The Celtics' regular season is far from over. But a league-record start has launched them into a race for home-court advantage in the postseason. And the significance of their Causeway Street court and a supportive crowd was apparent last night, as the Celtics recovered from a difficult road trip for a 108-83 win over the Washington Wizards, their 13th successive victory at TD Banknorth Garden.
After concluding 2008 with three losses in four games in California and Oregon, the Celtics (29-5) were back to their old selves in their first game of the new year.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce sat out nearly half the game, and the bench players did their part in preserving the advantage, allowing everyone to rest up for tomorrow's visit to New York.
"It's strange to go out West, you come home, unpack, and then go back out on the road," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "The guarantee is everybody is going to play 82 [games]."
Pierce (26 points in 26 minutes) converted his first nine shots before missing a trey late in the third quarter, shortly before going to the bench for the night. Pierce hit his first five 3-pointers, one fewer than the team record without a miss, set by Danny Ainge at Utah Jan. 4, 1988, and tied by Walter McCarty at Toronto Nov. 2, 1999.
This game had the makings of a blowout early, and the Celtics' starters confirmed that early in the second half. Rajon Rondo extended the lead to 30 points, sinking a 3-pointer with :02 on the shot clock for a 73-43 advantage.
"Recharge is always good, but for the most part our focus is starting games," Garnett said. "Our biggest key is starting games, finishing games, finishing quarters off, being consistent with defense, and I thought we did that. That's the value in coming out strong. That's the reward for coming out and setting the tone defensively."
After a 27-2 start, the best record in NBA history through 29 games, the Celtics faltered against the Lakers, Golden State, and Portland. But they are clearly coasting in the East, as they are 21-1 against Eastern Conference foes.
"We approach each game individually, we don't keep up with the standings," Garnett said. "Obviously, we want to establish home court, we want to gain home-court advantage. But we take one game at a time."
The Wizards (6-25) were playing without Gilbert Arenas (knee), DeShawn Stevenson (back strain), and Brendan Haywood (wrist), but the Celtics did not consider their absences, and the expected less-than-full-speed status of Caron Butler (ankle) to be good omens.
In their loss to Golden State, the Warriors played without Corey Maggette and Portland was able to beat the Green without star guard Brandon Roy.
But the Celtics set the tone, Rondo choreographing the offense. The Wizards, who lost Andray Blatche to a knee strain in the first quarter, concentrated on Ray Allen, who essentially played the role of decoy, taking only three shots as the Celtics took a 58-34 halftime lead.
Pierce finally missed, launching an unguarded 3-pointer, but Kendrick Perkins's putback gave the Celtics an 81-53 lead with 1:20 remaining in the third. Rondo's play in the final 30 seconds of the quarter increased the lead to 31 points: a dunk followed by a behind-the-back assist to Allen for a 3-pointer with 3.4 seconds to go to make it 86-55. That would be enough to clinch the result, as the reserves took over after that.
"You want to gain home court, because this is where we play well, this is where we are comfortable," Pierce said. "We can play on the road, but home court was very valuable to us last year on our run, so it's definitely important for us to try and establish home court. But we control our destiny. It's all about taking it one game at a time and not worrying about what Cleveland and Orlando are doing."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.