Monday, March 16, 2009

Celtics hoping injuries don't cost them home-court advantage

WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) -- The snow is melting in New England, the NBA regular season is about to enter its final month and the Boston Celtics are running out of time to earn the home-court advantage for the playoffs.

With 16 games left, Boston is 2 1/2 games behind the Cavaliers in the race for the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics lead Cleveland 2-1 in the season series, but their push for the playoffs has been held back by injuries to starters Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo and a slew of backups.

"Whether we get home court or not, the main thing is to just get healthy," Boston swingman Paul Pierce said. "We're a confident ballclub, and if we have to go on the road any point in the playoffs where we don't have home court advantage, we feel like we can still get the job done."

Garnett has missed 10 games with a sprained right knee, and coach Doc Rivers said Saturday that he won't be able to return until "sometime next week." Rondo missed two games -- both losses -- with a right ankle sprain, joining backups Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Brian Scalabrine and Tony Allen in the trainer's room.

"I think we've got a chance, especially with Kevin coming back," Rondo said. "We're just trying to get back into the swing of things. We'll get back into a rhythm and start rolling again."

The Celtics coasted to the best record in the East last year, seven games ahead of second-place Detroit, allowing Rivers to rest his starters down the stretch and give the backups some minutes that proved crucial in the long grind to the franchise's 17th NBA title. This year's race is tighter, and Rivers might soon have to choose whether to challenge for the No. 1 seed or give his players much-needed rest.

"It doesn't look good this year," Rivers said. "Last year we were able to because we had such a big cushion. This year we don't. We're trying to catch Cleveland and trying to stay in front of Orlando. Every year's completely different. And this year's different from last."

Two things have kept the Celtics from walking away with the best record this season: They've gotten worse, and the competition has gotten better. The Celtics are on pace to win 62 games this year -- a number they've surpassed only five times in their illustrious history, but down from last year's 66-16 record.

Although Detroit has faltered, Cleveland has already topped its 2007-08 win total and Orlando is likely to do the same. So are the Los Angeles Lakers, over in the West.

"I don't want to see guys walking out there on one leg and trying to get home court and be burnt out for the playoffs," Pierce said after Boston beat the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night. "It's not going to make sense for these guys to be hopping around, sacrificing right now for later because you wont be healthy in the playoffs. So it's good right now, these guys are taking their time, get 100 percent, and it'll pay off in the playoffs."

Nothing paid off in last year's playoffs like home court. Boston's famous parquet proved to be the difference as early as the first round, when they were forced to a seventh game by the No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks.

Neither Boston nor Cleveland has won in the other's building since the new Big Three was assembled, and last year they split their home games in the Eastern Conference semifinals before the Celtics took Game 7 at home. Not until they faced the Pistons in the conference finals, and again against the Lakers in the NBA Finals, did the teams manage to win on the road.

Rivers said he doesn't see it as a dilemma -- yet.

"We're not going to injure a guy," he said. "If I thought our guys were tired, I'd react."

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