C's D deserves an A


C's D deserves an A

At first glance, it would seem only natural to credit the Celtics' offensive touch for their longest winning streak in nearly 22 years, due to an average victory margin of 16.7 points.

As they look to extend their undefeated string to 11 games tonight against the Utah Jazz at TD Banknorth Garden, however, the C's fully understand it has been their defensive play that has allowed them to play their best basketball of the season as the playoffs approach.

Throughout the winning streak, which is the franchise's longest since the original Big Three helped rip off a 14-game run in 1986, the Celtics have stymied their opponents with relentless, airtight defense. As a result, the opposition has shot a woeful 38 percent (303-for-797) from the field during the streak.

``Any team can beat you in this league if you let them or if you give them a chance or an opportunity,'' Kevin Garnett said. ``Defensively, I think we are very fundamentally sound right now. We are connected and talking more than ever. Obviously, we got some additions to the team and they come in gradually but for the most part we are coming together a little bit.''

During the winning streak, the Celtics have surrendered more than 100 points on one occasion and they won that game, 112-102 at Portland to end a three-game losing skid following the All-Star break. They have held teams under 90 points in seven of the last nine games, including the last three.

``It all starts with the defense,'' Eddie House said. ``Everyone's out there working hard and playing hard. If you play good defense and execute on offense, you get wins.''

The Celtics are 45-6 when holding opponents under 100 points. Newcomer Sam Cassell lauded the team defense, which allows for risks to be taken defending the ball due to the security that a teammate will be backing you up.

``This team plays hard,'' he said. ``This team talks a lot to each other on the court. We help each other out a lot. You know if you get beat, somebody's going to be there to help you out. A lot of teams don't have it, but whatever it is, we've got it.''

Center Kendrick Perkins said the key is that everyone remains selfless.

``It's the guard getting the steal, a big man blocking a shot or taking a charge or whatever, just making any play that will get us going,'' he said. The Celtics head off on the road following tonight's game for what promises to be a major test against some of the Western Conference's top teams. They open with a gimme tomorrow night in Milwaukee against the hapless Bucks (23-42), who squandered an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter Wednesday night in a 114-110 home loss to Utah.

After that, however, the Celtics have to play the current second-, third-, fifth- and seventh-place teams in the West. They travel to San Antonio (No. 3, 44-20 record) on Monday before taking on scorching Houston (No. 2, 44-20), which is riding a 20-game winning streak, on Tuesday. The trip continues in Dallas (No. 7, 42-23) Thursday before wrapping up in New Orleans (No. 5, 43-20) a week from tomorrow.

``It will be great because they are in desperation mode,'' coach Doc Rivers said. ``I was reading something that (San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich) said the other day that all their teams, including his team, have had to go into playoff-play urgency earlier than normal, so we're going to catch that. We're going to get thrown in the middle of that fire, and that's going to be a great test for us. I'm really looking forward to it.''

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