Celtics fans should keep the faith

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Can the Boston Celtics regain the NBA championship?

After improving their record to 23-5 with a Christmas Day victory at Orlando, it seemed possible. Then injuries hit (standouts Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce missing 10 and nine games, respectively) and they lost 19 of their next 37 games. The stretch was punctuated by a loss at Cleveland on March 14, leaving the Celtics with a record of 41-24. Since then, the picture has brightened and the team has won six of its past seven games, including impressive road wins at Houston and Dallas.

I traveled to Boston last Wednesday to see for myself. The Celtics were playing at home for the first time since their successful road trip. The visiting Denver Nuggets, having their best season in team history, were coming off rare back-to-back losses and needed to get back on the winning track. This was a statement game for Boston; protect your home court and beat a talented, although wounded, team.

The Celtics got off to a quick start and answered every Nuggets’ challenge. Boston’s offense was in sync, while Denver resorted to a lot of one-on-one play. The 113-99 victory was a much different result from their nine-point loss in Denver in February.

If you’re looking for positive signs, consider the following:

• Paul Pierce is at the top of his game, having been named Eastern Conference player of the week honors for March 15-21. He is shooting a career-best 43 percent from the 3-point line and a near career high 47 percent overall.

• Rajon Rondo was selected to the all-star team for the first time this year. In the game after the Denver win, he set the Celtics single-season steals record. That night he also had a career-high 18 assists, bringing him just 20 assists away from Bob Cousy’s single-season team record of 715, with 10 games to go.

• Kendrick Perkins is averaging double figures in scoring (10.4 per game) for the first time in his seven-year career and is second in the NBA in field goal percentage.

• Ray Allen, in the final year of his contract, has made 47 of hist last 113 3-point shots of a 21-game span.

• The silver lining in Kevin Garnett’s injury and absence from last year’s playoffs is that he is well rested and very hungry to regain the title he wasn’t able to defend. He is starting to shoot and play defense as he did in 2008, when he was Defensive Player of the Year. Even Garnett at 80 percent is a vast improvement over Brian Scalabrine who played a combined 46 minutes in Games 6 and 7 in the Celtics playoff loss to Orlando last year.

The second team has been equally impressive. Glen Davis has continued his resurgence with strong offensive rebounding and spirited play. Newcomers Michael Finley and Nate Robinson have made the second unit back court as strong as any other in the league (Far superior to last year’s playoff tandem of Stephan Marbury and Greg Pruitt.)

Finley has fit right in and hit a key basket with the shot clock winding down to snuff a Denver rally. Robinson, can not only hit the 3-point shot (like his predecessor Eddie House), but he’s also a better back-up at point guard because of his ability to create his own shot. Defense can be a liability for him, but Tony Allen can fill that need when a defensive stopper is needed.

First year Celtic Rasheed Wallace needs to become more of a consistent inside presence, but is certainly several steps up from Mikey Moore, last year’s reserve big man. Wallace has much playoff experience and was a key member of Detroit’s 2004 Championship team. He should have plenty left in the tank for the playoffs, as he is averaging 23 minutes a game this season, 10 minutes less than last year.

Are the Celtics too old to win? The starting five have a combined age of 148 years. In 1986, the last year Bird, McHale and Parrish won the title, the starters combined age was 146. Interestingly, when the Chicago Bulls won their last championship in 1998 their starters combined age was 167.

The team with the top regular season record has won 18 of the 42 NBA championships since 1968. (The second best team has won it 12 times) Five teams with less than 50 wins have won, including Houston which had only the 10th best record in the league (47 -35) in 1995.

With 10 games left in the regular season, the Celtics record was 47-25, third best in the Eastern Conference and tied for fifth best in the league. In 2006, Miami won the title with a similar record of 52-30, the fifth best in the league.

A recent, informal poll of 25 NBA fans at Windham High School, where I teach, had the Celtics doing the following in the playoffs:

• Lose in the first round (2)

• Lose in the second round (4)

• Lose in the conference final (11)

• Lose in the finals (4)

• Win the finals (4)

The Celtics will have to win on the road to advance this year and their 24-13 record away from home is currently second best in the entire league. Last year the Celtics took a 3-2 game lead against Orlando in the conference semi-finals, but with Kevin Garnett out (Brian Scalabrine played 33 minutes in Game 6) and a weak bench, they lost Games 6 and 7. This year they should beat Orlando and play Cleveland or Atlanta for a berth in the NBA Finals.

Cleveland was outsized by Orlando in last year’s conference final and brought in Shaquille O’Neal, especially for the postseason. Shaq hasn’t played since Feb. 25. He underwent successful thumb surgery, but is not likely to return until the playoffs.

The veteran Celtics will benefit from the extra days off, which the playoffs provide. I believe the Celtics would beat talented, but inexperienced Atlanta, but lose to Cleveland.

In the Western Conference, the defending champion Lakers, with the addition of defensive stopper Ron Artest, will be a tough match for anyone. Dallas, Denver, Utah and Phoenix are also looking strong.

In the end, there are several teams, the Celtics included, who have a legitimate chance to win the championship. This could be the most exciting and competitive NBA playoffs in years.

Don’t give up the faith.

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Boston Celtics fans hope their team will add another banner this season.