C's on a Roll

March 15, 2002

Rolling, rolling, rolling. The Celtics are gathering momentum at just the right time, which means plenty of postgame chest bumps and no doubters. Even coach Jim O'Brien, who is never satisfied and always wants practice time, gave the Celtics yesterday off.

They return to action tonight in Memphis with a chance to extend their winning streak to a season-high seven games. Only tomorrow night's opponent, San Antonio, owns a longer winning streak. But it's hard to look forward without considering the past, both good and bad.

   "I don't want to get too dramatic here," said O'Brien. "But it's very difficult to practice under the banners and retired numbers . . . without an understanding of tradition, even though you may not be an historian. More than anything, these guys are doing it just to get this team to the playoffs. You can always look to the past for inspiration, but you've got to focus on now."

Right now, Boston is playing the best basketball in the East, with wins over playoff-bound teams Philadelphia, Orlando, Detroit, and New Jersey in the last 11 days to prove it. The Celtics are part of a trio at the top of the conference with the Nets and Pistons that has been slow to generate attention and respect. But that's slowly starting to change. It's hard not to notice a team 10 games over .500 and poised to enter the postseason with home-court advantage when most basketball pundits picked them to finish near the bottom of the East.

"It's exciting to be in this position," said general manager Chris Wallace. "We control our own destiny now. We don't have to beat anybody out to make the playoffs. Obviously, we've got to jump ahead of some people to get into first place or win the Atlantic. But to get in and be in the top four and to have home-court advantage, that's in our hands."

Over the last six games, Boston has triumphed in a number of different ways. The Celtics have led wire-to-wire and battled back and forth. They have scored 130 points with nine players in double figures, and 97 points with Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce accounting for 64. They have outrebounded opponents in only three of their last six games, but managed to compensate in other areas (shooting better than 50 percent or keeping turnovers below 10) when they struggle off the glass.

The Celtics have played particularly well in the fourth quarter, erasing the memories of the four-game skid that preceded the winning streak when double-digit leads disappeared for no good reason. Boston has outscored its opponents in the fourth quarter in five of its last six games. The only exception came against the Magic, when a 40-point third quarter gave them all the cushion they would need. Kenny Anderson has averaged six assists during the last six games. Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers have combined for an average of 23.2 points throughout the winning streak.

"We took a big chance as an organization making the trade, giving up a great player in Joe Johnson and trading for two good players," said Walker. "The organization believes in me and Paul and putting the right type of players around us.

"I think we've made it very interesting. We're down three games [to the Nets]. We've got to play them one more time. We've got to continue to play well. There's a lot of things that have got to happen [to win the East]. But it makes it a lot of fun and competitive."

After defeating New Jersey for the second time this season Wednesday night, Boston began to believe finishing the regular season as the best team in the East was a real possibility. To do that, the Celtics recognize they have to sustain (or better yet, elevate) their current level of play for their remaining 18 games, which breaks down to eight more road games, two more sets of back-to-backs, five more contests against teams from the West, and seven more against Eastern teams jockeying for playoff position.

"One of the reasons behind the trade was to get us as completely fortified as possible to make a run because this is the year to do that," said Wallace. "This is a resilient team. We've never lost more than four consecutive games. We've come back from adversity. I'm excited, but there's the regular season and there's the playoffs. We'll see what happens, then we'll talk about where the plan is. We've still got to close this thing out, but it's very heartening to know that things are heading in the right direction at this point."

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