In the early days of the 2007-08 season, the Boston Celtics and New Jersey Nets appear to be the class of the Atlantic Division. On Saturday night at the Meadowlands, they face each other for the first time.
The Celtics (4-0) are off to their best start since 1987-88, when Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish led Boston to a 6-0 start en route to a 52-win season and an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals.
The current team's new "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen looks like it could be poised for a similar run. The Celtics, who managed only a 24-58 record a season ago, have won three of their first four games by 20 points or more, including Friday night's 106-83 home rout of Atlanta.
The 1987-88 club didn't win any of its first four games by more than 17 points.
"When you coach or play in Boston, every day is something with history,'' said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, whose club is the NBA's lone remaining unbeaten. "This team is so history-rich. We've just got to get better."
A Boston team playing better than it has already would be a frightening prospect for the rest of the league. The Celtics are shooting a league-best 54.2 percent from the field this season, including two straight performances of 61 percent or better. Defensively, they are allowing just 88.5 points per game and 39.8 percent shooting.
"The offense is the obvious, but you all don't know how hard we work on our defense," Garnett said, "talking to each other and being one when we're out there. We know we're not flawless."
Garnett has been excellent in his first four games as a Celtic. The veteran power forward, acquired in an offseason trade with Minnesota, has exceeded 20 points and 10 rebounds in each contest. On Friday night, he scored 27 points, shot 12-for-16 from the field and hauled in 19 boards.
Pierce added 23 points, giving him a 22.5 average through four games. Allen was relatively quiet with a season-low 14 points, but shot 6-for-9 to improve his field-goal percentage to .638. He is 13-for-25 from 3-point range this season.
New Jersey (4-1) appears to be the toughest opponent the Celtics have faced. While the Celtics are blowing the opposition away, though, the Nets are using tight defense to gut out wins in close games.
They have held all three opponents to 88 points or fewer during their current winning streak, which continued with a 87-85 home victory over Washington on Thursday night.
The Nets rallied from a 20-point first-half deficit, then squandered a six-point lead in the final two minutes before Richard Jefferson hit a pair of free throws to win it with 24 seconds remaining. Jefferson got fouled after rebounding Vince Carter's missed 3-point attempt.
"Your eyes get real big sometimes when it's a tied game and someone takes a shot,'' said Jefferson, who led New Jersey with 25 points and is averaging a team-best 25.6 through the season's first five games. "A lot of times people turn around and look at the ball. No one boxed me out and I had a free run at it and the ball bounced perfectly to me."
New Jersey has won five of its last seven games against Boston, but the Celtics have won their last two visits to the Meadowlands.
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