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Celtics keep one eye on calendar, another on clock

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 13, 2011

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The Celtics’ lead in the Eastern Conference is gone this morning, caught last night by the Chicago Bulls, who have been tailing them hard in the final weeks of the season.

Home-court advantage in the playoffs has been the Celtics’ biggest incentive this season after losing to the Lakers in Game 7 of last year’s Finals in Los Angeles. But obstacles — from injuries to integrating new players — could make it difficult for the Celtics to maintain what was a fairly comfortable lead at one point.

Coach Doc Rivers said the top seed is still a priority, but with starters playing heavy minutes, it’s not a greater priority than keeping bodies healthy and rested going into the postseason.

“I want health,’’ Rivers said. “We want the 1 seed, but we want health, too.’’

For the most part, the Celtics’ toughest games are behind them. They have a pair left with the new-look Knicks, they hit the road this month for a three-game trip that includes the Spurs, and there’s a matchup with the Bulls lurking in April.

But, by and large, the schedule is kind to them, which makes losses like the one Wednesday at home to the Clippers and Friday in Philadelphia disappointing.

“We’ve just got to try to win,’’ said Rajon Rondo. “Especially these games we should win. We’ve played the tough end of our schedule already, so we’ve just got to try to find a way to get a win.’’

Minutes are the first thing Rivers wants to get under control. Rondo and Ray Allen are playing close to 40 a night in the five games this month. Paul Pierce is playing 36.

Last season, Rivers went with an all-out shutdown at the end of the season, and the Celtics lost seven of their final 10 games. But they got the bodies healthy enough to make a Finals run.

This time, Rivers said, the Celtics want to take advantage of the winnable games left ahead of them.

“You try to win that game,’’ Rivers said. “Having said that, I’m not going to extend anybody’s minutes. Matter of fact, I’m probably going to decrease some guys’ minutes.

“But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to win the game — we still want to win all these games. But Rondo’s playing too many minutes, a couple guys are playing too many minutes. And we’re decreasing them. No matter what, their minutes have to go down.’’

The standings get only a passing glance from Allen, who said he checked for the first time before the Sixers game to see positioning. He and the rest of the team have been preoccupied.

“There so many things that we can do to improve what we’re doing,’’ said Allen, “and right now, our ultimate concern is with the new guys, getting them acclimated to what they’re doing. We haven’t been full throttle all year.’’

Right now, the Celtics are keeping an eye on the Sixers in seventh place, and the Pacers, Bobcats, and Bucks all battling for eighth.

“I think everybody wants to run into everybody in the playoffs,’’ Rivers said. “I hear that all the time. It’s usually the ninth team, they say, ‘Nobody wanted to play us.’ And I say, ‘Actually, they did.’ They didn’t want to play the eighth team.

“I don’t think anybody cares who they play. We don’t. At the end of the day, we’ve just got to play.’’

But they aren’t worried about drawing the best matchup as much as securing home court. Getting healthier and getting on the same page will go a long way in making that happen.

“That’s the ultimate objective, having home court throughout the playoffs,’’ Allen said. “I think, being healthier, we would have been even further in [the lead].

“I hope we get some guys back in this next week, because the season is winding down.’’

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

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