BOSTON (CBS) – The one thing the Boston Celtics didn’t have to worry about the last five years was competition in the Atlantic Division.
If they hung division banners in the TD Garden, the Celtics could have printed them in late September. The Knicks and Nets weren’t even close to being competitive, with the 76ers and Raptors just as bad — if not worse.
But that’s not the case anymore.
The 76ers and Knicks both made strides last season, taking advantage of an aging Celtics team that was focused more on the playoffs than their regular season campaign. Both teams added key pieces this off-season to solidify their spots in the Eastern Conference talk, but the now-Brooklyn Nets have become a — if not the — legit contender for the Atlantic.
With that, the phrase “big divisional game” has new meaning for the Celtics.
“I don’t like it,” Celtics head coach Doc Rivers joked on Tuesday. “I liked it the other way, personally.”
The Celtics welcome the Nets, who have won three straight, to the TD Garden for the first time this season on Wednesday night. Boston already knows what the new-look Nets have to offer, dropping their first meeting at the new Barclays Center 102-97 two weeks ago. Boston currently sits fourth in the Atlantic, with the Nets and Knicks holding a 1 ½ game lead over the C’s and a game lead over Philadelphia.
Games against the Nets and Knicks now have much more meaning this season, but Doc Rivers isn’t sure if that is a good or bad thing for his squad.
“I think any time you have hard games it’s good. I don’t want every night to be that way,” said Rivers. “Right now, with us, because we haven’t gotten to where we want to get, every game is hard. That’s probably going to be the way it is. That’s fine, as long as we win them.”
Brooklyn not only sits atop the division, but they are also playing the all-around basketball the Celtics would like to put on the court on a nightly basis. In addition to their powerful offensive attack, the Nets rank second in the NBA in defense, allowing just 91.3 points per game (the Celtics rank 22nd, allowing 100.1 points per game) and are pulling down 42 rebounds per game – 12th in the NBA.
Rebounding has been a problem for Boston on both sides of the court, although Rivers puts a much bigger emphasis on the defensive glass. In the Celtics last two wins — over the Thunder at the Garden and an OT win over the Magic in Orlando — Boston did a stellar job on the boards, even pulling down 17 offensive rebounds against the Magic.
Rivers is hoping that continues Wednesday night.
“We just have to do it as a group. Again, for me, it’s more defensive rebounding. The offensive rebounds, if you get them, great,” Rivers said. “At the end of the day, you have to be a great defensive rebounding team. Historically, just go back and look at all the numbers; the defensive rebounding teams win.”
The Nets have the size to give Boston plenty of problems on the glass this season. Alongside center Brook Lopez is forward Kris Humphries, who hauled in 13 boards against Boston earlier in the month. Joe Johnson also chipped in with eight rebounds, and Rivers took notice. He made a point to mention Brooklyn’s size at the guard position, with Deron Williams and Johnson giving them a bigger back court and an even bigger advantage on the boards.
“They’re powerful guards and they create a ton of problems. It makes you double team, which goes back to that defensive rebounding issue,” said Rivers. “And they force you to double team; if Deron Williams is on a post, you’re not just going to not help. That’s where they get their rebounds from.”
The Nets dominated the glass early in the first meeting of the season, with the Celtics catching up in the second half. Boston broke through and took a lead into the fourth quarter, but simply ran out of gas in the end. The absence of Rajon Rodno, who was out with an ankle injury, played into that, as the Celtics could have used his defense and quickness late in the game.
It’s a luxury they’ll have Wednesday night when Rondo goes head-to-head against Deron Williams, but it will come down to a complete effort on the boards to for Boston to pull off their third straight W. While Rondo will certainly help the Celtics offense keep pace with the Brooklyn offensive onslaught, they’ll need big efforts on the glass from their big men down low.
With an added emphasis on division games this season, even a late-November match-up with the Nets now has meaning for the Celtics.