Posted Apr 1 2011 9:03AM
SAN ANTONIO -- You can hear the Celtics coming from a couple of blocks away. That's because of all their loose parts that are practically dragging in the street.
If Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and their buddies were an automobile, they'd arrive at the arena with bald tires and their muffler held in place by a coat hanger, needing a tow truck to help them back into the garage.
Then there are the nights when Boston comes flying off the starting line like a Ferrari and leaves opponents looking at nothing but shamrock-green tail lights.
It is nights like those, like the 107-97 whipping of the Spurs on Thursday night, that try to convince the Celtics that they can repeat last year's spring fling and make another run at a championship.
"I feel great," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "I may even feel better than last year. If we get healthy, I love our team."
If they get healthy.
On the night that Jermaine O'Neal returned to the court for the first time in more than two months following arthroscopic knee surgery, Nenad Krstic limped off the floor of the AT&T Center in the second quarter with a knee injury. He's out for Friday night's game in Atlanta and will have an MRI on Saturday.
Shaquille O'Neal, who's been sidelined since Feb. 1 with a sore Achilles tendon, recently had a cortisone shot and was hoping to return to the lineup on Friday. Instead, he chose not to make this trip and may return Tuesday night against Philly.
"The other way, saying he's day-to-day, hasn't worked," Rivers said with a chuckle. "What the hell. Let's jinx him or do something. We need him back."
Forward Troy Murphy is at home with a sprained right ankle in a walking boot. Until exploding for 22 points, 14 assists and five rebounds against the Spurs, point guard Rajon Rondo had been looking in need of a major tuneup while playing with a bad ankle, plantar fasciitis and a jammed pinkie finger.
Backup point guard Delonte West is still playing his way back into shape following wrist surgery at the start of the season. Add in the fact that Pierce turns 34 this year, Garnett is 35 and Ray Allen is 36 and it's no wonder there are a boatload of questions about the Celtics' ability to hold up for a long playoff run.
Of course, those are the same questions that were there a year ago when they sailed all the way to Game 7 against the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
The Celtics came into San Antonio on Thursday looking for their first win in Texas this season, having already lost to Dallas and Houston. More importantly, the Celtics had lost seven of their previous 12 games. They were collecting doubts like a sweater picks up lint.
"I always stay optimistic regardless of what's happening and when things are great I'm pessimistic, because you can't get too overconfident," Allen said. "So it's playing those mental games with yourself, knowing there's always some type of mental challenge over the hill waiting on you. When you're good, you're not far from being bad and when you're bad you're not far from being good."
The Spurs, who had run away with the best record in the league, are suddenly struggling. They're toting around five straight losses -- their longest losing streak since 1997, before Tim Duncan arrived in San Antonio -- and there is a sense of urgency. Their lead over the Lakers has shrunk to just 2 1/2 games.
Thursday's win over San Antonio was a game that the Celtics could have viewed as a barometer of where they are as a team with the playoffs now just two weeks ago. Or they could have seen it as mere survival.
"If you don't come in here and play, man, they'll blow your ass out, period, point blank," Garnett said. "We saw what they did to the Heat. We saw what they've been doing practically all year. They rested their stars in preparing for this game. We took that personal. They're the best team in the league. If you don't come in here and play, they'll treat you like you're the worst team in the league."
The oil-spewing, fluid-leaking Celtics took it as an opportunity to put the pedal to their mettle and liked the results.
"This is a good place to try to gather some momentum," Pierce said after a splendid 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. "We're talking about the team with the best record, best home record. What better place to get back on track than here?"
One game, one win doesn't answer all the questions. One of the Celtics' strengths at the start of the season was their size and bulk. But the Celtics are less-than-formidable up front after trading Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City, with Krstic getting hurt and with the O'Neals trying to get healthy.
"I want to be bigger," Rivers said. "We need to be bigger."
He'll try to use the games remaining as extended practice times for Jermaine and Shaquille O'Neal. With games still ahead against the likes of Chicago and Miami and their position somewhere near the top of the Eastern Conference playoff seeding still at stake, there is debate about whether it's critical for a true title contender to have rhythm and momentum coming down the stretch.
"You just can't jump into the playoffs and say, "OK, we're gonna start,' " said Jermaine O'Neal. "You've got to prepare yourself before. I think that's important for us. I think that's why we say this stretch of games is when the playoffs start."
Rivers isn't so sure.
"I guess it's important," he said. "We want to win the games obviously. We would love to get the [No.] 1 seed or keep the [No.] 2 seed. But at the end of the day, I want be healthy and I want to have our rhythm. If that takes up until Game 1 of the playoffs, I'm good with that."
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