Celtics have bigger goal than record-tying turnaround
BOSTON -- The turnaround has been tremendous.
With 36 more wins than last season, the Celtics are tied with the 1997-98 Spurs for the most single-season progress in NBA history. San Antonio, though, only made it to the second round of the playoffs.
Boston has a bigger goal -- winning its first NBA title in 22 years.
"Everything we are doing is all great and dandy," the long-suffering Paul Pierce said, "but this team is tremendously focused."
The Celtics have time to rest after improving to an NBA-best 60-15 with a 92-77 win over Indiana on Wednesday night. Their next game is Saturday at Charlotte, then they have two more days off before visiting Milwaukee.
"I think I am at the point in my career where any rest I can get is good," Pierce said. "We have probably earned it."
When the Celtics added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen before the season, perhaps no one was happier than Pierce.
For much of his other nine seasons with Boston, he was a one-man show. He drew double and triple coverage. He forced shots. He was unhappy with the consistent mediocrity and worse -- just three winning seasons and a combined 57 wins the past two seasons.
Then the Celtics made their move, sending five players and two first-round picks to Minnesota for Garnett. He was lured, in part, by Boston's acquisition of Allen one month earlier.
Suddenly, a team that had the NBA's second worst record at 24-58 had hope. With a core of Garnett, Pierce and Allen, Boston suddenly became an attractive destination, and solid backups James Posey and Eddie House signed on as free agents.
Now, with six of their remaining seven games against sub-.500 teams, the Celtics have an excellent chance to pass the Spurs for the best turnaround. San Antonio went from 20-62 to 56-26 in Tim Duncan's first season.
"I'm just fortunate to be in this position, coming from a year ago, and thankful that we have the players around to do that," Pierce said.
The Celtics are on the verge of clinching the No. 1 seed in the East and a first-round matchup with Atlanta. They have no interest in coasting into the playoffs. And they know the biggest turnaround in league history doesn't guarantee a long postseason run.
"We try to keep a focus and a certain level of play," Garnett said. "and we have to do that going into these last couple games and, hopefully, flow right into the playoffs with the same intensity, if not higher."
That intensity is most evident on defense. The Celtics have allowed the fewest points per game and the lowest field goal percentage in the league under the guidance of assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, a defensive specialist. Only three teams have forced more turnovers.
"As defense wins championships, offense sells tickets, so we want to keep playing defense," said second-year point guard Rajon Rondo, who has blossomed with so many offensive options.
Most of Boston's wins have been blowouts -- 40 of their 60 were by 10 points or more. Last season, they had just seven victories by that margin.
"You still have to work to get the leads. You still have to work to get the blowouts," Garnett said. "Any time you get a chance to rest three or four guys (during a game) is always good. Not only do guys rest, but other guys get flow, other guys get to play."
With the recent additions of veterans Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown, the Celtics are a very deep team. Each of the other 10 players is averaging at least 12 minutes per game, and Garnett is averaging just 33.5 minutes, his fewest since his rookie year in 1995-96.
He may play even less the next few games.
"I'm going to absolutely start playing some different guys for a while," coach Doc Rivers said, before "cranking it back up" heading into the playoffs.
But the impressive turnaround? That's just a line in the record book for a team that has a much grander target -- an NBA best 17th championship -- after missing the playoffs the last two years.
"It's nice," Rivers said, but "when we started the season it was not on our list of things we wanted to do."
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