Celtics hope to pass elite test

There are three marquee opponents in three different venues in the space of 90 hours. There is little-to-no time to prepare for two of them.

Sounds like a potential weekend from you-know-what for the Boston Celtics.

Kevin Garnett isn't back to full strength yet, but his return has ramped up the Celtics' defense.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Or maybe not.

Things appear to be coming together slowly but surely for the Celtics after a rough four weeks that saw them lose eight of 12 games. Their MVP, Kevin Garnett(notes), is back after missing 10 games with a knee injury and the Celtics are 2-0 since the Big Ticket returned. (OK, not exactly convincing home wins against the Portland Trail Blazers in overtime and the Los Angeles Clippers. But you have to start somewhere.) Garnett still is not at his maniacal, feisty best, but he’s getting there. His presence alone will amp things up on the defensive end for Boston and that’s how the Celtics win when they’re really on their game.

Garnett’s timing is propitious. He’ll have been back for a week when the Celtics invade Orlando on Thursday. Boston plays at Atlanta on Friday night and, then, without benefit of a Saturday practice (if coach Doc Rivers stays true to form), plays host to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday afternoon. Boston is 1-1 against Orlando, 0-3 against Atlanta, and has yet to play the Lakers.

Rivers doesn’t buy the “measuring stick” argument because it’s the regular season and teams are in various states of flux. The Lakers are on a long road trip. The Magic have had two days to prepare while the Hawks’ game will be the second part of a back-to-back for Boston. Atlanta is idle on Thursday.

It’s also before the trading deadline as well, and when the Celtics meet the Cleveland Cavaliers again, on Feb. 25, either roster may look a little different. “Let’s pray Cleveland doesn’t get everybody that I’ve heard rumored is going there,” Rivers said. “My goodness, they would have a logjam at every spot. But they’re clearly active and they’re clearly looking to improve their team. I think we all are, but it’s very difficult to make moves.

“I don’t know who we call elite – us, whoever. But in the East there’s four teams right there, and they’re all close. Everyone sees themselves with a chance to win it. I don’t blame them.”

Despite their January thaw and the fact they are closer to the No. 4 seed in the East than the No. 1, the Celtics still have hopes of getting the best overall record. They have 13 losses, third-fewest in the league, and only two more than the Cavs and Lakers. But they have played only 42 games, the fewest in the NBA. The Cavs played their 47th game on Wednesday, the Lakers’ their 46th.

The Celtics had two days to practice for their third meeting of the year against the Magic. The last time these teams met, on Christmas Day, was a high-water mark of sorts for Boston. The Celtics turned in a defensive tour-de-force, winning 86-77 without the services of their leading scorer, Paul Pierce(notes). The win gave them a 23-5 record. They then went into their post-Christmas swoon, losing to such lightweights as the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors (both without Pierce) and Detroit Pistons. Garnett’s absence cannot be understated: The team was 4-6 in the games he missed.

The only missing piece to the picture is the return of the valued Marquis Daniels(notes). He has appeared in only 19 games because of a broken thumb, but he is close to returning, possibly in the last game before the All-Star break. Daniels gives the Celtics an extra defender at either small forward or big guard and also handles the ball well enough to run the offense when Rajon Rondo(notes) gets a breather.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers has seen his team slowly improve after a rough weeks that saw them lose eight of 12 games.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

“When we got him, a lot of coaches called me and said, ‘How’d you pull that off?’ He’s an intangibles guy,” Rivers said of Daniels. “You need guys like that to fit around the stars. He’s not trying to be a star. He’s trying to dominate his role. There’s a group of guys in this league who have understood who they were early in their career. They’re irreplaceable. Guys like Marquis. [Shane] Battier. James Posey(notes). [Udonis] Haslem.”

The Hawks have owned the Celtics this season, winning all three meetings (two of which came in the 10-game stretch when Garnett was out). The Celtics have not gone 0-4 against Atlanta in the regular season since 1995-96. Prior to this season, the Celtics had won seven straight regular season games against the Hawks.

As for the Lakers, they will likely be in Boston before the Celtics, playing at Philadelphia on Friday night. Rivers does not hold practices after the Celtics play back-to-back games, and, combined with the travel from Atlanta, it appears Saturday will be a day of rest. Overlooked in all this is that after the Lakers game, the Celtics fly to Washington to play the Wizards on Monday night, a game Rivers said might be “brutal” because of the energy that will have been expended in the three previous games.

One interesting subplot of the weekend involves the coaching position for the Eastern Conference All-Star game. It looks like it’s either going to be Rivers for the second time in three years or Atlanta’s Mike Woodson. (Cleveland’s Mike Brown coached last year, so he is ineligible.) Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy has an outside shot. Whichever team has the best record after Sunday’s games will get the nod.

“I could care less about that. You know how I feel about that stuff,” Rivers said when asked about the All-Star game. “We just want to stay in front of [Orlando and Atlanta]. We want to beat both teams to stay in front of them. And we’re trying to catch the Lakers and Cleveland.”

Modest goals perhaps for what is undeniably a big stretch of games. The Celtics seem to be in a better place now than they were a couple weeks ago. Rivers said he’s seeing gradual improvement and he’s also seeing Garnett on the floor instead of on the exercise bike. As long is it stays that way, and no one else goes on extended medical leave, the Celtics like their chances against anyone, anywhere.

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Updated Thursday, Jan 28, 2010