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Chances rockier on road

Securing No. 2 now No. 1 goal

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By Marc J. Spears
April 9, 2009
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Robert Frost once wrote, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference."

Along with good health, the road less traveled in the postseason can also make a big difference for the Celtics in their hopes of repeating as NBA champions. Therefore, Boston must focus on securing the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed over Orlando, with a reward of having home-court advantage during at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.

"It would mean a lot," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I definitely would take the games at home if it got to that."

The Celtics got a little closer to that No. 2 seed with a 106-104 victory over the Nets last night at TD Banknorth Garden. Boston (59-19) has four games remaining, against Miami tomorrow, at Cleveland Sunday, at Philadelphia Tuesday, and against Washington Wednesday. While it will be far from easy, three wins will likely lock up the No. 2 seed.

Orlando (58-20) is a game behind Boston in the East standings. The Magic have an easier road the rest of the regular season, against four teams with losing records - New York tomorrow, at New Jersey Saturday, at Milwaukee Monday, and Charlotte Wednesday. The potential tiebreaker between the Celtics and Magic would be conference record, with Boston at 38-10, and Orlando at 36-12.

While Orlando has time to work some magic, the Celtics believe they have the focus to finish with a better record.

"Our schedule isn't easy the rest of the way out," said Rajon Rondo. "We have some tough games to face. I believe we can win each game."

Said Ray Allen, "Over the last month we've shifted from how well Cleveland is playing to making sure we have the best [record] out of us and Orlando. A lot of it was really us getting on track and trying to do what we need to do."

It's impressive that the Celtics have thus far held off the Magic, considering their injury woes. Kevin Garnett last night missed his 18th game of the last 22 with a strained right knee. Leon Powe has been out with a strained right knee since March 17. Brian Scalabrine has been out since Feb. 23 with concussion issues. Rondo and Glen Davis also have missed games with ankle injuries. The Celtics would likely still be challenging Cleveland for the East's top seed if Garnett hadn't been sidelined.

Rivers would rather use his key players, like Allen and Paul Pierce, to lock up the No. 2 seed than to give them added rest before the postseason.

"If you can get home court, you've got to get it. It's a no-brainer," Rivers said.

Said Pierce, "That's fine with me. I thought even last year when we sat a lot we weren't as sharp going into the playoffs. So maybe it will keep us sharp, especially going into the first round, if we continue to play."

Possibly the biggest incentive for the Celtics to land the No. 2 seed would be to make it more difficult on the unproven Magic in a second-round series. The Celtics have a 33-6 home record that is bettered only by Cleveland in the East. While Orlando is a great road team (27-12), winning on the road in the postseason is a challenge it has yet to master. The Magic lost in the second round to Detroit in five games last season, and were swept by Detroit in the first round two years ago. Moreover, why give the Magic a chance to play with more confidence at home, where they are 31-8?

"Any time you can have the home-court advantage as much as possible, it's key," said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. "You can't really look ahead because you have to get through the first round first. But at the same time, I think it will help us a lot."

The Celtics learned the importance of home-court advantage last season, when they lost only one home game in the playoffs en route to the title. Boston won two Game 7s at home, in the first round against Atlanta and the second round against Cleveland. The Celtics clinched the title at home in Game 6 against the Lakers.

"We relied on home court a lot last year," Allen said.

Said Rivers, "We'd definitely take a Game 7 at home, if we get to that. We hope we don't get to too many Game 7s. But I don't think as a group we focus on that. We focus on getting right. If we're right, we'll lace them up and play."

The Celtics are confident they will overcome their injuries, and that they can win on the road if necessary. But why make it harder than it already is? Why put yourself in a tough situation where you have to overcome not having home-court advantage after the first round in hopes of repeating? Why not play as many games as possible at the Garden before possibly going to the toughest place in the NBA to win, Cleveland? A place where Boston hasn't won since the new Big Three was formed.

The Celtics should focus in an attempt to earn the road less traveled, or get ready for a really bumpy road.

"It's important," said Pierce of the No. 2 seed. "But the more important thing is just building on something going into the playoffs. We're trying to get some momentum. We've won five in a row. But the thing is, we want to be playing well regardless of whether we win or not. We want to be playing well going into the playoffs.

"That's going to be key for us. If we get the No. 2 seed, great. If not, that means we're probably not playing well. We're probably going to have to [win] two or three games out of this four [remaining]. I guess it is important to get the No. 2 seed."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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