One Chicago Bulls team out of the way, another on the way in.
The Celtics surpassed the fastest start by the best Bulls team ever by improving to 24-2 with an 88-85 victory over the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday night. Next up are home games against Chicago tonight, New York Sunday, and Philadelphia Tuesday.
Only three other teams have started the season with 23 wins in 25 games, and all went on to win the championship. Of those teams, the 1995-96 Bulls compiled the best record (87-13 in the regular season and playoffs), but lost for the third time in Game 26. The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers and 1969-70 Knicks won 26 contests before sustaining their third loss. The Celtics can surpass the Sixers and Knicks on this homestand before traveling to Los Angeles for a Christmas Day game against the Lakers.
The victory over Atlanta was among the most dramatic during the Celtics' 16-game winning streak. Much of the game was played with playoff intensity, the younger Hawks not quite up to the role of Davids, as they were swatted away by the veteran Celtic Goliaths.
The script has been only slightly altered since the first round of last season's playoffs, the Hawks challenging the Celtics but coming up short. In the playoffs, the Celtics' average margin of victory over the Hawks was 12 points, but they were 0-3 in Atlanta. In the last month, the Celtics have edged the Hawks by 1 point (103-102) at home and by 3 in Atlanta.
So, are the Hawks closing the gap?
"It's all about getting the victory," guard Rajon Rondo said. "Whether it's close or not, we are getting the wins and that shows the composure of the team."
But the Hawks are certainly getting the Celtics' attention.
"The way they play us," Rondo said, "they are probably the No. 2 team in the league."
Kevin Garnett led the way for the Celtics in the final minutes, converting his final five field goal attempts.
Garnett's comments after the game downplayed any hint of a rivalry between the teams. But the sense of Garnett protesting a little too much suggests some Shakespearean plot could be brewing.
As for approaching milestones:
The Celtics won their 10th successive game away from home, equaling the best road starts of three other teams: the 1960-61 and '61-62 Celtics and the '69-70 Knicks.
Two Celtic teams have had longer winning streaks; in 1981-82 (18 games) and 1964-65 (17 games).
"Even if we win 15 or 16 games in a row," Paul Pierce said, "if we're not playing well and playing championship basketball, our goal during the regular season is to build something big."
Pierce, recovering from a left knee bruise, performed at less than full speed but scored 18 points against Atlanta. The Celtics were able to set up Pierce in mismatches in the final quarter. And the Garnett-Rondo combination produced points off backdoors and give-and-gos. But the key to the Celtics' crunch-time success was defense.
The Celtics made four straight stops midway through the final quarter, the last a Kendrick Perkins block, leading to a Garnett-to-Rondo layup and a 74-72 advantage, the Celtics' first lead since early in the second quarter. Perkins surrendered a dunk to Josh Smith with 3:50 left, but the Hawks converted only once more from the field, Perkins blocking a Joe Johnson follow in the final seconds.
"We wanted to make sure we challenged every shot," Perkins said. "I was mad that Josh got that dunk. I had to come over and get a block.
"The big thing is that we have great leadership and we're focused on doing one thing at a time. If you have bigger goals, you achieve smaller goals along the way."