These final two weeks are crucial for the Celtics. Playoff-bound and riding momentum, the C's want to improve their seeding, earn home-court advantage for at least one round and, most of all, just be able to say they are playing well heading into the postseason.
These weeks are far less interesting for the New Jersey Nets. As the franchise's days in the Garden State come to a close and All-Star point guard Deron Williams awaits free agency this offseason, the Nets are mostly playing out the string in another uninspiring season.
It should not have taken much, then, for the Celtics to sap the Nets of their will on Saturday. As it turned out, it did not. The Celtics abused the Nets in the third quarter, outscoring New Jersey by 13 points before cruising to a 94-82 win at the Prudential Center.
"We had a back-to-back, so you can let down coming back from halftime, but our main focus was to come out and play hard, and that's what we did," said Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who scored 18 points in the game, with 11 points coming in a third quarter in which Boston ran out to a 26-13 scoring advantage. "That's what you have to do on a back-to-back. You have to come out and bring even more intensity to the game. That's what I feel like we did."
The Celtics (35-25) did everything in the third quarter against the Nets (22-39) that they did not do against the Raptors on Friday. With a more traditional substitution pattern, the Celtics blitzed the Nets before and after the intermission Saturday to remind the cellar-dwellers of their place. Boston had allowed the Raptors to gain confidence by staying close on Friday, leading to a loss that snapped the Celtics' four-game win streak.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers guarded against a repeat of that in New Jersey.
"The first quarter I thought we started out shooting jumpers again," Rivers said. "[Friday], I think, it was 47 jumpers and nine post-ups for the game. You're not going to win a lot of games unless you're on fire that way."
Kevin Garnett filled the box score with 21 points and 12 rebounds, while Rajon Rondo bounced back from an ugly four-turnover first quarter to finish with 15 assists. Brandon Bass, playing one night after he looked to be laboring on his hyperextended knee, grabbed 11 rebounds as the Celtics beat the Nets on the boards, 51-42.
The win edged the Celtics within a half-game of the idle Hawks for home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. As the Atlantic Division leader, the Celtics would be entitled to one of the top four playoff seeds, but if their opponent has a superior record, the Celtics would open the playoffs on the road.
The remaining schedule for the Celtics is as difficult as the Hawks' schedule is easy. Half of the Celtics' final six games are on the road, and the home dates include a showdown with the Miami Heat in the penultimate game of the season. The Hawks will be at home for six of their seven remaining games and get to host the Celtics in what could be a game-changing matchup Friday.
These last two weeks are of the utmost importance for the Celtics. On Saturday, they took care of one of the teams they need to beat while resting up for the big matchups that could determine their playoff fate.