All of a sudden, Celtics playing for Atlantic Division lead

All of a sudden, Celtics playing for Atlantic Division lead
March 7, 2012, 5:54 am
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BOSTON The season began with Paul Pierce on the sideline with a heel injury. Rajon Rondo was out for eight games. A critical road trip ended with a loss at Oklahoma City, a game in which the C's only had three players 6-foot-9 or taller - and two were rookies.

Throw in the rumored trades and the slow start, and the last thing you would expect at this point in the season is the Celtics to be in position to take over first place in the Atlantic Division.

But that is indeed what's at stake Wednesday night as the Celtics face the division-leading Philadelphia 76ers.

The Celtics (20-17) positioned themselves for this following Tuesday night's 97-92 overtime win over Houston, which was Boston's fifth straight victory.

While it's clear that Wednesday's game is a big one for the Celtics, both the players and coaching staff tried to downplay its significance.

"I mean, we're just hanging in there, that's what we're doing," said coach Doc Rivers.

Kevin Garnett added, "You guys keep up with that, we don't. We try to take it a day at a time, a game at a time. Since we been doing that, it simplified a lot of things for us. We're not looking down the schedule and anticipating teams that we haven't even played yet.

Garnett added, "I just know that it's important for us to continue to play together basketball. It's more easier for everybody."

Still, with all that the Celtics have been through this season, to be where they are - on the cusp of taking over the top spot in the Atlantic Division - says a lot about this team beyond the fact that they're playing better basketball.

"It says we're fighters; grind this thing out and see what we can do," Garnett said. "If you know anything about this history for the last five years, we're going to grind and work and push for this thing and see how far we can take it."

While winning games - and not just the Atlantic Division - is the focus, don't think for a minute that the C's don't understand the added value that will come about in a win Wednesday against the Sixers (22-17), who have lost 8 of their last 10 games.

"This is definitely a division rival that we are going to have to overtake, and seeing as it's going to be important going into the playoffs," said Paul Pierce.

The Celtics (20-17) currently have the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference. However, if they win the Atlantic it would guarantee them home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

"So these are important games," Pierce said.