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For C's, better to be healthy than at home

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 10, 2009 10:28 AM

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The Celtics probably won't have the home court advantage this postseason, and the truth is that they know it. The flip side is that they now trust they can win without it, further indication of just how far they have come since this time last year.

"Obviously we want to have home court, but we believe we can win on the road," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said even before the C's took the floor (sort of) in an eventual 86-79 loss to the Orlando Magic Sunday at the TD Banknorth Garden. "We're not going to start the playoffs with guys who are not healthy. We're going to do what we need to do to have all guys healthy at the start of the playoffs."

So there's your answer:

Health is the priority.

Without it, home court won't mean much, anyway.

A telling example of the notion that the Celtics are putting health above everything else came yesterday, when Rivers said that he would try to limit the minutes of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen against Miami Wednesday even with the team already missing five players. Pierce and Allen both played more than 45 minutes in Sunday's loss to the Magic.

"I still want to keep their minutes down, even in a time of crisis," Rivers said.

A year ago at this time, many of us felt differently, in part because the Celtics generally were healthy, in part because we did not trust them for the simple reason that they did not trust themselves. At the start of last season, Rivers acknowledged that one of the team's preseason goals was to go unbeaten at home. One of the others was to have home court advantage throughout the playoffs, mostly because the Celtics believed they would need it.

Know what that means? It means they were a little unsure of themselves. It means they wanted every advantage possible because, together, they had never gone through a postseason before. Even during the playoffs -- as we saw during the series against Atlanta, in particular -- Rivers acknowledged that the Celtics were learning playoff basketball on the fly, a fact highlighted during the breakdowns in composure that took place in Atlanta and, perhaps, Cleveland. In those two series, the Celtics were 0-6 on the road.

But after Game 3 of the Detroit series, everything changed. The Celtics took two of the three games they played at The Palace during the Eastern Conference Finals and another in Los Angeles during the Finals. Combined, against Pistons and Lakers teams that went 64-18 at home during the 2007-08 regular season, the Celtics went 3-3 on the road. More than any others, those wins are what delivered a 17th championship banner to the rafters.

At the moment, the Celtics are a mess. Sunday proved it and the loss of Glen "Big Baby" Davis only emphasized it. The Celtics currently are without Kevin Garnett (strained right knee), Rajon Rondo (right ankle sprain), Tony Allen (thumb surgery), Brian Scalabrine (concussions), and Davis (right ankle sprain), a group that might very well defeat the starting five the C's put on the floor against the Heat on Wednesday night. On Sunday against the Magic, the Celtics operated without their "quarterbacks" on both ends of the floor -- Garnett on defense, Rondo on offense -- and that undoubtedly explains why they looked to be conducting a 24-minute fire drill during the first two quarters.

The score at halftime: Orlando 51, Boston 33 -- and on the Celtics' home floor.

The Celtics spent the remaining 24 minutes scrambling to catch up, something they nearly achieved thanks to sharpshooter Ray Allen. Nonetheless, the end result was that the C's effectively neutralized Friday night's pulsating win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, at least with regard to home court advantage. If and when the Cavs return here in May, they still will do so with the knowledge that they have not won a game in Boston (regular season or postseason) in eight tries during the Garnett era. They will also return knowing (should they retain the No. 1 seed in the East) they will have to play in Boston only three times, not four.

Remember: The Celtics play at Cleveland on the final weekend of the regular season, and we must assume at this stage that the nod will go to Cleveland.

Nonetheless, this past weekend gave us further indication that the Celtics will be quite capable in defending their title this spring. If nothing else, Friday night's victory proved that the Celtics can play their best when they want to and need to. The Celtics are now operating with such a high level of self-assurance that they can almost turn it on and off, something Rivers himself seems to recognize.

At least when he has a healthy roster.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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