Boston Celtics May Own the East for Now, but Serious Contenders Are on Their Way

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Boston Celtics May Own the East for Now, but Serious Contenders Are on Their Way
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The TD Garden has been an impenetrable force since the Boston Celtics raised their 17th title nearly three years ago. 

The walls of the 18,624-seat arena have been coated in a fine layer of confidence and high self-esteem since 2008, as a man known simply as "The Truth" parades alongside three of the NBA's most cunning predators.

Who am I kidding, it's not like this is news to you.

For Paul Pierce, a man who has seen both the highs and lows, nothing is more important than winning another championship at this stage in his 13-year career.  After all, it's hard to argue with a man who has built up a resume from scratch and pure hard work alone.

The features on that resume though, may be unlike any other player.  Pierce's reliable attributes include a guaranteed three late in the fourth quarter, a cool hand at the free throw line and among many other notables, a fountain of youth that seems to stem from the growth of Rajon Rondo.

But what would you say if I told you Boston's ship is about to set sail, if not this season, but the next?

Before answering, consider this:

At the moment, the Celtics are clicking rather smoothly.  New recruits Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic combined for 32 points on Friday night in a victory over the Golden State Warriors, while Troy Murphy continues to make a name for himself as a backup power forward.

Yet with all this brilliance, the Celtics still find themselves fighting for life against weaker opponents.  A quick Ray Allen three-pointer bails Boston out nine times out of 10, such was the case with Golden State and against the Utah Jazz six days earlier.

Then when Allen is off, the Celtics struggle to maintain composure in the clutch.  Take the Feb. 24 loss to the Melo-less Denver Nuggets for example—an embarrassing slip-up for Doc Rivers to swallow, even though many other teams have ventured down that path since.

Still, the age and unpredictable nature of the Celtics isn't the only concern, as a much bigger threat looms in the rapidly growing conference known as the East.

Take the Chicago Bulls for example, a team Charles Barkley loves enormously.

"The best Eastern Conference team that I've seen this year, I think the Chicago Bulls are going to win the East," Barkley said in December. "I love what they're doing in Chicago."

That same thought is a mutual feeling throughout the NBA.  The Bulls are 42-18, second behind the Celtics.  Not only that, Chicago also features MVP front-runner Derrick Rose, along with a player who is averaging 13.1 points per game, and also reaching superstar status, center Joakim Noah.

Next is the Miami Heat, Boston's new favorite opponent. 

The Celtics have had LeBron James' number in the past three meetings, but sooner or later (perhaps not this season) the Heat will come together and move past this era of brick shots and laughable losses at the hands of the NBA's giants. 

Third on the list is the Magic, another one of Boston's mules. 

Dwight Howard was shutdown during last year's postseason when Orlando faced Boston, but Stan Van Gundy's team is a lot more improved since then, especially in three-point land. 

Jameer Nelson has come up big in 2011, and the threats of J.J Reddick and Jason Richardson require much more attention than Vince Carter did a year ago.

The Knicks are a problem as well. 

New York's defense is suspect to say the least, but the threat of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire on the boards is trouble.  Chauncey Billups is Mr. Overlooked in this situation, a shooter who could test Boston's Perkin-less defense when the two teams meet on March 21.

So after all of this analysis, perhaps coach Doc Rivers will be listened to when it comes to discussing the importance of securing home court-advantage should the Celtics make the NBA Finals.

"I've got to somehow figure out a way of getting them (the players) to see the urgency of the whole season, and not the single game," Rivers told the media after a loss to the Houston Rockets in January. "Playing Game Seven on the road...and not just in the finals, if you make it there, but in the playoffs, in the East, which is going to be difficult."

Unfortunately for Rivers, securing home-court advantage is easier said than done. 

The Celtics slipped up to the Lakers last season, gifting Los Angeles their second straight ring, while Boston fans were left with nothing more to blame than a Kendrick Perkins injury and a lack of urgency during the regular season.

At least the Celtics seem to realize how pivotal each game is from here on out.  Boston hasn't been plagued by the same pesky injuries this season either, as Kevin Garnett has been relatively fit, while Pierce has also maintained a healthy status for the majority of the season.

Even so, the Bulls are the main source of concern. And with Derrick Rose so cool and calm, one has to wonder if 2008's classic Eastern Conference Final will play out in sequence again this year, much to the frustration of Miami.

Should that set of circumstances unfold, however, expect some bad blood between old school and new school, or more simply put, Garnett and Noah.

“’I’m going to tell you something about people, man," Garnett said after the Celtics defeated the Bulls on Dec. 3. "Everybody has an opinion, and obviously, he had one. I’m not entertaining nor addressing nobodies. I’m not even entertaining them. I’m focused on basketball and these wins and trying to make this team better. Other than that, I’m not on anything."

Garnett was also directly asked if he thought Noah was a "nobody."  That was followed by a smile, wink and nothing more; something we have come to expect from a player who has successfully harassed just about everybody in the league.

The Celtics are no longer the favorites in the East like they once were.  Sure, teams still fear Boston, especially since the Celtics' bench could match that of say, the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Charlotte Bobcats' starting lineup.

Nevertheless, the Bulls are on the rise, as are the Magic, the Heat and the Knicks.  And in a year's time, don't be surprised to see the Philadelphia 76ers enter the conversation.

Boston will get by thanks to Allen's three-pointers, Garnett's curb talk and Pierce's seemingly humble nature, only due to the fact that they have done so before.  Don't forget, though, all good runs come to an end, and the Celtics are no longer the creme de la creme, with teams forcing their own Big Three mentality these days.

Change and competition is coming, that's if it isn't already here.  It's just a matter of when, rather than "if."

Follow Ryan Cook on Twitter (@RyanCook13).

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