Celtics not lacking confidence
They expect to be ready for playoffs
While their less heralded teammates were fighting for spots on the playoff roster or capitalizing on a rare opportunity to play, the Celtics’ veteran starters took a night off for reflection Monday, and at the end of the evening, they appeared relieved that their playoff fate had been set.
The Celtics won’t acknowledge whether playing the Knicks in the first round is their worst-case scenario. After all, no higher-seeded team really wants to face a club with three current or former All-Stars in the starting lineup, including two in their prime.
The Knicks will present an arduous challenge, but two thoughts emerged after Monday’s 95-94 overtime loss to the Wizards locked Boston into the third seed in the Eastern Conference: The Celtics were encouraged by how hard their teammates played, especially Jermaine O’Neal, and they are ready for the playoffs, regardless of the opponent.
They have been reluctant in the past few weeks to look ahead to the playoffs, but with their opponent decided and just one meaningless game left — tonight, also against New York — the Celtics could speak the truth.
“It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be real fun,’’ said forward Glen Davis. “I’m real excited. I’m ready to play. That’s all I can say. We’re going to be ready.
“You already know. This is my time to play basketball as far as getting my rhythm.’’
Davis stated the obvious: The Celtics’ concentration level has been fluttering the past few weeks as the postseason carrot grew larger. While they are only 9-11 in their past 20 games, the Celtics appear supremely confident in their ability to regain their prowess in the next few days.
And they are not deterred by facing the Knicks trio of Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Chauncey Billups, each of whom has had his moments against the Celtics.
“We’ll deal with that when the time comes, but I’ll be excited about starting the playoffs,’’ said guard Ray Allen. “We’re starting to put together who we are and what we’re going to do for the playoffs.
“I think anybody that we play is going to be tough. You look at Chicago a couple of years ago, Atlanta in the first round. Nobody you can sleep on.’’
While the 76ers may have given the Celtics tougher games, there may be no more talented lower seed than the Knicks. New York is only 14-13 since acquiring Anthony from Denver but had won seven straight before losing to the Bulls last night.
Billups is a playoff-savvy veteran. Stoudemire has averaged 23.7 points and 7.7 rebounds in his career against the Celtics. And Anthony will be a difficult defensive matchup for Paul Pierce.
The Knicks are considered a flawed team because president Donnie Walsh all but gutted his roster of role players and potential cornerstones to get Anthony from Denver. It appears that former Celtic Shelden Williams will be their starting center for Game 1, perhaps opposing Shaquille O’Neal.
Like the Celtics after the Kendrick Perkins trade, the Knicks have had their share of difficulties with a slew of players in new roles. Stoudemire’s offensive responsibilities have shrunk with Anthony’s presence, and coach Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo offense doesn’t exactly blend with Anthony’s isolation game.
The Celtics, meanwhile, are in the same situation they were last season. They are stumbling at the end and need a dramatic turnaround to compete for a title. The confidence remains strong, though. Monday’s loss to Washington allowed Jermaine O’Neal to play big minutes and show he is capable of being a rebounder and impact defender.
Guard Carlos Arroyo, whose role has diminished in the past weeks, led the Celtics’ fourth-quarter rally and likely earned himself a spot on the playoff roster. While the Big Four did not play, the Celtics did take a step forward in terms of confidence.
“I know we struggled for whatever reason but we still have our core guys here,’’ said Jermaine O’Neal. “We have enough guys and talent here to still win and do some things the city’s been comfortable with seeing the past couple of years. We just got to make sure we’re selfless and we’re about the team.’’
The matchup with the Knicks will be a contrast in styles. New York averages 106.8 points per game and allows 105.7, while the Celtics are 24th in the league in scoring at 96.3 points and tops in the league in points allowed at 91.0.
“We got to play our style of basketball,’’ said O’Neal. “Obviously, they like to get up and down. Melo presents another issue for us as far as offensively.
“But if we play good defense, we can play against anybody. That’s really what it’s going to boil down to. If we want to win a championship and bring home banner 18, we got to play tough defense. The real test is how much we really want it.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.