Celtics face early test in new-look Atlantic Division

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Celtics face early test in new-look Atlantic Division

The NBA season is just about a month old, and as I type, the Milwaukee Bucks are the only team in the Central Division with a winning record. This leads to the obvious question: OK, great. Who cares? But hold off on that for a second. I promise youll have another chance to ask.

Down in the Southeast, Miami and Atlanta are both above .500, while the Bobcats barely hang on after a surprising start (although if were being fair, shouldnt Mondays loss to the Thunder count for at least five? OK, good. So the Bobcats are actually 7-10). Out West, the Clippers and Warriors are the only two Pacific teams with a winning record. Same goes for the Spurs and Grizzlies in the Southwest. And in the Northwest, youve got the Thunder, Nuggets and Jazz all sitting above .500, with the Blazers and Wolves both lurking.

OK. All together now: Who cares?!

Now just the ladies: Who cares?!

Now just the seven-foot Serbians with a uniform number in the 90s: . . .

Oh, right. But seriously, who cares? Its November. Its early. Of the 30 teams in the league, only two have even played 15 games. Despite all thats happened and all weve learned since Opening Night in Miami, were still living in the Land of Small Sample Size where nothing is real. Not yet at least. So to try and draw any crazy conclusions based on the state of the current NBA standings is just stupid.

But . . . while nothings completely real at this point, in many cases, theres been enough evidence to help confirm some things that we already believed to be real.

For instance, right now Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are the leagues Top 3 leading scorers. On one hand, no one can say for sure that those guys will finish the season in the Top 3, but on the other, that would make a lot of sense. It lines up with our pre-season expectations and leaves us feeling pretty damn confident that Kobe, Durant and Melo are going to score a ton of points this year.

That's real.

And in those terms, so is the Atlantic Division.

After just about a month, the Atlantic is currently the only division in the NBA that features four teams with a winning a record. And on one hand, once again, its early. Im not saying that its going to stay this way all season, and Im definitely not saying that the Celtics, Knicks, Nets, 76ers and Raptors comprise the most talented and dominant division in the league.

But at this point, theres no question that it is, and will be, one of the most competitive. That after five years of significant Celtic dominance, the Atlantics officially up for grabs. Of course, this doesnt come as a surprise. This is what everyone expected this season. But now its real.

Entering tonights game against the Nets, the Celtics are in fourth place in the Atlantic. And obviously, thats not a big deal when you consider that theyre also only a game and a half out of first. But at the same time, its hard to argue that theyve been any better than the divisions fourth best team.

The Knicks are 9-4 with wins over Miami, San Antonio and Philly (x2). The Nets are 9-4 with wins over the Clippers, Knicks and Celtics. The Sixers are 9-6 with wins over Denver and Utah, plus that big one a few Fridays back at the Garden.

Here in Boston, the Celtics have just been surviving. Theyre 8-6, but only two of those wins have come against teams with a winning record. One of those was last Friday against Oklahoma City, and theres still hope that that game was a sign that the Cs are finally ready to break out of their uneven, month-long funk and start looking like the team that we spent all summer talking up as a legitimate threat to Miami.

But at best, its still just a sign. Were still waiting for the actual proof. And the Celtics have real nice opportunity to provide some tonight.

Want to hear something crazy? If the Celtics lose this game to the Nets, theyll fall to 1-3 in the Atlantic Division. Thats as many division games as they lost COMBINED over the first two seasons with KG and Ray, and as many they lost in each of the two seasons after that. Back then, a divisional game was something that the Celtics had to force themselves to care about. And even though they always got the job done, it was rarely pretty.

Honestly, how many absolutely awful CelticsNets games do you think you sat through over the last five years?

And I mean awful. I mean where the Nets were unwatchable, the Celtics werent trying and the whole experience just ruined your night.

I. Mean. Awful. And it came down to the fact that the Celtics just had nothing to prove. Thats their Achilles heel. If weve learned one thing about this team over the years its that having something to prove is the motor in their engine. It starts with Rondo. Its always been that way with Pierce. When theres no challenge, theres no Celtics. And for the last five years, that was the case pretty much every time they took the floor against the Nets.

