With Nets Out of Reach, C's focus on Detroit

March 24, 2002

WALTHAM - The Celtics may have lost any realistic shot at overtaking the Nets, but they still have an excellent chance to climb to No. 2 in the NBA's rugby-scrum Eastern Conference.

   By beating the Pistons today, the Celtics would move within one-half game of Central Division-leading Detroit, currently the second-best team in the conference. That's a lot more plausible than catching the Nets, who moved five games ahead of Boston with their win Friday night.Celtics coach Jim O'Brien says he's not even thinking about seedings. Instead, he's thinking about making the playoffs, period. It's probably a wise thing; the Celtics may have the third-best record in the conference, but, having lost three of four, they also find themselves only 3 1/2 games out of eighth place with a string of challenging games ahead.

"These are important games," Paul Pierce said in the aftermath of Friday's disappointing 96-91 loss to Philadelphia. "We've got to realize that."

Today's game (noon start) is huge, which explains NBC's decision to take it on. It's the first of back-to-backs, with Miami coming up tomorrow night. Then there is a midweek respite (Golden State) followed by, ahem, Dallas, Milwaukee, Indiana, the Lakers, and New Jersey.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. The Pistons are the topic du jour, and they could be dragging, having played Friday night in Los Angeles to complete a five-game road trip. They went 4-1 on the trip, the sole loss coming to the Lakers.

"Detroit is a tough-minded team," O'Brien said yesterday, following a brief video/free shoot at practice. "They've got a lot of momentum going."

You can, however, forgive Celtics fans if they check the Central Division standings and do some head-scratching when they see the Pistons on top with a 40-28 record. Detroit already has passed through Boston twice and the results were not pretty; a 104-90 Boston victory Jan. 11 and a 117-92 Boston win March 8. In between, the Celtics blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter in a Jan. 19 game in Auburn Hills, Mich., falling, 94-91. In other words, the Celtics have pretty much dominated all three meetings.

That is ancient history to O'Brien. He said he was disappointed with the team's defensive play - a familiar refrain of late - in Friday's game, especially in the second half. The video session yesterday focused on the defensive lapses, which have been more frequent lately.

"All these guys know how to play defense," O'Brien said. "We understand that if we are unselfish on offense, which we have been, and if we have five guys working hard on defense, then we're a pretty good team. And if we don't bring it every night, we're mediocre."

. . .

With the Celtics making a rare national television appearance, there was the obligatory sit-down with the NBC folks last night. O'Brien, Pierce, and Antoine Walker were the scheduled interviewees, and their comments will be heard during today's broadcast . . . Asked if watching the film from Friday night was enough to get his point across, O'Brien added, "I chose to narrate as well." . . . Pierce had a season-high seven assists Friday. It was the seventh time in his career he has had seven. His career high is nine against the Nets on Feb. 8, 2000 . . . Walker has nine steals in the last two games, while Kenny Anderson has eight. The Celtics lead the league in steals at 9.7 per game . . . The Celtics have hoisted 60 3-pointers in the last two games (making 22) and 148 in the last five. Over that same span, they've had 114 free throws. Rodney Rogers, by the way, is shooting almost 60 percent from the field on 2-point attempts and 39 percent from international waters . . . In a variation from the norm, the Pistons have decided not to increase ticket prices for the postseason. Through a "Cheer Now, Pay Later" package, there also is no down payment; ticket-buyers will pay after the playoffs. The normal procedure is for a team to increase playoff ticket prices and to make you purchase tickets for every possible playoff game. The extra money is then either refunded or applied to next year's season tickets.

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