Even when they've failed to reach the finals during the Big Three era, the Celtics have still managed to come away from each season knowing that they were the best team in the Atlantic Division. But are they in jeopardy of losing their stranglehold on the top spot?
The C's have won the Atlantic Division every season since the Big Three came together in 2007, and they've typically done so very handily. They won by a 25-game margin in 2007-08, a 21-game margin in 2008-09, a 10-game margin in 2009-10 and a 14-game margin in 2010-11. However, some are predicting that things could get a bit more interesting this season, and Sunday's loss to the Knicks in the season opener could be the first indication.
One loss obviously isn't something to get too worked up about. There's still 81 games to go, and the C's are still positioned to be a postseason team. But it's also quite obvious that the rest of the division appears to be closing the gap on Boston.
The New York Knicks lost out in the LeBron James sweepstakes last year, but they still made a huge splash in free agency by signing Amare Stoudemire. They've only continued to get stronger since then, acquiring Carmelo Anthony via trade during last season, and signing Tyson Chandler this offseason. Throw in Landry Fields and Toney Douglas, and you're looking at an extremely formidable starting five.
The New Jersey Nets were dealt an unfortunate blow when they lost Brook Lopez to a foot injury, but when he's healthy, he forms a potent 1-2 punch with point guard Deron Williams. It's also become increasingly clear that the Nets are doing everything they can to put a winner on the court, as they've been linked to Dwight Howard on multiple occasions.
The Philadelphia 76ers are another team that could give the Celtics some trouble because of their athleticism. Jrue Holiday, despite being just 21, has become one of the game's more exciting point guards. With Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand still in the fold, and Evan Turner still developing, Philly could build off their 41-41 season from a year ago, which earn it the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.
And then there's the Toronto Raptors, who despite relatively low expectations, always seem to play the C's tough. In other words, they don't necessarily have to be a contender to hinder the Celtics' chances of picking up a fifth straight division crown.
All in all, there's not a whole lot riding on a division title. Getting into the postseason is the most important thing, which the Celtics still have a great shot of doing. It's worth taking a glance around the Atlantic Division, though, because we may not see those massive leads that we're used to from the Celtics down the stretch.