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Running with the Bulls

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  November 3, 2009 02:03 PM

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Christopher L. Gasper
In September, Michael Jordan was in Springfield for his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. That may be as close as Jordan comes to the Celtics this year, but the Celtics could come a lot closer to him.

Like Jordan himself, most of his NBA accomplishments will never be matched, but these Celtics have a shot at one -- the NBA-record 72-10 mark his Bulls posted during the 1995-96 season.

Both Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace were rookies that season when Jordan, who had come back the season before for the final 17 games after a dubious stint as a minor-league baseball player, playing for Terry Francona with the Double A Birmingham Barons, launched his revenge tour on the league.

Before the Celtics even played a game this season, Wallace stated last month to the Connecticut Post that he thought the Celtics could get the Bulls record. Bold? Yes. Off-base? No.

Entering tonight's tilt in Philadelphia against the 76ers, the 4-0 Celtics are 1/18th of the way to 72 wins with a long, long, long, long way to go.

But it's obvious even this early that this version of the Green has a chance to be historically good -- even great.

Through four games, the Celtics are averaging 100.5 points per game and allowing only 81.3. Opponents are shooting 39.1 percent from the floor against them. Six players are averaging nine points per game or more -- Paul Pierce (21.8), Ray Allen (17.8), Kevin Garnett (13.3), Rasheed Wallace (10.0), Kendrick Perkins (9.8) and Eddie House (9.0) -- and that doesn't include nouveau riche point guard Rajon Rondo, who has been content to pass up shots and dish out dimes.

Danny Ainge improved upon a team that won 62 games last season, despite Garnett missing 25 games, and won 66 games and an NBA title in 2008.

The 72-win Bulls had a Big Three of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. You had the greatest player of all-time, the most versatile player in the league at the time, and arguably the greatest pound for pound rebounder ever on the same team.

Boston's Big Three can't match that, but the Celtics have three elements that Bulls team didn't have -- a deep bench with Wallace, Marquis Daniels, House and Shelden Williams, a true playmaking point guard in Rondo and a center who is not afraid of his own shadow and can get out of his own way in Kendrick Perkins.

What this Celtics team shares with the 72-win Bulls is swagger. They walk into the gym expecting to win and genuinely enjoy demoralizing their opponents. Teams are intimidated by KG and irritated by Rondo.

You think it didn't bother Hornets point guard Chris Paul that a night later in New York he was still being asked about chasing Rondo after the Celtics' 97-87 win on Sunday night? Why would Rondo back down from Paul when he drew a technical last year for jawing at Kobe Bryant, the league's latter-day MJ?

The biggest X-factor for the Celtics if they're going to make a run at the Bulls is health. Garnett's surgically-repaired right knee is to the Celtics what Tom Brady's surgically-repaired left knee is to the Patriots -- the season hinges on it. It was obvious in the playoffs last year that without a healthy Garnett, the Celtics are not the same team, especially defensively, which is their calling card.

The good news is that Garnett has looked solid so far. Like Brady was out of the gate, Garnett is feeling his way back, but it was a good sign against the Hornets on Sunday night, when he effortlessly slammed home an alley-oop in the lane from Rondo and also resoundingly rejected a Bobby Brown fast-break layup.

Injuries aside, the biggest impediment to running with the 95-96 Bulls is the schedule. Ten losses doesn't leave much margin for error.

The Celtics opened the season by downing the LeBrons in Cleveland, but they still have three more games with King James. They have four games with Orlando, the first of which is Nov. 20 at TD Garden, when the Celtics could be 12-0. The Eastern Conference foes play Christmas Day in Orlando, which will be good for Celtics coach Doc Rivers from a personal standpoint, if not a professional one.

Boston plays the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 31 at home and in LA on Feb. 18. They're at San Antonio on Dec. 3 and host the Spurs on March 28. There are road games on back-to-back nights in the Lone Star State against Houston and Dallas in March.

The feisty Atlanta Hawks always get up for their games with the Celtics and the teams renew their rivalry next Friday. They play an ESPN game on Jan. 8 in Atlanta and then play at the Garden again three days later. In the ultimate look-ahead game, the Celtics play the Hawks on the road two days before they come home to face the Lakers for the first time.

Those are 17 tough games for the 17-time NBA champions, but going 8-9 or 9-8, still leaves room to catch the Bulls.

To win 72 games you have to go streaking. The Bulls had an 18-game and a 13-game win streak on their way to 72-10.

Last season, Boston had a franchise-record 19-game winning streak on their way to a 27-2 start, which was the best in NBA history for a two-loss team.

Of course that fast start was followed by a 10-game stretch in which they went 3-7 and served as a reminder that it's not how you start in the NBA, it's how you finish.

That's ultimately why Jordan's Bulls are remembered as a great team because they won 72 games during the regular-season and then finished with an NBA title, the first of Jordan's second three-peat.

It's also why among all the great teams in Celtic history you rarely hear any mention of the 1972-73 Celtics, who hold the franchise record for wins (68-14), but were denied the NBA title when they lost to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games. (Boston encountered some bad luck in that series when John Havlicek injured his right shoulder in Game 3.)

Ultimately, the only number the Celtics should be concerned with this season is 18, as in bringing home Banner No. 18, but 72 wins is not out of reach.

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