This week, the Celtics won the Atlantic Division. In the weeks ahead, they'll set their sights even higher.
After a pair of wins Saturday and Monday, and a pair of Knicks losses — including one against the Celtics at Madison Square Garden — the C's are now 15 1/2 games up on their Big Apple foes with 13 to play. They've locked up the division crown, they're still neck and neck with Chicago for the East's top spot and they're starting to find that playoff rhythm we've heard so much about.
The C's are getting ready for the second season. In a few weeks, it'll be here.
Here are seven thoughts on where Doc Rivers' squad stands right now, 22 days away from the end of the regular season.
1. The Celtics' win over the Knicks on Monday night was a big one for many reasons, including the budding rivalry, the intense physicality of the game and the 15-point comeback. It was also the 50th win of the Celtics' season. The C's are among four teams this season to win 50, joining the Spurs, Lakers and Bulls, who also won their 50th on Monday. This year's Celtics are now 50-19; last year's team was 50-32. So unless the C's finish the season with 13 straight losses, they'll improve on last year's record.
2. This may be just a tad premature, but then again, maybe not. Rajon Rondo's slump looks like it's over. In four games last week between Sunday and Friday, Rondo's averaged 2.0 points, 6.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 4-of-29; in the two games since, he's averaging 11.0, 8.5 and 2.5, shooting 10-of-24. The C's won both games, coming back from down 15 in each. Rondo's not quite a world-beater yet, but he's playing significantly better than a week ago. Once he gets over that sprained finger, he'll be good to go for the postseason.
3. Doc Rivers said last week that he wanted a tighter rotation for the playoffs — nine guys, to be exact. Instantly, speculation arose about which nine. Perhaps we already know the answer. Doc made it clear on Saturday night, when the C's finished up a back-to-back in New Orleans, that he trusts three bench guys above all the rest. That would be Glen Davis, Delonte West and Jeff Green. Everyone else is an afterthought. So take the starting five, add in the "Bench Three," and toss in whichever O'Neal winds up healthier, and boom. There's your nine-man unit. Everyone else is there for injury insurance.
4. One very encouraging thing about Saturday's win: It helped the Celtics get that "can't win on back-to-backs" monkey off their backs. Going into Saturday, they'd lost five consecutive contests on zero days' rest, falling to Chicago, Washington, Phoenix, Charlotte and New Jersey. They ended that skid by beating the Hornets on Saturday, one night after losing to the Rockets. But the C's are still only 7-8 on day two of back-to-back stretches, and they still have four of them to go.
5. Another point of pride for the Celtics after Saturday was Doc Rivers' reaching the 500-win milestone for his coaching career. It was his 329th win coaching the Celtics, combined with 171 at the helm of the Orlando Magic, for a total of the big 5-0-0. Doc is the 27th coach in NBA history to reach that milestone, and he's the sixth among coaches still currently active — he joins Phil Jackson, George Karl, Rick Adelman, Gregg Popovich and Flip Saunders. That's some elite company.
6. Adjusting to life in Boston has been tricky for new Celtic Nenad Krstic, but the presence of Sasha Pavlovic, a good friend of his who played with him in the FIBA European Championships when they were both teenagers, has made it easier. According to a Boston Globe story Monday morning, Krstic called Pavlovic a couple of weeks ago and practically begged him to come to Boston. The two Serbians have become fast friends again in the Celtics' locker room.
7. Shaquille O'Neal has been out for almost two months now with his inflamed Achilles, but smart money says the big fella is on the way back soon. Shaq traveled with the Celtics on their three-game road trip this week, and while he hasn't gone through any full-contact practices, he's doing more and more physical activity every day. He's riding on the exercise bike, he's swimming to stay in shape and he's getting a few shots up in shootarounds. He's working to get back into game shape for the postseason. You're going to see the Diesel back on the basketball court sooner rather than later.