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No choice but to look ahead

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff  January 7, 2009 11:39 PM

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The good thing is, the Celtics can't possibly look past this next game.

Whether or not the Cavaliers have this one circled on their calendar, the Celtics carry the same amount of urgency as the Cavs do into Friday night's tilt at Cleveland. They don't have a choice. With an 89-85 loss to the Rockets Wednesday night at TD Banknorth Garden, the Celtics have lost six of their last eight games.

They need this one.

"We’re going to get their best punch," Celtics captain Paul Pierce said of the Cavaliers. "We got a chance to play them in our home opener (a 90-85 Celtics win). When you play in a game like this, teams like us want to try to find the edge because we know somewhere down the road we’re going to see them in the playoffs... The way we are playing, this is a great way to get back on track.”

The Celtics looked like they might get back on track Wednesday night against the Rockets. They entered the third quarter with the lead, but the C's shot themselves out of the game down the stretch, going 4-for-18 in the final period.

"I thought our spirit was right," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I thought our effort was right, I just didn’t think we executed -- we did execute, we just didn’t make shots and make plays and get stops at the end of games, tonight."

How bad is this recent stretch for the Celtics? It's so bad it has other teams talking. The Bobcats talked about not getting "punked" by the Celtics before Tuesday night's game. And after tonight's game, Rockets forward Ron Artest said his team was "as talented" as the Celtics, it only needed to work a little harder.

"Sometimes we forget that hard work is more important than talent," said Artest. "Last year, Boston had hard work and they had talent, that’s why they ran through everybody."

Still, the Celtics aren't worried that other teams have figured out their secret formula to winning. Rivers said before the game he was confident his team would get back on track. And Kevin Garnett said afterward that he was confident, period.

"We are a very, very confident team," said Garnett. "We have to get our swagger back and some of the things we talk about are being defensively sound. This is the difficult part of the year. I feel we have the mindset to weather the storm.”

Garnett and the Celtics have to hope, however, that they can ride out this latest tempest. The Cavaliers are 18-0 at home this season following a 111-81 thumping of the Bobcats Wednesday night (remember that Charlotte beat the Celtics a night earlier). Cleveland is already a tough place to play, as the Celtics failed to win a single game there during last year's Eastern Conference semifinals. And the C's are showing, for the first time in a season-and-a-half, that they might actually be vulnerable.

In other words, it's a perfect storm.

"I can't sit here and say it's another game," James said of Friday's matchup. "We're just looking forward to the challenge. If we want to be the best team, we have to beat the best. Boston is the best until somebody takes their crown."

With all due respect to Kobe Bryant, James is by far the player that intimidates the Celtics the most. This reporter had the privilege of sitting next to Pierce during the premiere of the Celtics' championship DVD over the summer, and when the highlights from the Cavs series came on the screen, Pierce turned to a friend, sighed, and said, "LeBron is a beast." He's a player the Celtics simply cannot defend one-on-one, and that has to be a scary thought for Rivers and his team.

The Celtics squeezed past the Cavaliers on Opening Night in Boston, but that was at the Garden, with the emotions of raising the banner as motivation. Three factors will work against the Celtics on Friday night: They'll be on the road, the Cavaliers are more motivated than ever, and the C's will be without Tony Allen, the one player on the roster with a chance of slowing James down on his own.

"They got us up there," Cavs point guard Mo Williams said of the season opener. "It's our turn. It's payback time."

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