theys also offered him a deal before he agreed to the Wizards job. He requested a one year contract according to the Herald and that may be because he is considered to be head coaching material and may want to explore what is out there next season. Or, it may be because each of Doc’s assistants current serve under one-year contracts and he didn’t want to one-up them.
This season, Thibodeau added coaching the Sophomore team in the Rookie Challenge during All-Star weekend to his resume. It may be the first time in the history of the game that a team came in prepared to play defense. The Celtics have obviously suffered occasional defensive lapses, as we have seen on the west coast swing thus far, but there is no denying the effect that Thibodeau has had on this team’s defense. There is no doubt that there will be a fair level of interest in Thibodeau this off-season as teams seek to replace head coaches. Before the off-season arrives, Danny Ainge should do whatever it takes to ensure that his resident defensive guru returns to Boston because even with three stars in place, the heart of the team’s success lies with Tom Thibodeau.