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Negative talk positive sign of success

Paul Pierce winces but it's worth the pain: He draws a foul on Chicago's Luol Deng. Paul Pierce winces but it's worth the pain: He draws a foul on Chicago's Luol Deng. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / December 22, 2007

The in box was loaded Thursday morning, less than 12 hours after the Celtics' first defeat at home. Where is the backup point guard? Why did Doc Rivers have an ice-cold Paul Pierce take the final shot? Why didn't Pierce wait? What was Tony Allen thinking at the end of the game? Why was he even in the game? Why wasn't Ray Allen given the last shot?

Rivers got killed on talk radio; there are legions out there who still think he's over his head. If you don't believe me, read the comments in Marc Stein's Power Rankings on ESPN.com.

This is what happens when you start to become part of the discussion. A tough loss like Wednesday night's last season would have generated nothing. Now it's a pot-stirrer. For the Celtics, this is all new. They still can't crack the rarefied air in which the Red Sox or Patriots live, and frankly, until they win something, they don't deserve to be there.

But at 21-3 after last night's sys tematic (read: familiar) 107-82 dismantling of what was at one time supposed to be a decent Bulls team, the Celtics reminded one and all just how good they are. No, they still don't have that veteran backup point guard - and yes, that could be a concern against the good teams in the playoffs. But they had almost everything else going last night - including a nice and warm Pierce and the usual maniacal work of Kevin Garnett - and obliterated the hapless Bulls in what has become a recurrent theme at home. Get up big. Coast home. Wait for the Gino footage.

Maybe now those e-mailers will be mollified. For a game.

"Well, we're relevant, which is nice," Rivers said after the game, when asked if he was at all amazed by the talk. "I guess I'd rather have that than have no one care. This is a sports town. The fans have a lot of passion and I'd rather have that all day, even with the negative part. It's like Terry [Francona] once said. I can't remember the exact quote, but they had won [a lot of] games and he said, 'Nobody's happy.'

"But that's not true in some ways," Rivers went on. "[The fans] are happy. But they're intense. And I'd rather have that, I really would. I've been in other situations as a player and a coach, and at times, you want that." (Note: He played in Atlanta.)

The Bulls had the misfortune to be the opponent immediately following the loss to Detroit, and I'm not sure anyone could have beaten the Celtics last night with the mind-set they brought to this game. Pierce and Garnett both said they got positive vibes at the morning shootaround and everything carried over from there. Big Baby, not Joakim Noah, played like the lottery pick from the Southeastern Conference. The Celtics dominated the glass, got to the line, won the third quarter (as well as the other three), and neither Garnett nor Pierce had to play in the fourth.

"What you saw tonight," Garnett said, "was what we call stopping the bleeding."

Bleeding? They lost one bloody (pun intended) game. And they almost won that one. James Posey got it right. "Its probably just a minor little wound."

It must be because they have been so consistently dominant that when some team plays them even, there is the inevitable search for a higher meaning. Was anyone really surprised that the Pistons came in and played the Celtics even? Or that they ended up winning the game? Could the Celtics have won it? Absolutely. They feel they beat themselves.

It's wonderful that people are again talking about the Celtics. It's a tribute to Danny Ainge's perseverance, patience, and guile and Kevin McHale's mindless stupidity that we have what we have. But it's also the nature of the (local) beast to go overboard if there's even so much as a minor glitch in what, to now, has been an almost perfect system. Do you think the residents of the City of Broad Shoulders reacted this way when the 1995-96 Bulls went from 23-2 to 23-3? (If they did, the Bulls responded with 18 straight wins.)

The Celtics have lost three of 24 games. Those three losses have involved two regulation games decided by a total of 4 points and an overtime loss decided by 5. There have been only two competitive games at home this season, the 1-point win over Miami and the 2-point loss to Detroit. Only three of their 21 wins have been by 10 points or fewer - and last night represented the ninth time this season they've won a game by 20 or more.

The Celtics are now three wins shy of their total from last season and might well surpass it before the calendar turns to 2008. They're the top defensive team in the NBA. They toyed with the Bulls, leading by double digits for the final 34 minutes. Chicago still doesn't know what hit it. "I guess it was just a bunch of things we didn't do well," offered Ben Gordon. You think?

They're not going to go 79-3. They could lose tomorrow night to Orlando. Rivers himself said before the Pistons game that he thought the Celtics had played well in only 12 of their 22 games. So it's 13 of 24 now. That means they're 8-3 in the games in which didn't play well - and 13-0 in the ones in which they did. What's not to like about that?

Peter May can be reached at p_may@globe.com.

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