Those back-to-back losses last week seriously hurt — and probably ended — the Celtics' chances at matching the '95-96 Bulls' 72-10 record. A 73-win season would be historic, but there is a bigger task at hand for the C's: winning the East.
Standing in the way of the C's are the Orlando Magic, their Friday night opponent and the defending champions of the Eastern Conference. After knocking off the Celtics in the conference semis in Game 7 at the Garden last spring, all the Magic (9-3) did to improve last season's club was add Vince Carter to their already star-studded lineup to replace the departed Hedo Turkoglu. In other words, the Magic aren't leaving the Eastern elite any time soon. And the Cleveland LeBrons aren't going anywhere either — at least for this season.
The 76ers (5-6), Raptors (5-7), Knicks (2-9) and Nets (0-12) aren't exactly going to pose a serious threat to the C's in Atlantic at any point this season, leaving Doc Rivers' team with an enormous advantage to achieve their first goal of winning the division.
The same can't be said for the Magic or Cavaliers. The Magic have to fend off the Hawks (10-2) and Heat (7-4) in the Southeast, and the Cavs have the improving Bucks (6-3), the Pacers (5-4) and the young but competitive Bulls (6-5) to worry about.
But don't tell Rivers that his team has any better chance to secure the No. 1 seed than the reigning champion Magic.
"They're the team everybody's chasing in the East," Rivers told The Boston Globe. "They won the championship of the East last year. As far as we're concerned, they're the favorite and Cleveland's the second favorite and we're the third — going by the results of last year. So, it will be good [Friday night] to see where we're at."
The Celtics only play the Magic and Cavs a combined eight times in the regular season. Paul Pierce understands the importance of the Celtics' games against the league's elite and the major implications each result has down the road.
"You're talking about a team that's going to be there in the end, one of the best records in the league," Pierce told the Globe. "So, we're playing for home-court advantage and this is a team that we have to beat."
Friday marks the first meeting between the Celtics and Magic this season, and it's the first time the teams have seen each other since the Magic's Game 7 win in Boston advanced them to the conference finals.
"I'm just looking forward to playing them," said Kevin Garnett. "Their record says they're one of the best teams. They're deep, they're very deep. People are not really talking about their depth, but the onus is on us. This should be a good test for us."
Challenging the Bulls' 72-10 mark would have been nice, and 73-9 would have been even better. But hosting a possible Game 7 against the Magic or Cavs is a more manageable and realistic goal for this Celtics team — and the first step toward a potential return to the NBA finals.