Not known yet if trades did trick for Magic

Celtics’ new-look foe part of changing East

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 25, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — What is one to make of the Eastern Conference when one of the best teams more or less guts its starting lineup in Orlando; the dark horse fires its coach in Charlotte; the newly formed superpower in Miami is still trying to figure out how to work all the gadgets; New York scores like the Suns but also plays defense like them, too; Milwaukee isn’t nearly as pesky without its point guard; and the Celtics, the conference’s best team, have put together 14 straight wins with nearly a third of their roster wearing gauze as winter fashion?

It’s a chaotic collage, with winning streaks and scoring streaks colliding with injuries and upsets. A third of the way through the season, coaches and players already have come and gone. No team in the league has more question marks than the Magic, whom the Celtics face today, and they’ll freely admit it.

“I think we’re a total unknown,’’ said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, not sounding sure if that’s a good or bad thing. “I think the most unknown is us right now because of the moves we’ve made. I don’t think anybody knows how we’re going to fit into that whole thing.’’

On Dec. 18, Orlando acquired Gilbert Arenas from Washington for Rashard Lewis. It also acquired Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Earl Clark from Phoenix for Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus, a 2011 first-rounder, and cash. Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson remain, however.

Staring at the standings doesn’t make the East picture any clearer. The 23-4 Celtics are three games ahead of Miami.

The Heat, Bulls, Hawks, Magic, and Knicks are all clustered together with just four games separating them. The Bucks — the team no one wanted to face down the stretch last season — are nowhere in the mix, and Brandon Jennings is out 4-6 weeks with a broken foot. Yet seeing them knock off the Lakers earlier this week made sure they will stay on every team’s radar.

“It’s hard,’’ said Celtics forward Paul Pierce. “When you look at two on down to six, a lot of the records are similar. So, that stuff can change every week.’’

The Heat couldn’t be a more fitting example. One week they dropped four of five and Chris Bosh was the fall guy for their small stretch of futility. The next week they were one of the most explosive teams in the league, pounding any and all comers by double figures.

The Bulls have won nine of 10 since losing to the Celtics at TD Garden earlier this month, but just as they got Carlos Boozer back from injury, Joakim Noah (thumb) and Taj Gibson (concussion) went down.

“Injuries play a part in a lot of these records right now,’’ Pierce said. “But you definitely can gauge the type of team you have after 25, 30 games and how it’s going to be for pretty much the rest of the season. But then some teams are different. They play a certain way because of injury and they can get better. So, it’s a thin line really right now.’’

After an eight-game tear, the Knicks had a three-game skid before beating Oklahoma City Wednesday. But they face the Bulls today in the noon game then go to Miami Tuesday and Orlando Thursday in a stretch that almost guarantees turbulence. In those three losses, the Knicks gave up 118 points to the Celtics, 113 points to the Heat, and 109 points to the Cavaliers (in overtime), making their fatal flaw obvious.

But the issues the Magic have are completely different. They blew up the blueprint that got them to the Eastern Conference finals last season, and now have to build chemistry on the fly.

“Our problem is going to be more like learning each other’s names,’’ Van Gundy said. “So we can stop saying go in for No. 23.

“In fact, I think we’re sort of in the mode now that it’s not even a matter of who we’re playing against. That’s not even the biggest obstacle right now. The biggest obstacle is getting everybody together.’’

The understanding is that, much like the rest of the conference, they won’t be the same team in April as they are now. That said, their current situation isn’t optimal.

“In an ideal world, you don’t want to be 28 games into the year and not know about your team, but that’s the reality of it right now,’’ Van Gundy said. “We’re a team starting new. So we don’t know if we like our talent. We know the possibilities are real good, but we don’t know how it’s all going to work out.’’

The Bobcats lost four straight, their record diving to 9-19, and even though Larry Brown led them to their first trip to the playoffs last season he was relieved of his coaching duties and replaced by Paul Silas. When the Celtics held them to 62 points Dec. 11, Brown sounded like he had thrown his hands in the air. “You [have to] beg people to play hard and do the right thing?’’ he said. “That’s not coaching.’’

The Celtics’ Ray Allen, who is close with Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, said, “I’ll be curious to see how Charlotte plays now, after having Larry Brown step down . . . if it changes.’’

The Celtics’ 14 straight is the longest of several streaks in the NBA this season. But it’s been considered a strange run even in their own locker room, with Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, Delonte West, and Rajon Rondo all having missed time and Nate Robinson, Semih Erden, and Glen Davis playing with injuries.

“We’re winning,’’ coach Doc Rivers said, “But we’re not improving.’’ At the same time, they’re the only known commodity in the Eastern Conference.

“We still have our core guys together,’’ Pierce said. “We have guys that have played together for a number of years. We’ve been to two Finals together with the core of our group. We’ve had our wars. So it’s different.’’

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