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Division-leading Celtics brace for daunting foes

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / April 1, 2012
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Most signs have pointed to the Celtics failing to win the Atlantic Division for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

At the All-Star break, the Celtics had a 15-17 record, trailing Philadelphia by four games. On March 7, the Celtics were routed by the 76ers (103-71), and the prospect of an eight-game road trip did not provide much hope of cutting what had become a two-game deficit. Then there was the March 23 visit to Philadelphia, which resulted in a 99-86 loss and a concussion to Mickael Pietrus.

But after a 100-79 victory at Minnesota Friday, the Celtics (29-22) have taken over the division lead for the first time this season.

However, the schedule becomes even more challenging now.

They will meet Miami three times in the next 24 days, starting with a home game Sunday. In the final 15 games, the Celtics will also play Chicago, Indiana, Philadelphia, Atlanta (twice), and Orlando; plus there are games against Milwaukee and New York, two teams fighting for the last playoff berth in the East, and San Antonio, second behind Oklahoma City in the Western Conference.

The Celtics have found effective combinations since the All-Star break, compiling a 14-5 record. Though most of those victories have been against mediocre competition, they have at least forged an identity as an energetic, resourceful group, compensating for the loss of four players who had started at least four games this season.

Rajon Rondo has exemplified the renewed focus, producing 12 straight double-figure assist games, while minimizing his turnovers.

“We had some losses in those double-digit assists, I guess,’’ Rondo said after a 17-assist output against Minnesota. “But I think pretty much all the games we were right there except for Sacramento and the end of the Philly game.

“But it starts with defense. We don’t let teams go on those runs, we’re a pretty efficient team. We’re either going to get a great look at the basket or we’re going to score, either way.

“We have been keeping the turnovers down - it starts with me, and when we do that we’re pretty much in any ballgame.’’

Kevin Garnett has been thriving at center. And, with Ray Allen (ankle) out, Garnett has followed coach Doc Rivers’s instructions to be less unselfish. He has tried fewer than 16 shots only once in the last seven games.

“Moving Kevin to the 5 is probably the best thing we’ve done,’’ Rivers said. “It’s not like we’ve changed a lot of stuff, he’s been doing that a lot in the first half anyway. With Brandon [Bass] coming in, he was at the 5, anyway. We just did it full-time.

“Our offense has been more efficient, defense is solid, we’re playing together as a team. We’ve had a ton of injuries and the guys just keep filling the gap.’’

Garnett outplayed Kevin Love in the win in Minnesota.

“On the block, he kept calling for the ball,’’ Rondo said. “In Boston, he doesn’t go to the block that much. It was kind of different for me.

“And he was very efficient, he knocked down shots. He did it all, he rebounded the ball, he got deflections, he made great passes. That’s what we expect of him and he’s been doing it pretty much every night, honestly.’’

In the next five days, the Celtics will meet the top two Eastern teams and San Antonio.

“And we’ll be ready to go,’’ said Rondo. “I think we’re in a good rhythm right now, defensively. And if we can continue to start the game with getting stops and getting easy buckets, we’ll be fine.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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