Celtics 105, Nets 94

Appreciation abounds; Celtics finish in style

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / April 17, 2008

Paul Pierce had something positive to talk about with the Celtics fans this time.

The Celtics won 24 games and had their eyes on the draft lottery last season. But with the addition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the offseason, among others, Boston went from laughingstock to the NBA's best record in one year.

So instead of dreaming about the top draft pick, the Celtics are dreaming of winning their 17th NBA championship. Boston finished the regular season with a 105-94 win over New Jersey last night at sold-out TD Banknorth Garden during Fan Appreciation Night.

Next up for the Celtics, the Eastern Conference's top seed, is a first-round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks.

"The last 2-3 years I have promised you better days," Pierce told fans before the game. "We got better days now, man."

The Celtics finished 66-16, the third-best mark in franchise history. The Celtics won 68 games during the 1972-73 season and 67 in 1985-86.

The 2007-08 Celtics wrapped up the Atlantic Division long ago and were 35-6 at home and 31-10 on the road.

"It's a whole lot different," said Pierce, who had 7 points in 17 minutes. "I was on my way to the airport right now [last year]. True story. I left after the game last year.

"We're excited to be going to the playoffs. We capped it off with a good regular season. The guys couldn't be more thrilled about the way we played this season. We're definitely happy about the position that we are in and we're getting ready for the playoffs."

Garnett, who had 8 points and 4 rebounds in 14 minutes, said, "I'm pretty fortunate to be in this situation. Now it's here. I'm ready to take care of some business."

Forward Leon Powe scored a career-high 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds off the bench for the Celtics, and guard Tony Allen added 18 points. The Celtics were 8-1 in April.

The Celtics will host Game 1 of the best-of-seven series Saturday or Sunday. And considering the lackluster quality of their April opposition, the Celtics can't wait to see Atlanta.

The Celtics began the month with nine games on their schedule against teams that could, at best, clinch the final playoff seed in the East (other than Washington). The Celtics had motivation to clinch home court throughout the playoffs, but had little to play for other than getting the bench players some minutes.

"It's really been a tough last couple of weeks just trying to keep them interested," said coach Doc Rivers before the game. "They've been great with it. We've set little private goals for each game to have some kind of interest in it. Honestly, there was not a lot to play for.

"Our guys did a great job with that. But they are ready to play meaningful games, I can tell you that. All of us are, so that's good."

After last night's game, Rivers said he plans to hold practices every day prior to Game 1.

Rivers said his staff spent time yesterday trying to predict when the Celtics' first game would be. Instead of talking about the Nets, Rivers and his coaching staff talked about Atlanta.

"We got all the video, the film, the books ready for [our players]," Rivers said.

The Celtics are 3-0 against Atlanta this season with a 14.2-point average margin of victory. The Hawks finished the regular season with the worst record of all postseason teams at 37-45 after a 113-99 loss to the league's worst team, Miami, last night.

Even so, Garnett and Pierce aren't taking Atlanta lightly.

"They're young, athletic," Garnett said. "I don't think people give them a lot of credit. They have guys that can score the basketball."

Said Pierce: "They are pretty solid at pretty much every position. They are led by Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Josh Childress. They have a number of guys that are capable and a lot of guys with a lot of talent. The crazy thing about their team is there is no pressure on them.

"They're the eighth seed, nobody is expecting them to do anything. That can be the makeup of a team that is dangerous with nothing to lose. We have to recognize that and be ready for it."

As the clock ran out on the regular season, Garnett turned to his teammates and said 16. Sixteen is the number of wins needed to win an NBA title.

"The road to 16. It's pretty much what it is," Garnett said.

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