GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 14, 2009

Celtics in good shape, but may not be good enough

On Pro Basketball

1Just a week ago the Boston Celtics were in the middle of an uncharacteristic four-game losing streak in a much-improved Eastern Conference. Simultaneously, they were finally showing some vulnerability for the first time in the regular season over the past year-and-a-half.

Yet, Boone did not view that skid as nearly enough evidence that the defending NBA champion Celtics may be ripe for overtaking at the top of the league.

"Losing streaks like that happen," said Boone, a 6-foot-10 third-year forward from UConn. "There are stretches when you know you're not playing your best basketball. But they're a great, great team, and it's going to take a lot to beat them when they are playing right.

"They're still the Boston Celtics. It's fool's gold if you think they're falling off."

Boone's Nets were in Boston to take on the Celtics last night at TD Banknorth Garden in the final game of the first half of the season for the Celtics. Boone was proven right, as the Celtics were nearly flawless in a 118-86 victory.

The Celtics, who improved to 32-9, won their third straight. The game was over by the third quarter, as the C's pushed a 51-41 halftime lead to an 88-60 advantage entering the fourth.

It's no question that through the first 41 games of the season, the Celtics have to like where they stand - a pace of 64 wins.

"I feel good, we have a great record," said Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. "At the beginning of the year if someone told me this is what our record would be, I wouldn't complain about it."

Boston isn't far off last year's pace, when it went 34-7 through the first 41 games, en route to a league-best 66-win season. However, it seems last year's Eastern Conference and this year's is a night-and-day comparison.

The Celtics went basically unopposed in getting the conference's best record last year, as Detroit was the only team within striking distance. But the Pistons still finished seven games behind the C's.

Entering last night, Boston's mark was only good enough for third-best in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland (30-6) and Orlando (31-8) were both better.

Of course, it's still early and probably premature to discuss playoff seedings. Still, the Cavs and Magic seem to be the real deal and don't appear likely to fade; meaning the road to the NBA Finals may go through one of those cities. It also means that right now, the Celtics would be playing a second round playoff series potentially without home-court advantage.

As if the fact wasn't already known, the Celtics proved how important home-court advantage is in the playoffs last year. Boston didn't win a road playoff game until the Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit after an 0-6 start in away games.

On a positive note, the Celtics will play a more relaxed second half schedule. The C's and the Milwaukee Bucks are the only teams in the East to have played 41 games already.

"We've played 41 games and the Cavs have only played 37," said Rivers. "It was a tough start to the season for us, a lot of games squeezed into a small amount of time. The second half will be great because we can get some rest and more practice time. That will make us a much better basketball team."

The Celtics should be a lock to once again win the Atlantic Division, as they now hold a 12-game lead on the second-place Nets. That will guarantee them a top-four playoff seed.

But, it's the letdowns against inferior teams that could hinder how high that seeding is. The C's have already lost to the Bobcats, Knicks and Pacers, which may be evidence that the old doormats of the league can no longer really be classified as such.

"The East has got a whole lot better across the board since last year," said Boone. "We have three of the four best teams in the league in our conference right now."

Last night, New Jersey didn't exactly do much to prove the theory that there are no longer too many doormats in the East. However, the Nets will have another crack at the Celtics on Saturday.

It will be the next chance to see if the Celtics have put that four-game losing streak far behind them and are ready to begin the path back to league supremacy.

Matt Langone can be reached at mlangone@gloucestertimes.com