Halfway through the Celtics' final preseason tilt against the New Jersey Nets on Wednesday night, a packed house at the TD Garden wondered aloud how this team could possibly be ready for next Tuesday's season opener against the Miami Heat.
As the third quarter went on, that wonder began to dissipate.
The C's closed the quarter with a 34-10 run on their home floor, obliterating the Nets and finishing off the seventh and final win of their exhibition schedule. Five Celtics finished in double figures as the C's emerged by a 107-92 final score.
Originally the plan had been to rest the starters from halftime on. But when the C's found themselves down seven at the break, floundering against a subpar New Jersey team, they got their priorities straight. Not to beat the Nets, per se — but to build toward Tuesday and beyond.
"This isn't so much about winning in the preseason, but it is about getting better, and it's about our habits," said assistant coach Lawrence Frank, who ran the show Wednesday night in place of head coach Doc Rivers. "From one through five in that starting lineup, they knew that we could do better, and we wanted to show that we could. And once we did show that we could do better, it was time to get them out."
The C's were fittingly led by their captain Paul Pierce with 17 points. After a relatively flat first half, it was Pierce who picked the Celtics up early in the third quarter, invigorating the Garden crowd by taking a steal coast to coast and finishing at the rim on a give-and-go with Rajon Rondo.
It was a big play, and one that fueled a huge Boston rally that would decide the game. But more than that, it put the Celtics in a positive frame of mind going into next week.
"You want to sort of build something going into the season," Pierce said. "Individually and as a team, it's about getting the confidence going. You want to be playing well, and you try to get some things going. I've tried to figure out some things that I can do offensively, just to get some confidence, knowing that I can get the job done in the regular season. That's very important for everybody. But for the most part, I think everybody got a good feeling of what we were trying to do. We're building our confidence as we go."
With the exhibition games in their rear-view mirror, the Celtics can now look ahead to a week of practices in preparation for the mighty Heat. After taking Thursday off, they'll have four practices between Friday and Monday, back at their home training facility in Waltham.
"It's never over," Ray Allen said of the preseason. "We have practices. These next four practices that we have going into the first game, we have to try to duplicate these game situations. Because I don't want to go into this first game feeling that we're fatigued, or not game-ready. We want to go in feeling like we're sharp, like we're in midseason form. So it's always a constant struggle to get better, to understand each other a little bit more, and to communicate a little bit better. Every day, we're trying to figure that out."
At halftime on Wednesday night, it looked like the Celtics had started looking forward to next week a little early. They'd lost their focus on the task at hand.
But now, with the visiting Nets left in the dust, the C's are free to look ahead.
"It's the anticipation of it," Pierce said. "I mean, you've got two heavyweights that everybody's talking about, that are probably going to be there at the end. But I think regardless of who it is, I'm always excited for opening night. That never changes, regardless of who we play."
"The real thing is on Tuesday," added Shaquille O'Neal. "We had a pretty good training camp and a pretty good preseason. The guys are getting to know each other, having fun out there and learning. It's going to be a very, very exciting season."