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Top three home in on stretch

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / March 7, 2009
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For the Celtics, Cavaliers, and Magic, the heated games against each other are not much more important than the ones against cellar-dwellers Toronto, Washington, and Indiana.

With playoff seedings and potential tiebreakers in mind, the Eastern Conference's elite will not have a chance to rest before the playoffs, as they try to pile up as many wins as possible to earn the fruits of the top seed.

"As a team, you want to try to win as many games so you can put yourself in a position to have home court," said Cavaliers star LeBron James. "Whether it's the first round or the first couple rounds or throughout the whole playoffs, you want to try to put yourself in a position if you have that in your back pocket."

Boston fans are getting an up-close look this weekend at the teams looking to supplant the Celtics as the East's top playoff seed - the Cavaliers last night and the Magic tomorrow. The Celtics (49-14) are in a virtual tie with Cleveland (48-13) after defeating the Cavaliers, 105-94, last night at TD Banknorth Garden. The Magic (45-16) are three games back after last night's win over visiting New Jersey. The Celtics lead the season series, 2-1, over Cleveland and 2-0 over Orlando.

With injuries and new acquisitions affecting all three powerhouses, neither game for the Celtics this weekend will be a true gauge as to what a playoff matchup would be like. But the two games, and all the others remaining in the regular season, will play a role in determining not only home-court advantage but whether the first-round opponent is a team like improving Detroit or struggling Milwaukee.

"Every game is important," said Celtics guard Eddie House. "You don't try to circle one and put more emphasis on one than the other. [Each is] a big game. Tonight we wanted to try to play well and make a statement. We've got to win games that we're supposed to. [But] games like this are supposed to be a grind."

The Celtics have 10 home games remaining, but just four against winning teams - Orlando, Miami (twice), and Atlanta. Boston has nine road games remaining, five against winning teams - Miami, San Antonio, Orlando, Atlanta, and Cleveland.

"I just worry about us doing what we need to do," said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "I don't worry about anybody else."

The Celtics, however, have been playing without Kevin Garnett since Feb. 19, and are expected to be without him for at least another week. They have proven to be gritty, going 8-2 without him this season. The Celtics are also trying to integrate guard Stephon Marbury and forward Mikki Moore into the rotation.

"I think it's a hidden blessing because Glen [Davis] has been playing well and Leon [Powe] is getting more minutes," Allen said. "[Kendrick] Perkins is better with Kevin in there. But he now has to learn these other guys' personalities and they have to learn to have a better rapport. Mikki is getting better for us. It's kind of helping getting them right back into it."

The Cavaliers have 13 home games remaining, including against Orlando, Portland, Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, San Antonio, and Boston. Cleveland is 27-1 at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs have eight road games remaining, two against teams with winning records.

In the last two seasons, the Cavaliers are 6-0 at home against the Celtics, but 0-8 in Boston. The Cavaliers are playing without starting power forward Ben Wallace, who is expected to miss 3-5 more weeks with a broken right leg, and trying to fit in recently signed forward Joe Smith.

"As a team, we want to continue to get better every day," James said. "If we end up with that No. 1 seed where we get home court throughout the playoffs, that will be great. If not, we have to be ready to play road games. You have to play road games, anyways."

The Magic have 10 home games remaining, with Utah, Boston, and Cleveland the only opponents with winning records. Orlando, however, has 11 road games, with six opponents having winning records. Despite the Magic's challenging upcoming slate, the Celtics and Cavaliers aren't taking them lightly.

"There are a lot of dangerous teams, but the two teams that get most of the talk is ourselves and Boston," said Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. "Orlando needs to be in every single breath that is taken about top teams in the East."

Said Allen, "[The Magic] have quality core guys who are capable of winning in the playoffs. We're not by any means thinking it's a two-horse race."

The key to Orlando challenging Boston and Cleveland is new point guard Rafer Alston, who is replacing Jameer Nelson (shoulder surgery).

"We feel like we have the team to do it," Alston said in a telephone interview. "Those two teams have been to the last two Finals. Boston has won it. We can be ranked as high as those two teams, but we have a lot of work to do.

"We have to play a complete game, continue to get smarter and better, turn up the defense. We have to be tougher when games are on the line and in the trenches."

The Celtics, Cavaliers, and Magic are all confident they can win anywhere in the postseason. But why play with fire if you don't have to? Don't listen to all the coach-speak. Winning the No. 1 seed is very important, because the winner gets the friendliest road to the Finals.

"You do see the standings every day," James said. "They're in the locker room, they're on TV. There's nothing you can do to not see the standings. When you're in a position this late in the season, you want to try to control your own destiny.

"If we can continue to win, continue to do the things we've been doing, we may be able to finish first."

Said Allen, "I thought [the top seed] was very important for us last year, being pretty young as a crew. We're more experienced now playing in big games. It is important."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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