Celtics look to elevate second half of season

Jim Fenton

They roared out to the fourth-best start in NBA history by going 29-3 in the opening nine weeks.

Since that remarkable stretch, though, the Boston Celtics have been just an ordinary team with a 5-4 record that includes three losses at home.

After looking pretty close to invincible for just over two months, the Celtics have reached the midway point of their season playing so-so basketball.

Since an emotional road victory over the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 5, the Celtics have dropped home games to the Charlotte Bobcats, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors and should have lost to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night.

Their NBA-leading defense, which allows only 88 points on 42 percent shooting per game, has developed some flaws and the offense has not been flowing quite as efficiently as it once did.

The Celtics begin the second half of the season today with a national television date in Florida against the Orlando Magic (1:05, TV: Channels 5 and 6; radio: WEEI-850 AM).

That kicks off a stretch in which the Celtics play 10 of 14 games on the road, ending with the second trip out West in late February following the All-Star break.

The Celtics have arrived at the season's midway point with a 34-7 record, equaling the best 41-game start in franchise history. They join the 1964-65, 1972-73 and 1984-85 teams who were also 27 games above .500 at this point.

Boston owns an 11-game lead over the Raptors in the Atlantic Division and began Saturday night leading the New Orleans Hornets and the Pistons by 4 ½ games in the race for the best overall record.

Before this first dip that began 2 1/2 weeks ago, the Celtics played some remarkable basketball during the first half of the season, winning nine straight games on two occasions and putting together an eight-game streak.

The instant chemistry that was formed between Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen made it all work so quickly as the Celtics got rolling on opening night in early November.

"You just care about chemistry more than anything,'' said Coach Doc Rivers. "Chemistry, to me, is the important thing. It's one of those things we don't look at enough in our league. It's crucial every night and every game, and as the year goes on, you hope it grows.''

Garnett, Pierce and Allen, who were put together after being in losing situations, had little problems adapting to the new environment.

" I was confident it would work, but I didn't know it as a fact,'' Rivers said. "It was more of because of who they are and where they are at this point in their careers. I could have been wrong. You never know till you start the games or the practices.

"They've got to be the right players, not only as far as talent they also have to be the right teammates. We got lucky in that. We (added) two good people. We always knew Kevin and Ray's talent. The only reason this is working is because they're good people.''

The veteran leadership will now be looked to as the Celtics try to recapture the form that made them so successful in the first two months.

The Celtics were overwhelmed by the Bobcats, a team headed for the lottery, couldn't stop the 3-point shooting by the Raptors last Wednesday and nearly got embarrassed by the Timberwolves, winners of seven games, on Friday night.

Part of the problem is the fact opposing teams are looking to make a name by knocking off the Celtics. The Timberwolves, loaded with former Boston players, put together an emotional effort before faltering in the final minute of an 87-86 loss.

In addition, the Celtics have continually called the regular season "a process'' and figure they will be a better team in the spring after having more time together.

"We know we've got a ways to go,'' Pierce said. "We're (just) halfway through the season. We're still learning about ourselves, and with each and every week that passes, we learn more.''

If the Celtics are going to be playing for a championship in June, their defense will have to carry them.

With Garnett setting the tone, the Celtics have actually been better at the defensive end than they have with the basketball in the first half of the season.

"That's where we take a lot of pride, having each guy's back, knowing our assignments, playing defense with effort and energy,'' said Garnett, who will be a game-time decision today after suffering an abdominal strain on Friday. "That's got to be a consistent thing night in and night out with this team. I feel like if we play defense every single night, we give ourselves a chance to win every single game.''

The second half of the season begins today with the Celtics playing .829 basketball. The schedule is going to be challenging as Boston still has to play the top teams in the West -- the San Antonio Spurs, the Hornets, the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns -- twice each.

Asking the Celtics to match the 34-7 start in the second half is a bit much. The first priority for the Celtics is to start playing better basketball than they have been during the 5-4 stretch that ended the first half.

The Enterprise