For the second straight season, the NBA’s Atlantic Division was all but settled by Christmas.
It was just two seasons ago that the Celtics finished last in the Atlantic, but the acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen enabled Boston (50-16) to leapfrog all four division foes by a wide margin. The Celtics finished last season 25 games ahead of Toronto, clinching the division title March 14, 2008.
Holding a 16 1/2-game lead on second-place Philadelphia, the Celtics can do it one day later this season, but they’ll open a two-game Midwest swing still significantly weakened by injuries.
While point guard Rajon Rondo returned from a two-game absence in Friday night’s 102-92 win over Memphis, Garnett was one of four players who remained out, and he’s expected to miss at least another week.
Glen Davis is among the three reserves also missing, but Boston forward Leon Powe is doing his best to make up for it. Powe had a career-high 30 points and added 11 rebounds against the Grizzlies, shooting 10-of-14 from both the field and the free-throw line.
Powe was coming off a 23-point, 13-rebound performance in Wednesday night’s 107-99 loss at Miami in his first start since Dec. 26. He’s averaging 21.3 points and 10.5 rebounds in his last four games.
“Since he’s been put in a starting role, he’s been really playing well for us,” forward Paul Pierce said. “That’s what we need now, especially with guys injured. Hopefully this will carry over when Kevin gets back.”
As they avoided a third straight loss, the Celtics also got an improved effort from newcomer Stephon Marbury, who had season highs with nine points and five assists. He had six points on 3-of-21 shooting in his previous five games.
Still, Boston has had trouble with consistency at both ends of the court while playing its last 10 games without Garnett, going 6-4 over that span to fall three games behind Cleveland in the loss column for the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
The Bucks (30-38) know all about playing short-handed as they continue to chase a playoff berth without leading scorer Michael Redd and former No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Bogut. Milwaukee is one of six teams chasing the East’s eighth spot.
But the injuries could be starting to catch up with the Bucks, who’ve lost five of their last six and nine of 12. Their last two defeats have come at home, where they fell 95-86 to New Orleans on Friday night despite getting 27 points from Richard Jefferson.
With Boston, Orlando and Portland also set to visit the Bradley Center to finish their six-game homestand, the Bucks will likely need to improve their play if they hope to stay in the race.
“If we’re really going to hit a stride where we are really playing our best basketball - with the way our team is right now - we need four, five, or six guys playing well on a given night,” coach Scott Skiles said. “Two guys is not good enough. We are probably not going to win. We need multiple players playing well on both ends of the floor.”
Playing without Redd and Charlie Villanueva, the Bucks forced overtime in the Celtics’ previous visit Nov. 15, but they still lost their sixth straight to Boston, 102-97.