The Celtics are 29-3. Take a step back and reflect on that utterly astonishing record. They could go .500 the rest of the way - which would be a dramatic dropoff from the way they are playing - and still finish with 54 wins. They are (a) a Paul Pierce 3-pointer (which he's been known to make on occasion), (b) two Ray Allen free throws (money) and (c) a silly Tony Allen foul from possibly being 32-0. Conversely, they also are (a) a Sam Vincent brain cramp (a beauty), (b) a Dwyane Wade jumper (which he's been known to make on occasion), and (c) some Chauncey Billups free throws (money) from being 26-6.
To what do we attribute such astounding success, other than the fact that the Celtics are playing really, really well? Here are a few possibilities.
- The Eastern Conference. We all figured it would be better this season, but it really isn't. Many of the teams that people presumed would be good - Chicago, Miami, New Jersey, and Cleveland - have struggled. (Miami has plummeted.) The Nets are the only one of those four above .500 and they barely make it. No one has stepped into that breach to challenge the Celtics, with the exception of the Pistons. Only five teams are above .500, but that is an ever-changing number. The Celtics, Pistons, and Magic have been the only consistent winning teams in the East, and Orlando strikes fear in no one, despite the looming menace posed by MVP-in-waiting (but not this year) Dwight Howard. And unless someone makes a dramatic trade in the next six weeks, or a key someone on Boston or Detroit gets badly injured, you can pretty much book a Celtics-Pistons matchup in the conference finals.
- The schedule. The Celtics have played exactly one game against the top five teams in the Western Conference (and that night, the Denver Nuggets looked Secaucus-bound). They've played no games against the top three teams in the West - and won't until the end of this month. By the time the Celtics host the Mavericks Jan. 31, every other team in the East will have had at least one game against the Mavs, Suns, or Spurs. At present, the only other Eastern Conference team yet to play Dallas, San Antonio, or Phoenix is New Jersey. The Nets will be in Phoenix Jan. 20. The Celtics have played a total of 10 games against the Western Conference. In the East, only the Bobcats (7) have had fewer.
- Health. This is always the X factor. Kevin Garnett and Pierce haven't missed a game. Rajon Rondo has missed one, Ray Allen a pair. Meanwhile, injuries have all but torpedoed the Heat (along with the aging of a certain corpulent center), while the Nets and Cavs also have had key people out or unavailable. If you want to contemplate what life would be like without Garnett, go back and watch the parts of the first and second quarters of Saturday's game when he had to sit on the bench with foul trouble. It wasn't pretty.
- Defense. This is a clock that keeps on ticking. Garnett may be the best defender to wear Celtic green since Bill Russell. The one question I get a lot is whether I think the Celtics can sustain this thing. I don't know about a 29-3 pace, but as long as they continue to play the kind of defense we've been seeing, they're going to win a lot of games for the simple reason that so few others do it. (Then again, there's only one Garnett.) That's why this team has such an amazing point differential (12-plus per game). And while Garnett makes this thing go, take a moment at the next Celtics game and watch assistant coach Tom Thibodeau for a minute. Even if the Celtics are up 20 with 2:00 left, if they give up an easy basket, he is not a happy man.
Where does this all go? Who knows? The gold standard for regular-season success is the 72-10 Chicago Bulls of 1995-96. They, too, were 29-3 after 32 games, but also were in the midst of an 18-game winning streak that would crest at 41-3. The 69-win Los Angeles Lakers of 1971-72, the team that set the NBA record for consecutive wins with 33, was in the middle of that streak after 32 games and also was 29-3. They went to 39-3 before they suffered loss No. 4.
A team that kind of gets lost in the discussion is the 1996-97 Bulls, who also went 69-13. They were 28-4 after 32 games. And the 1966-67 Sixers, who went 68-13, also were 29-3 after 32 games and didn't lose their fourth game until they had amassed 37 victories.
Those four teams all have one thing in common: They won the NBA championship. And all the great regular-season success will mean nothing if the Celtics have one of those historic seasons and then lose in the playoffs. Just ask Dallas. The Mavericks won 67 games last year and no one talks about them being anything other than a first-round flop.