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Shaun Powell

Rajon Rondo's hot streak has helped the Celtics get in the middle of a division race with the Sixers.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Celtics making one last prideful push toward division crown

Posted Apr 3 2012 10:04AM

This ride into the sunset is receiving an unexpected-but-refreshing suntan along the way.

The Celtics were dismissed as contenders because the nucleus is older than Robert Parish and often looked as stale as one of Red Auerbach's cigars. But look at them now. Old and slow and gimpy has morphed into clever and patient and ... well ... still gimpy.

These Celtics aren't going away quickly or easily -- that's what the rest of the East is discovering. Before the anticipated summer dismantling of a Big Three era that produced two Finals berths, one championship and resurrected this proud franchise, the Celtics have one more prize within their immediate (and apparently realistic) reach.

They don't raise banners for division titles at TD Garden. But this Atlantic Division title, if the Celtics can pull it off, would be one of their more satisfying in recent history.

That's because the Celtics seemed ripe for an overthrow just a month ago by the Sixers (who had a good winter) and then, the Knicks (who had Linsanity). A fast finish by the Celtics in the stretch run would not only lock up the division and a high playoff seed, but it would put the team that'll face them in the first round on alert.

"They're going to be tough for anyone to beat in the playoffs," said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, the former Celtic, who knows them well. "Some of those teams better watch out."

The Celtics have won five straight, seven of eight and are 15-5 since the break. They just celebrated a thorough thumping of the Heat, the people's choice to represent the East this summer. While the basketball world is wondering what has gone wrong with Miami, maybe the question is what's gone right in Boston.

Could these Celtics be -- brace for it, now -- prepared to send shivers through Miami and Chicago? Or does that remain a stretch for the Green Geezers, who could be sucking oxygen in a few months?

Let examine the likes and concerns of the Celtics at the moment.

The likes

• Rajon Rondo: He seemed to relax and focus after being told he wasn't going to be dealt by GM Danny Ainge. He's forceful and alert, especially on defense, and averaged 13 assists in March. When asked by coach Doc Rivers to apply the same mentality on offense, Rondo responded with 16 points en route to a triple-double against Miami. After injury woes in December and parts of January, he's feeling good.

"When I'm healthy, I think we can probably beat anybody," Rondo said.

• Rivers: Where would the Celtics be if Rivers took a season off, as he contemplated last summer? They'd be trying to connect with a new coach and likely going nowhere fast. He knows all the right buttons to push with the core group and is motivating the newcomers.

• Paul Pierce: He missed the first three games of the season, all losses, but has been the picture of health since. That's not easy when you have his mileage. Pierce was an All-Star this season and upped his scoring from 16 per game in February to 22 in March.

Defense: Celtics are giving up less than 90 a game, third-lowest in basketball. By slowing the tempo and being quick with the rotations, they're giving themselves a chance most nights, even against solid teams.

The concerns

• Ray Allen's health: He's been sitting with the bum ankle for six games now, and for a shooter, the legs and the lift are so important. He's connecting on 46 percent on 3-pointers and is a critical piece in the half-court offense, which is so prevalent in the postseason.

Support: Brandon Bass has been a solid pickup and more reliable than the departed Glen "Big Baby" Davis was. But Bass is also an unknown under pressure. That goes for the other players (Mickael Pietrus, Greg Stiemsma, Avery Bradley, Ryan Hollins) who round out the rotation. Any of these players would see their minutes rise if the Celtics suffer another key injury.

Schedule: The Celtics still have the Heat twice, the Hawks twice as well as single games against the Spurs, Bulls, Pacers and Sixers. Oh, and there is a game apiece against teams (the Bucks and Knicks, for example) that are hunting playoff spots. Of their 14 remaining games, the Celtics have only three (a back-to-back-to-back road trip with Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte) against sure-fire lottery teams. The division crown will have to be earned, not given, to Boston, then.

The Celtics should give the Sixers a good chase for the division (the Knicks are out of the picture) and the season series is still yet to be determined (it's tied 1-1). There's much at stake for winning the division, not the crown itself (who cares about or remembers division winners?) but a chance to avoid the Heat or Bulls in the first round.

"I would never count them out," said LeBron James. "They've got guys that have been in the moment before. So like I told you guys last year when everybody was down on the Celtics, I always said I'm not going to turn my back on those guys."

If this is the end of the line for these Celtics, and they're ultimately proven to be too old and brittle for a championship run, at least they'll have something in common with those Celtic teams of the past: Pride.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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