WALTHAM - Some teams are born for fantasy basketball leagues. They look great when they aren't playing games. They make you want to fawn over the considerable skills of their talented players (hello, Lakers). They make you want to declare them division champs before they lace a sneaker or palm a basketball (hello, Nets). They also transform active coaches into fired ones (goodbye, Del Harris).
No, talented teams don't always win.
"I had a situation like that in Dallas with the three Js," Popeye Jones said of former Mavericks teammates Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson, and Jamal Mashburn. "We had a lot of talent, but we didn't know how to win."
And then there are teams that simply handle tests well. We aren't talking about the bar exam, SAT, LSAT or MCAS. We're talking about the tests every NBA team faces in a season. They are tests that let you know if a team is struggling simply because it doesn't have enough talent or if it is struggling because it can't balance talent with heart.
In the past six days, the Celtics were presented with several of these NBA examinations. Here's how they did.
Test site: FleetCenter.
Opponent: Orlando Magic, Feb. 24.
Test objective: Player should be able to disprove any theories of team selfishness.
Reason for this type of test: A verbal confrontation between Kenny Anderson and Antoine Walker in Washington Feb. 21. Walker had demanded the ball from Anderson, leading a majority of fans to reason that Walker was a selfish brat. The Celtics were 3-5.
Test format: Show your work.
Result: The Celtics defeated the Magic, 111-79. They held the Magic to 35 percent shooting. Penny Hardaway, an All-Star, was scoreless. And the Celtics dominated the game's most selfless category, assists. They finished with 32. Walker and Anderson had eight apiece.
Preparation technique: "We had our best two days of practice before that game," Anderson said. "I was thinking about the incident. We could have gone either way as a team after that. But our practices were great, real energetic."
Cheat sheet: "I kept hearing people talk about what was on the radio and what was said about it in the paper," Anderson said, "but I shelter myself. I don't listen to that stuff or read it. Good or bad. I stopped being affected by that stuff in my third year. Now if I pick up a paper, I just go to the business section."
Test site: FleetCenter.
Opponent: New York Knicks, Feb. 26.
Test objective: Player should demonstrate ability to win, even if his shot is not going in the hoop consistently.
Reason for this type of test: There will be some nights like that.
Psychological bonus: Player should demonstrate ability to win without a starter.
Reason for bonus: There will be some nights like that.
Test format: Freestyle.
Result: The Celtics defeated the Knicks, 94-80. They won even though they shot a dismal 41 percent from the field. They sent a load of 3-pointers to the rim (25) and watched 15 of them bounce out and off. Starting shooting guard Ron Mercer did not play because of a sprained left ankle.
Preparation technique: Two-tiered. The first unit was too tired to press effectively, so it launched the 3-pointers. The second unit, also known as The Bomb Squad, pressed and helped force the Knick point guards into 11 turnovers.
Cheat sheet: The Knicks played an overtime game the previous night.
Test site: Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford, N.J.
Opponent: New Jersey Nets, Feb. 27.
Test objective: Players should demonstrate ability to handle several tests simultaneously.
Reason for this type of test: The Celtics would be playing for the second night in a row; they would be playing on the road; they would be playing without Mercer; they would attempt to take their record over .500; eventually, they would have to see how rookie Paul Pierce responded when his 3-point shot wasn't falling.
Test format: Multiple choice.
Result: The Celtics beat the Nets, 101-92. They won their third road game of the season after winning only 12 during 1997-98. They trailed by as many as 14 points, but they took the lead for good in the fourth quarter. Walker made a jumper to make it 81-80 and Pierce, who had missed his first five 3-pointers, coolly took his sixth and made it.
Quotable: "Did I look nervous?" - Pierce talking about his confidence on his final three.
Preparation technique: Self-preservation. The team had a shootaround scheduled, but Rick Pitino wisely canceled it.
Huddle talk: "I've never seen him like that," Pitino said of Walker. "He wouldn't let us lose. He kept coming back to the huddle saying, "We're not going to lose.' "
Cheat sheet: The Celtics knew the Nets were entering the game with a major Standings Complex. They were 2-9. There already was speculation about coach John Calipari's job and already a player, Chris Gatling, asking to be traded.
So, do the Celtics have heart?
"You can have all the heart in the world and still not be able to make a jump shot," Anderson said. "You can give 100, 200 percent and that shot still isn't going in. You've got to be balanced. Do I think we have that? Yeah. We're young, but we've got it."