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Rob Peterson

Inside the Eastern Conference

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Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Celtics starting to feel it again with KG back in the lineup

By Rob Peterson, NBA.com
Posted Mar 24 2009 12:03PM

Kevin Garnett is back. Are the Celtics?

After a bumpy 13-game run while Garnett sat out with a strained right knee -- Boston was 7-6 without its big man -- the Celtics have gone 3-0 since his return on March 20 in San Antonio. Garnett, working his way back into game shape, has hit 15 of the 21 shots he's taken in his comeback. But he hasn't played more than the 17:51 he played against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday.

Still, for the Celtics, any amount of playing time is a nice time to see No. 5 anchoring the defense and stretching opposing defenses with his mid-range jumper.

"We have such a great chemistry when our starting five is out there," Celtics forward Paul Pierce told reporters after the Clippers game. "We don't like him on the bench. We like him on the floor."

Still, one NBA scout notes that the damage has been done to the Celtics' hopes of securing the home-court advantage that was crucial in their run to the franchise's 17th title last season.

"They're not going to catch Cleveland," the scout said. "Instead of getting Chicago or Charlotte in the first round, they're going to get Detroit or Philly."

Injuries have cost the Celtics their depth as well. While the additions of Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore have stanched the bleeding, workhorse Leon Powe is out with a knee strain. Tony Allen, who hasn't played since Feb. 11 after injuring his left thumb, will try to come back the last week of the season.

"Boston has shown a tendency to let their series linger a bit," said the scout. "It's important this season they take care of their opponents quickly. With the age of their superstars, they're going to need their rest."

Celtics head coach Doc Rivers concurs.

"We would like to have [home-court advantage], but for us, health is far more important," Rivers told reporters on Monday. "If you aren't going to get the first seed, we want to be healthy, that's the way we look at it.

"Obviously, we would like it and we're going to play for it, but we feel we can win anywhere, we really do."

Boston is not the only team in the East with injury issues. Cleveland, which has a four-game lead on Boston for the East's best record, has weathered the storm the best. The Cavaliers have won nine straight games without Ben Wallace, who has been out since Feb. 26 with a broken right leg.

"It'll be nice for them to get him back," said the scout, "but he wasn't as dominant as he used to be on the defensive end. He'll add some depth."

Anderson Varejao has played well in Wallace's absence. Cavs coach Mike Brown said he hasn't decided who he'd keep in the starting lineup. Wallace started all 53 games in which he played.

"I thought a little bit about that, but not a ton," Brown said. "When he comes back, that's when we'll tackle it. That's what we've always done. Again, I'm not that smart, I don't have a lot of formulas. A lot of it will be a gut feel. And I'm going to do what I feel is best for the team."

In Orlando, the Magic have gone 20-8 since they lost Jameer Nelson to a season-ending shoulder separation. Rafer Alston, whom the Magic acquired on Feb. 19 to take over at point guard, has played well. But Nelson gave the Magic a physical presence at point. Not having him could slow the Magic in the postseason.

"Teams don't fear [the Magic] as much," the scout said. "And if they get Detroit, it could be a problem. No one guards Dwight [Howard] as well as [Rasheed] Wallace does. He does a good job on Howard and the other guys can just stay home on the shooters."

On the other end of the Eastern Conference playoff spectrum, injuries have put a few teams' postseason chances into traction.

One of the more significant injuries has been to the Nets' Devin Harris, who is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. The Nets are 2 1/2 games behind the Bulls and have Cleveland on the road Wednesday and host the Lakers on Friday. The Nets are 2-2 with Harris on the shelf, but are 2-5 in their last seven.

In Chicago, where the Bulls have built a 1 1/2-game lead on the Bobcats, the absence of Luol Deng has been tempered by newcomers John Salmons and Brad Miller. The Bulls have no timetable for the return of Deng, who has missed 11 games with what the team is calling a contusion to his right shin. But if and when he does return, he'll need to adjust to his new teammates.

"Salmons has come up with some huge games for them," the scout said. "The difference between a Chicago and a Boston is when Deng returns the Bulls will have more of a dilemma. He's going to be playing with a 40 percent new lineup."

Knicks' streak continues

On Monday at halftime against the Orlando Magic, the Knicks celebrated their 60-plus years of history by honoring their greatest players in each decade, including Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bernard King and Patrick Ewing.

"It'll seem like old times running down the left side of the floor," a smiling King said.

This edition of the Knicks could have used King's silky smoothness. Monday's 106-102 loss to the Southeast Division-leading Magic ensured their eighth consecutive losing season, tying the franchise's longest streak of sub-.500 play, from 1959-1967.

"We still have a lot of work to do going into next year and the rest of this year. We have a lot to improve on," forward David Lee said. "But things are definitely headed in the right direction."

After beating the Timberwolves on March 13, the Knicks were 28-37 and 1 1/2 games behind Milwaukee for the East's eighth playoff spot. Five straight losses later, the Knicks are 4 1/2 games behind Chicago with 10 games left on their schedule.

The talent disparity between the Knicks and the East's elite has been clear most of the season, but nothing brought it into stark relief like the fourth quarter of the game Monday night. Leading 79-70 over Orlando with 12 minutes to go, the Magic overwhelmed the Knicks with a barrage of 3-pointers from Hedo Turkoglu.

"We can't beat a team of this caliber unless we shoot a bit better," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We had a lot of looks early where we could have gotten the lead to 12 or 15 points, but we could never get it up there.

"They're going to make some plays. They're that good."

And right now, the Knicks aren't that good. D'Antoni knows about the recent Knicks' history, but he's not looking in the rearview mirror.

"It means I'm responsible for one of them," D'Antoni said in reference to the losing season streak. "I'm not worried about the past seven years. I'm worried about this year. I'm not happy with the way things are going now. But we're playing well and we're playing hard and as long as we do that, we can get better."

What they're saying

"I got five TVs set up."
- Boston general manager Danny Ainge on how he watches the NCAA tourney in his office

"I was like 'praise God.' It was great to get out there."
-- Toronto center Jake Voskuhl, who started for the Raptors on March 22, on getting his first start since March 28, 2007

"Twenty-seven points is a very off night for him."
-- Nets guard Keyon Dooling on former teammate Dwyane Wade's 27-point night in a Heat loss to New Jersey on March 20

Behind the numbers

1 -- Orlando's magic number to clinch the Southeast Division title

.4299 -- Combined winning percentage of the six teams within 2 1/2 games of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East

1,202 -- Blocked shots by Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas, passing John "Hot Rod" Williams on the Cavs' all-time list

55 -- Number of double-doubles each by Orlando Dwight Howard and New York's David Lee, the league leaders

Layups

The Wall Street Journal reported that while NBA stars love playing at Madison Square Garden, they love scoring at Bradley Center in Milwaukee. Of the 115 games since 1991 in which a visiting player scored 46 or more points, 11 occurred in Milwaukee, the most of any arena. MSG was second with nine ... Soft rock god Bruce Hornsby made the rounds of the New York-New Jersey venues. On Sunday, he could be seen talking to Nets GM Kiki Vandeweghe and on Monday, he was talking to Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni in the New York locker room ... LeBron James won his seventh Eastern Conference Player of the Week award on Monday. Miami's Dwyane Wade is second in the conference with three ...

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