During the Celtics’ win over the Miami Heat tonight, a fan held up a sign that read “Bring back Walter” in reference to former Celtics forward Walter McCarty, who played for the team from 1997 to 2004.
The fan may have been waxing nostalgic about one of his favorite all-time players, but it’s unlikely he missed the era of Celtics basketball in which McCarty played, an era in which Boston topped 45 wins just once in eight seasons.
Things are different now.
A season after winning 66 games on the way to an NBA title, the Celtics earned their 60th win of the season Friday night at TD Banknorth Garden with a 105-98 victory over the Heat. The win, coupled with Orlando’s loss to New York, gives the Celtics a two-game lead over the Magic for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Each team has three regular-season games to play.
“It takes a great amount of focus [to win 60],” said Celtics guard Ray Allen. “We have a bunch of selfless individuals. Regardless of who was in there, everybody focused on their job and what they needed to do to make this team better.”
For the last two months, the focus on the Celtics has been less about who’s been there and more about who hasn’t been. Sixty wins did not seem like a sure thing when Kevin Garnett went down with a sprained right knee on Feb. 19. Garnett has missed 19 of Boston’s last 23 games with the injury. But instead of falling off the map without Garnett, the Celtics have gone 13-6 in his absence.
“We’re a team that really doesn’t make excuses,” said Paul Pierce, who was 10-of-16 for 28 points against the Heat. “We felt like that is what we were supposed to do regardless of our injuries and the guys that we throw out there. We have definitely been tested with the injuries we had to work with, but we have guys that are more than capable.”
One of the players that has proven himself capable for an increased role has been Glen Davis. In addition to the absence of Garnett, Leon Powe has missed 11 games with a knee injury, while Brian Scalabrine last played on Feb. 23 and is out with a concussion. Playing as one of only three big men in Boston’s rotation, Davis has averaged 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds as a starter.
“We want KG back most definitely,” said Davis. “But it’s all how you look at it. It gives me the opportunity to get the experience under my belt, so when I’m in playoff situations I know I’ve been through this before.”
Davis was a rookie last season, but before that, you’d have to reach way back to the 1985-86 season, long before the Walter McCarty era, to find a Celtics team that had reached 60 wins. With tonight’s win, the Celtics as a franchise have now won 60 or more games 13 times.
This year’s Celtics seemed destined to surpass 60 wins easily, starting the season 27-2 before a Christmas Day loss to the Lakers, which snapped a winning streak of 19 games. But Garnett’s injury changed expectations from historical to realistic.
“To hang in there is big,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
With a championship in their pockets, however, this group of Celtics seems unlikely to rest on regular-season laurels.
“When we won 66 games last year and it didn’t mean anything,” said Allen. “You go into the playoffs and you can get beat. We didn’t win on the road in the first two rounds. Sixty-six wins doesn’t mean anything except we got home court advantage. That’s the biggest thing.”
Gary Dzen can be reached at email@example.com