Boston coach Jim O'Brien was a faint beacon of hope on a sea of gloom. Through three quarters of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, his Celtics were flatter than Kansas and trailed the New Jersey Nets 74-53. Of the 171 teams that had taken a lead that large into the final period of a playoff game, none had lost. As Antoine Walker gave fellow All-Star Paul Pierce an expletive-filled pep talk, O'Brien calmly addressed the rest of the team in the huddle. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you guys you cannot win this game," O'Brien said firmly. His minions perked up. "It just shows," says guard Tony Delk, "how much faith Obie has in us."
For the next 12 minutes the force was with Obie and Boston—and especially with Pierce, whose 19 fourth-quarter points spearheaded a 94-90 victory at the FleetCenter. In truth it was as much the product of the Nets' choking (4-of-22 shooting, six turnovers) as the Celtics' galvanized play. But what great theater. "Don't ask me to describe it," O'Brien said afterward. "It was unbelievable. Un-be-lievable."
No less un-be-lievable than the job O'Brien has done reviving the Celtics' mystique. When he took over for Rick Pitino 34 games into last season, he presented the team with an ambitious challenge: Commit to defense. At the time Boston ranked 26th in points surrendered, but the players bought what the new coach was peddling. "We knew we had scorers in Antoine and Paul," says forward Eric Williams. "We also knew we weren't going to win giving up points like that."
This season the Celtics ranked third defensively and increased their win total from 36 to 49. Though Boston doesn't play a zone per se, no coach has made better use of the new defensive rules than O'Brien. Against the Nets, the Celts have flummoxed Jason Kidd with double teams and used constant weakside help to neutralize Jersey's scoring inside. Despite Monday's 94-92 loss, which evened the series at two games apiece, the Celtics had held New Jersey to 41.8% shooting. Says Boston assistant Dick Harter, a veteran of five decades on college and NBA benches, "This is the best coaching job I've ever been around."
A self-described "basketball lifer," O'Brien was a scrappy guard in the early 70s at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, where he met his wife, Sharon, the daughter of Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay. O'Brien's r�sum� includes stops at Wheeling (W.Va.) Jesuit College and Pembroke ( N.C.) State before a seven-year hitch as Pitino's top assistant at Kentucky and Boston. In a line of work in which egos are often wildly inflated and image is a matter of obsessive concern, the 50-year-old O'Brien is a welcome departure. Ask him about his team's success this season, and he'll deflect credit to every franchise employee this side of the guys who shoot free T-shirts into the crowd during timeouts. While some of his colleagues demand clothing allowances, O'Brien's three nicest suits were gifts from Walker. "He's too cheap to buy his own," says Walker. "Plus, he doesn't care about that stuff."
O'Brien is a firm believer in positive reinforcement: Four out of five plays he screens in film sessions are ones that the Celtics executed correctly. "It makes more sense to say 'Here's what you did right,' instead of 'Here's how you screwed up," he says. His positive attitude is apparent when he talks about his daughter Caitlyn, 19, who has Down's syndrome. As her dad puts it, "She's never had a bad day in her life."
Last Saturday night, as his players celebrated wildly on the floor, O'Brien pumped his fist and then walked off the court muttering "Good win" to himself. (Good win?) His suit was rumpled, his tie was creased, his not-insignificant forehead was glistening with sweat. Yet as the self-effacing coach headed into the tunnel—his team, improbably, within sight of the NBA Finals—he could not have looked smarter.