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Celtics notebook

A race to finish

Tough games on rest of schedule

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 5, 2011

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WALTHAM — The Celtics won’t be able to limit minutes and preserve their health for the postseason during their final six games.

Four of the teams left on the schedule — Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, and New York — would like nothing more than to embarrass the Celtics and boost their momentum heading into the playoffs.

The Celtics realize they are targets in this stretch, beginning with tonight’s matchup with the 76ers at the Garden. This is no normal Atlantic Division clash; if the standings remain the way they are today, the Celtics and 76ers would renew their rivalry in a first-round playoff series.

Last month at Wells Fargo Center, the 76ers edged the Celtics, 89-86, and celebrated as if they finally had gained some respect after years of being overshadowed by the Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers.

The 76ers will be trying to send the Celtics a message in case that first-round series occurs and to further cement the sixth spot.

“I deal with it by [saying], ‘Let’s win the game,’ but we’re still going to give our guys rest,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “The whole statement [thing] . . . if they beat us and make a statement, you think that matters in Game 1? It doesn’t matter to us. But let’s beat them when they’re making a statement, and maybe that will make a statement.

“I don’t know if you make statements, I just think you want to win.’’

The Celtics are third in the East, one-half game behind the Heat for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, and whether they actually want to overtake Miami is a sticky situation. If the Celtics claim the second seed, they likely would face the Knicks in the first round. And as much as the Knicks have struggled, no upper-echelon team would choose to face a club with Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and Chauncey Billups if it had the choice.

While the 76ers will be without bench scorer Lou Williams until the postseason with a strained right hamstring, Philadelphia is lacking in playoff experience and it doesn’t have the offensive explosiveness of the Knicks. But the 76ers have given the Celtics fits over the past two years.

Guard Ray Allen recalled that March 11 game in Philadelphia, in which Boston blew a late fourth-quarter lead.

“I expect to get a lot [of intensity] because I’m mad they beat us last time,’’ he said. “That’s got to be fresh in everybody’s mind, knowing that we’re home and we’ve got to right the ship.’’

Allen said he welcomed the competition in the final six games.

“I would rather have it that way,’’ he said. “These last six games, I would want it to be the best teams in the NBA. I want them to be the teams who are going to challenge us and keep everybody focused and let everybody know that we’ve got to play, so we go into the playoffs with that vigor, that intensity.’’

O’Neal back Friday? It appeared that Shaquille O’Neal could be done for the season after he barely was able to make it to the locker room following a calf injury during Sunday’s victory over Detroit. But an MRI and further examination concluded he has a minor strain and will return before the regular season concludes April 13.

Rivers said the center may even return Friday against the Wizards. He did not practice yesterday.

“What I know is that it’s a calf strain, and it’s not that bad, not that severe,’’ Rivers said. “He may play at the end of the week but we’re not sure yet. We’re going to do whatever is required. [He doesn’t need] a lot of games. Even if he was healthy throughout Sunday’s game, I was not going to play him in all the games. It’s just a setback.’’

Center Nenad Krstic participated in practice and said he could play tonight. He has missed the past two games with a bone bruise in his right knee sustained in Thursday’s win over San Antonio. Krstic believed he had torn a meniscus but that was not the case and he is experiencing only minor discomfort.

“Mentally I’m not 100 percent yet and my knee is still sore,’’ he said. “But the MRI showed nothing really serious so I can get through that pain. But it’s still in my head a little bit. I’ll be ready. I’ve been through a whole practice.’’

Troy Murphy, who has missed the past six games with a sprained right ankle, was back at practice and said he could return this week.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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