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For Celtics, it's a game of give and take

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  February 6, 2009 10:56 AM

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What we can say now, somewhat definitively, is that the Celtics have slipped a little. They need help. Without it, they may have difficulty retaining what they believe to be rightfully theirs.

"Hell yeah,’’ Kevin Garnett said without hesitation last night when asked whether his team would like to see the Lakers again in the wake of Los Angeles’s 110-109 overtime win over the Celtics last night at the TD Banknorth Garden.

And there was this, rather disgustedly, as if people needed a refresher on exactly who was chasing whom.

"We the champs, man,’’ a leery Garnett all but snarled.

Indeed, that is as true today as it was yesterday, despite the events at the Garden, where once again we were reminded that the space between a champion and a finalist is as thin as Louie Orr. Sometimes, the difference isn’t simply who wants it more; the difference is who has reason to want it more. The Celtics are the champs, man -- hell, yeah -- and no single game is going to change that at the moment, particularly one in February.

But the truth? The Celtics have work to do, assuming they want to hang an 18th banner alongside No. 17 in one of the most overstuffed attics in North America. On paper, after 51 games, the Celtics are precisely where they were a year ago, possessors of a 41-10 record. The 2007-08 Celtics went 25-6 the rest of the way before laboring through the early rounds of the playoffs, then hit their stride in dismantling both the Detroit Pistons and Lakers en route to their renaissance championship.

Lest anyone forget, the Lakers’ previous visit here was nothing short of an embarrassment. In losing Game 6 of the Finals by an unthinkable 131-92 score, the Lakers pulled the kind of no-show that made the Arizona Cardinals’ trip to Foxborough look like a crusade. If it wasn’t bad enough that the Lakers absorbed a merciless beating in the decisive game of the NBA season, there was This: they indisputably, unashamedly caved in, too.

So here we are now, less than seven months later, and the Lakers have beaten the Celtics not once, but twice, most recently on the sacred parquet. In the process, the Lakers have ended Boston winning streaks of 19 and 12 games, respectively. The last loss to Los Angeles triggered a stretch during which the Celtics went 2-7, and it is worth noting now that the Celtics are due to embark on a six-game trip through the south (New Orleans, Dallas) and west (Utah, Phoenix, Denver, the LA Clippers) following tonight’s game at New York and Sunday’s home game against San Antonio.

By the time the Celtics return home after that trip, February will be near its end and the NBA trading deadline will have passed, and any roster manipulation all but completed as contenders set their sights on the spring.

That said, over the next three weeks or so, the Celtics’ needs appear obvious: a backup point guard and a big man, not necessarily in that order. Stephon Marbury alone may not be enough. That became even more evident last night as Pau Gasol finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds while a recuperating Garnett (six fouls) sat on the bench, leaving the Celtics particularly vulnerable in the paint during the overtime period.

In last year’s Finals, Gasol averaged 14.7 points and 10.2 rebounds while shooting 53 percent from the floor. Against the Celtics this year, albeit in just two games, he has averaged 22 points and 9.5 rebounds while shooting 17 of 28 (a worrisome 61 percent).

"We needed Kevin’s length,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who also referred to Gasol as the "star of the game’’ during his customary postgame briefing. "That was a great example of how important length is and we just didn’t have it down the stretch.’’

If there was a message hidden somewhere in there, so be it. By now, we all know that Rivers is an astute man. Independent of how you regard P.J. Brown, James Posey or Sam Cassell, the reality is that the Celtics effectively have erased all three from the roster that won last year’s NBA title. Factor in the disappearance of Leon Powe -- or, as Phil Jackson might call him, Pow -- and the Celtics’ roster suddenly seems a good deal shorter than it did a year ago, no matter how much Rajon Rondo (16 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists) continues to improve.

Does that mean these Celtics are incapable of winning another title, as constituted, in what has suddenly become a very top-heavy league? No. But it does mean they are far more capable of being beaten by teams that have improved (the Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers, specifically) while the Celtics have simple stood in place or, more likely, slipped back to the pack some.

Obviously, a great deal is going to change in the next three weeks. A year ago at roughly this time, the Lakers added Gasol and the Cavs revamped their roster, bringing in a group that included Ben Wallace and Joe Smith. The Dallas Mavericks picked up Jason Kidd and the Phoenix Suns brought in Shaquille O’Neal. The Celtics added Brown and Cassell, signing the former out of retirement and the latter after he bought his way out of his contract.

Back then, when asked about the flurry of activity taking place around the league, Rivers said the Celtics took some measure of pride in believing that they triggered all of the activity with their offseason acquisitions of Garnett and Ray Allen. The obvious insinuation was that the rest of the NBA was trying to keep up. Now the Celtics have considerable company atop the NBA standings as March 1 is rapidly approaching, and it certainly seems as if the league has fully erased the gap.

For the Celtics, the challenge now is obvious.

If they believe that league superiority rightfully belongs to them, nobody is simply going to give it to them.

They have to take it.

Hell, yeah.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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