THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Celtics make painstaking gains

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 7, 2010

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In the Celtics locker room, the trainer’s room is like the players lounge, with everyone passing through at some point.

The Celtics have had more bodies on the table than they ever anticipated at this point, but they’ve still managed one of the best starts in the league.

At 16-4, the Celtics are tied for the second-best mark in the league, and with seven straight wins, they’re the hottest team outside of the Mavericks (nine straight victories). The wins have come in all forms — blowouts, overtime nailbiters, come-from-behind efforts, and wake-up calls where they’ve let huge leads slip away — but they all look the same in the standings.

They’re waiting for some key players to get healthy — Jermaine O’Neal (knee), Rajon Rondo (hamstring), and Kendrick Perkins (knee) in particular — and also coping with the fact that one (Delonte West) will be gone for a while. Even though they’re at the top of the Eastern Conference, the Celtics believe they’ll be better by the end of the year.

“We’re playing good,’’ said Paul Pierce. “But we feel like we’re going to be playing our best basketball probably later in the year because of the injuries.’’

Since 2007, the Celtics have been notoriously fast starters. The first season the Big Three (Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen) were together, they started 29-3. The year after that they started 27-2. Last season, it was 23-5.

It was around this time last season when some of the screws started falling off the machine. Marquis Daniels went down with a wrist injury. Pierce missed the Christmas Day game with a knee infection. From there, no one seemed to be immune. Glen Davis sprained his ankle. Rondo was hampered by hamstring issues. Garnett hyperextended his right knee. Spasms flared in Allen’s back. All the nagging injuries slowed the freight train dramatically.

“Last year was last year,’’ Rivers said. “I don’t know what you can learn from that. We got hurt. Last year, Kevin got hurt, I mean we got injured. So yeah, if we get injured, then we’ve got problems, but I don’t really think about it that much.’’

This season, they’ve weathered the injuries.

Rondo, who played all but one game last season, missed his fourth game of the season Sunday, and Rivers is considering whether to sit him again tomorrow when the Nuggets come to TD Garden.

But Allen, Pierce, and Garnett haven’t missed a game, and Garnett looks like a completely different player than the one who was recovering from knee surgery last season.

“We feel like we’ve got our core guys,’’ Pierce said. “As long as we’ve got our core guys out there — me, Rondo, Ray, Kevin — we expect to be great every night regardless of who else we put on the court.’’

The goal is still to win as many games before the All-Star break as possible, and the Celtics have gotten a lift from a patchwork second unit. One of the troubles last season was that injuries forced players to take on different roles.

So far this season, whether it’s Nate Robinson bouncing between the starting and backup point guard spots or Davis taking more responsibility on the second unit, the reserves are more willing to accept the changes that have come because of the injuries.

“We just love to compete,’’ Robinson said. “Basketball’s all about competition and competing, no matter if you’re banged up, your whole team is willing to compete with anybody.’’

Still, they can see the potential the team has if all those bodies get off the trainer’s tables.

“We’re going to get better,’’ Pierce said. “And that’s the scary part about this team.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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