But tonight, the Celtics are looking at their new reality. A big game against the Nets, in which they not only have something to prove, but also desperately need to prove it.

OK, for the 5,000th time, its early. But its not that early. The season's slowly coming into focus, and before the Celtics can even think about the East, they've got to prove that they can handle life in the new look Atlantic.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

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Celtics-Magic preview: Orlando's poor offense gives C's chance to bounce back

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Celtics-Magic preview: Orlando's poor offense gives C's chance to bounce back

Talk about your basketball extremes.

After losing a 107-106 heartbreaker to Houston and their high-powered offense on Monday, the Boston Celtics will be in for a very different -- and less successful -- foe tonight in the Orlando Magic.

The Magic beat Washington 124-116 on Tuesday night despite John Wall’s 52-point effort, but have been one of the NBA’s most offensively challenged teams this season.

Orlando ranks near the bottom in scoring (29th, 94.6 points per game), field goal percentage (28th, .426) and Pace (24th, 96.71) this season.

But Frank Vogel’s crew has been a defensive force thus far in the East even if their record might suggest otherwise.

They rank among the league’s best in several defensive categories such as scoring defense (4th, 98.0 points per game allowed); opponent 3-point percentage (3rd, 33.0 percent), opponent 3-point attempts (4th, 23.6) in addition to allowing a league-low 8.0 made 3's per game.

That will be a stark contrast from the let-it-fly-all-night style Boston had to contend with against the high-scoring Rockets on Monday.

But this set of games is exactly why Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge made of point of trying to put together a roster that was heavy on athleticism and versatility both in the frontcourt as well as on the perimeter.

Against Houston, Tyler Zeller recorded his first DNP-CD (Did not play -- coaches decision) of the season which made sense considering Houston basically plays void of a traditional center.

Orlando, that’s a different story.

Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic now coming off the bench form a physical triumvirate of big men that can cause lots of problems for a Celtics team that will look to attack the paint often.

When it comes to scoring in the restricted area, the Magic allow opponents to shoot 57.6 percent which ranks seventh in the league. They rank highly when it comes to defending mid-range shots (5-10th, 38.3 percent), corner 3's (6th, 34.5 percent) and above-the-break 3's (8th, 33.8 percent) as well.

And while they have had their issues offensively this season, their recent run of success has been in part aided by a much-improved offensive showing. In their last five games, they are shooting 48.5 percent from the field which ranks fifth in the NBA in that span. For the season, the Magic rank 28th while connecting on 42.6 percent of their shots.

Orlando’s improved shooting with a defense that’s stingy as ever, will make this a tough game for Boston to come away with a victory.

Just as the Magic seek to continue their successful ways, the Celtics come into this game with something to prove as well.

While the missed lay-ups by Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas in the final minute of Monday’s 107-106 loss certainly were factors in the game’s outcome, there were a series of miscommunications earlier in the quarter that fueled Houston’s late surge.

Following the game, Isaiah Thomas pointed out how he called out a play that Jonas Jerebko interpreted as another play the Celtics called.

The miscommunication led to a turnover and subsequent lay-up which in hindsight looms huge considering the margin of victory was just one point.

“The two play calls sound alike,” Thomas told reporters afterwards. “In the heat of battle, I have to do a better job of making sure everybody knows what play we’re running. He (Jerebko) handed the ball back to me when the play wasn’t to hand the ball back to me. That was one of the turnovers that was the key.

Thomas added, “It’s not his fault. As a group, as a point guard, I have to do a better job of letting my guys know what play we’re running. Those little things, especially on the road, those make you lose games. But that wasn’t the play that made us lose. I’m not putting this on Jonas at all.”

Indeed, this team’s success as well as their struggles are the collective efforts of all their core players, Thomas included.

And for them to get back on track, it won’t be one or two players that will make it happen.

It’ll be a team effort, the kind that will allow Boston to find success against different teams no matter how extremely different their styles of play may be.