NEW YORK — It seems hard to imagine, but the Celtics (10-12) aren't quite the same team anymore.
Yes, they are still below-.500 on the season, but they're different now. They're division leaders.
And no matter how much they try and downplay the significance of the standings this early in the season, it doesn't change the fact that they are no longer considered hunters in the Atlantic Division. They are the hunted.
And the Brooklyn Nets (6-14) are the latest team to try and inch a little closer to the Celtics in what's becoming a crowded division.
"They're really surprising a lot of people," said Nets forward and former Celtics great Paul Pierce. "Guys are stepping up. They're playing good team ball, they're running, they're playing together despite Rondo being out. Nobody expected them to be playing good right now, especially without their leader."
But the Nets have been without key guys as well, all season. Among them is Deron Williams, who is expected back in the lineup tonight. Pierce, who suffered a broken hand injury on Nov. 29 at Houston, said there's a "good chance" that he'll play tonight as well.
That would give Brooklyn its preseason projected starting lineup tonight, which has played a total of 78 minutes together this season.
"We're not playing the Nets that played the first (20) games," said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens prior to the team's shoot-around at Baruch College. "We're playing the Nets that everybody thought were going to be the Nets. We just have to be that much better to give ourselves a chance."
Here are some other keys to tonight's game:
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Boston is going to have some backcourt matchup problems at the start if Deron Williams plays tonight, as expected. Do you start Avery Bradley on him? And if so, do you dare put Jordan Crawford on Joe Johnson? And what about when the Nets go to the bench and come back with 6-foot-7 point guard Shaun Livingston checking in? This is going to be one of those pick-your-poison kind of games for the Celtics defensively.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Jared Sullinger vs. Brook Lopez. Sullinger has held his own against some of the better NBA centers, but Lopez may be the biggest challenge. He scores on both sides of the block, can shoot facing the basket and although he doesn't have 3-point range like Sullinger, he can shoot the ball from deep. Did we mention he's 7-feet tall?
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jordan Crawford is fresh off his first Eastern Conference player of the week award, balancing his scoring and playmaking ability seamlessly. Sticking to that script will do wonders both for him and the Celtics tonight.
STAT TO TRACK: Games aren't won in the first quarter, but you wouldn't know that by the way the Celtics have been playing lately. During their current three-game winning streak, they have more than doubled the first quarter scoring of their opponents by an impressive 101-49 margin.