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Winning streak puts lottery talk out of focus

With each victory, the Celtics pull away from the bottom -- to the next-to-the-bottom. Their neck-and-neck battle with Memphis has not quite turned into Secretariat at the Belmont, but Boston has pulled 3 1/2 games ahead of the Grizzlies in the battle for the NBA's worst record. The 25 percent chance at the No. 1 pick drops to 19.9 percent if things stay that way.

Four teams entered last night's action with 22 victories -- five more than the Celtics -- and the three who played last night were all on the road. Catching any of those teams (Milwaukee, Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia) is going to be difficult with only 23 games remaining, which should soothe the Odenistas and Durantophiles out there. Difficult, but not impossible. We'll know something's up if Bill Fitch is summoned to coach any of the above units for the final six weeks of the season.

The Celtics, who host Houston tomorrow night, have seven games remaining against the aforementioned four teams. All are home-and-homes with the exception of a singleton against Charlotte, which visits Boston March 21. However, of the 16 other games that must be played, all but one (Friday at home against Seattle) are against either teams with winning records or teams fighting for a playoff berth. That includes an upcoming trip to Texas with games against the Spurs and Mavericks, who, as of yesterday, were a combined 23-0 in their past 23 games.

While the fans are focused on the lottery and the draft, the players are not. Privately, a few have bristled at the constant chatter about adding Greg Oden or Kevin Durant to the team. But Delonte West has no beef with the fans wanting to get one of the top picks in June.

"You can't fault them for having positive thinking because there's not much to talk about the team as far as winning games goes," said West. "They're trying to better the team.

"As players, you want to focus on the season. You have to focus on the games. But the fans are just as much a part of this as we are and they're looking at next year. They're talking about a No. 1 or a No. 2 pick, not the last pick or the 40th. They're talking about two of the top players in college.

"I guess in the long run it'd be good, but, for us, we're not focused on that."

Friendlier confines
Not only have the Celtics won four in a row, they also have won their last three at their onetime charnel house, the TD Banknorth Garden. They still need five more home victories, however, to avoid tying or breaking the team record for fewest home wins (11 in 1996-97) . . . Yao Ming (knee) returned to the lineup for the Rockets last night. He finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds in a 91-85 loss in Cleveland. He had last played Dec. 23 . . . Two nuggets from the Elias Sports Bureau: West became just the second player in the past 10 years to score 30 or more points in a game all after halftime when he had 31 against the Wolves Sunday. Jamal Crawford of the Knicks had 31 after halftime in a Dec. 6, 2005, win at Seattle. The Celtics also joined last year's Charlotte Bobcats as the only teams in the past six years to start a four-game winning streak when they were 25 games under .500. The Bobcats won their last four games of the season to finish at 26-56 . . . Just in case you're wondering, the Celtics have not swept a season series from the Rockets since 1990-91. They have, however, managed to win the one game in Houston six times since then, including this season . . . Sebastian Telfair never got off the bench in 58 minutes of basketball Sunday. It marked his third DNP-Coach's Decision of the season. He also didn't play against the Lakers Jan. 31 or in the home game against the Knicks Feb. 28. Gerald Green leads the Celtics in games played with 58.

Honor role
Al Jefferson was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week after averaging 23.5 points and 14.5 rebounds a game as the Celtics produced an undefeated week. Big Al shot 55 percent from the field and highlighted the week with a career-best 32 points against the Nets Saturday. Jefferson is the first Celtic not named Paul Pierce or Antoine Walker to win Player of the Week honors since Reggie Lewis in April 1992.