Celtics Prepare for Playoffs in February


Celtics Prepare  for Playoffs in February

The playoffs start in seven weeks, give or take. From here on out, we all know what the Celtics are focused on. No. 17.

``Now, toward the end of the season, it gets even more interesting,'' guard Ray Allen said last night after the Celtics' 92-87 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at TD Banknorth Garden. ``We've talked about a Detroit team that's so experienced, and that's what we're growing toward at this stage of the season.'' Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers: ``We've talked about it all year, but I think after the break, you focus on it a little more. The stretch run is pretty much here.''

Oh, the sound is faint, admittedly, but it is there nonetheless and will grow with each passing day. The playoffs are coming. With their victory over the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Celtics improved to an NBA-best 44-12, including a sterling home record of 24-4. There are just 26 more regular-season games to go.

So now, for the first time in a generation, the Celtics prepare to enter March with legitimate thoughts of a championship. Merely qualifying for the playoffs is not in question. Neither is the No. 1 pick in the draft. The Celtics are getting healthier, and director of basketball operations Danny Ainge is fortifying the roster, all at a time when the pace of the NBA season is about to pick up again.

In modern sports, this is how it all works, especially for the Celtics, especially this year. You spend the first weeks and months of the season learning about the potential of your team, assessing the weaknesses and strengths. Then you plod through the middle of the schedule. The trading deadline serves as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and it is then that everyone asks the same question:

What will things be like come playoff time?

This year, the Celtics answered the first question early. They came out of the gate by going 29-3, tying the NBA record for the best start after 30 games (27-3). In the wake of Ainge's ultimate makeover (NBA edition), nobody had to spend much time wondering how the pieces would fit together. Then came some injuries, including one to Kevin Garnett, who is slowly regaining the form of a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate.

All of this brings us to last night, to the here and now, to the win over the Cavs. Last week, Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry orchestrated a massive overhaul of his roster by acquiring Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak. All of it was geared toward winning the Eastern Conference, which means all of it was designed to help beat the Celtics.

Said Rivers before the game when asked about the flurry of activity throughout the league at the deadline: ``I'd like to think we started it all in the summer and everyone else followed suit.''

As for the Celtics, Ainge yesterday continued the most extraordinary reconstruction in Boston sports history by signing power forward P.J. Brown to a contract. Presumably, point guard Sam Cassell will be next. Ainge lapped the field three times over last summer by acquiring centerpieces Garnett and Allen to go along with Paul Pierce.

The rest of the NBA has spent the balance of time trying to catch up while the Celtics have gone about the business of fine tuning their product.

Now, at a time of year when New England typically looks to Opening Day, April will bring the NBA playoffs. Next week, the Celtics have a key home matchup against the Detroit Pistons, who are three games behind (four in the loss column) for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Later next month, the Celtics will have their last major road trip, a journey that includes stops at San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and New Orleans.

By then, the Celtics hope to be better than the team that opened the year with 29 wins in its first 32 games, which means the process starts now.

``We're learning a lot of lessons about ourselves right now, things we need to clean up,'' Allen said. ``We're becoming battle-tested.''

Good thing, too.

After all, the battle is drawing near.

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