Boston Celtics: Why They Must Secure No. 1 in the East

Chuck PlattCorrespondent IIMarch 2, 2011

The overall ability for these five players to stay healthy is a big part of why the Celtics are where they are right now: on top of the East.
The overall ability for these five players to stay healthy is a big part of why the Celtics are where they are right now: on top of the East.Elsa/Getty Images

With key home wins in games four and five in Boston, the Celtics overcame a 2-1 deficit in last year's NBA Finals and went back to the Staples Center in Los Angeles with two shots to win one game.

Two losses and one Kendrick Perkins MCL-PCL tear later, the Celtics were flying back to Logan with tears and frustration rather than smiles and one Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Big Three Era hung in the balance for the remainder of June—but with July came contract extensions and a re-commitment from Doc Rivers, who has, stunningly and quietly, evolved into one of the more important coaches in the game.

As the Celtics collectively breathed freely again with their new lease on, talents traveled southward and a challenger to Eastern power was born in Miami—as if the sting of a championship loss to the Lakers was not enough to stoke the Celtics fire.

To say that the new and bigger "Big Three" in Miami added extra motivation to workouts and practices over last summer would be like saying gasoline ignites when it comes into contact with fire.

With a chance for another shot at glory complicated by the Heat, a commitment arose from the veterans—No. 1 in the East or bust, coupled with an honest shot at the league's best record. Coasting during the regular season as they'd the past two years wasn't going to cut it anymore. They had to stay healthy and fight hard during the doldrums of winter to savor the spring.

The aging C's needed every advantage they could muster. Home court advantage not only means getting to play on your court in front of your mob, it means less plane flights to places like Chicago, Florida and Los Angeles. For aging hoopsters, it makes a world of difference. The less you need to shuttle your creaky back and balky knees on jets (even charter jets) hither and thither across the country, the better. Open at home and close out on the road and you only make one round-trip. Open on the road, go back home and then go back out the road? Win or lose, that's doubling up on air travel.

I apologize for the aeronautic digression, as relevant as it is. What's more relevant is that it's now March and the Celtics are clinging tenuously to their lead in the East. Miami a game back, Chicago two. Orlando has won seven of their last 10 and Dwight Howard has been on tear since the trade deadline. Coincidence?

No matter how the Kendrick Perkins deal and Boston's further buyout signings shake out, what was important in July that was important in October remains important in March—the Celtics must win the East.

The tremendous play of the Big Three and Rondo is why the team is where they are right now. The team's struggle to find depth off the bench, particularly at center, is what's held them back and what might loom as an even larger obstacle in the team's not-so-distant playoff future.

Yet it's the Perkins deal that is the key to Boston's success. Boston is unquestionably more vulnerable to Orlando and Los Angeles now that Perkins is no longer around to D up Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. However, having someone like Jeff Green coming off the bench to spell Pierce or KG is a huge plus. This depth at forward is undoubtedly an asset versus younger teams like Miami, Atlanta and Chicago.

The Celtics have come far and are closing in on their goal. They are 3-0 against the Heat. They beat Chicago twice in the fall but lost to them on the road just after New Year's. They have road games against both of these teams in April—and they'll either be all-important encounters or essentially trivial.

Against the West, the Celtics split their season series with the Lakers, dropped both games to the Mavs and have beaten the Spurs in Boston. They play at San Antonio again at the end of the month.

So, suffice it to say, the tests remain. The road-trio of the Spurs, the Bulls and the Heat looms large. As does a pair of division home-and-home series against the new-look Knicks and the pestilent 76ers. While not all are among the most formidable of opponents, Minnesota, Indiana and Atlanta are all part of the same trip as the San Antonio game—a pair of back-to-backs on the road broken up by two days in between.

So the goal remains important—looming larger and more relevant than ever. As they get their reps and develop chemistry and rhythm, a (healthy) Miami team has proven to be the powerhouse they were expected to be. With Joakim Noah back on the court and hoping to return to his high level of play, the Bulls, led by MVP-candidate Derrick Rose, have shown up the scene in a big way.

Getting out of the East will be tougher this year than it's been in over a decade. Meanwhile, in the West, the Spurs, much like the Celtics, seem to have found the right elixir to combat age and injury—while the Lakers wish they could do the same.

Perhaps Team Green can even dare to dream—Boston has an outside shot of catching San Antonio for overall best record in all of the NBA. The Celtics are only four games back of the Spurs in the loss column. With 58 games down and 24 to go, is there gas left in the Celtics tank? Game 59, tonight at home versus Phoenix.