By A. Sherrod Blakely
LOS ANGELES When you look at the Western Conference standings, there has been at least one or two teams ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers (33-14) most of this season.
That doesn't matter to the Boston Celtics.
The Lakers are the NBA champions, two years running now.
Until that changes, they remain the team that, maybe more than any other, has the Celtics' undivided attention.
We'll certainly find out when one of the NBA's most storied rivalries is resumed Sunday afternoon at the Staples Center.
"I see them as the team to beat," Boston's Paul Pierce said of the Lakers. "I don't see them as one (of the elite teams), I see them as the (elite team in the NBA). They've proven it. I don't really care what their record looks like. In a seven game series, they're going to be tough to beat."
Sunday's matchup won't have the sizzle of an NBA Finals Game 7 matchup.
But make no mistake about it.
It's a big game, bigger than the Celtics players want to acknowledge.
For the Celtics, it will be their first time back at the Staples Center since losing Game 7 of the NBA Finals in June.
When the season ended, the Celtics had tough decisions to make.
Boston came up short with a roster full of veterans, leaving president of basketball operations Danny Ainge with a couple of clear-cut choices.
He could go young, and buy into the notion that the Celtics needed to begin the rebuilding process immediately.
Or he could add even more veterans than the Celtics had a year ago, establish an even deeper bench, and do so without locking up players to long-term deals.
Ainge picked the latter.
"I love our group," Ainge told CSNNE.com. "I feel like, we've had a really good season. We feel like we have a really good team."
Boston (35-11) boasts the best record in the Eastern conference, an astounding position for them to be in considering rarely does a day pass without someone getting hurt.
The latest member of the Green and White MASH unit is Glen Davis, who has a right hamstring injury that has him questionable for Sunday's game.
When you look at the moves made by Ainge this summer, they were made with one thing in mind - unseat the Lakers at the top of the NBA scrap heap.
"Right now, we're doing all we can to try and win a championship right now," Ainge said.
That Game 7 loss came down to the Celtics not having enough quality size in the frontcourt, a point that became quite obvious in the final five or six minutes of the game which is when the Lakers rallied to take control. A key to that lack of depth was the torn MCL and PCL injury suffered by Kendrick Perkins in Game 6.
So what did Ainge do?
He went out and signed Jermaine O'Neal, who has been a disappointment so far because of missing so many games with various injuries. He opted to not have surgery on his left knee, and is now resting it with the goal being for him to return to action in about three weeks.
If Jermaine O'Neal returns to action and helps the Celtics win a couple of playoff games on the road towards Banner 18, all will be forgiven just as it was a year ago when Rasheed Wallace delivered his best play of the season in the playoffs. Even to this day, a segment of Celtics Nation clammers for Wallace to go Brett Favre on us and return to the Celtics.
Boston also added Shaquille O'Neal, who, even as the oldest player in the NBA, still can take over games every now and then.
The Celtics signed Jermaine O'Neal to a two-year deal worth about 11.9 million, a similar contract to the one O'Neal turned down from the Denver Nuggets. And Shaquille O'Neal signed a two-year, 3.2 million deal for the veteran's minimum.
"Being able to get Shaq and Jermaine with what we had, was very successful for us," Ainge said. "Now the only concern you have with those guys is their health. We know they can both play. It's a matter of keeping them healthy."
Because of their injuries, it has afforded rookie center Semih Erden a chance to play more minutes than expected.
To his credit, Erden has stepped up to the challenge and has made the most of his opportunities to play.
"We feel we have a young, 7-foot kid that can play," Ainge said.
But it remains to be seen if that will be enough to beat the Lakers on Sunday, let alone in the NBA Finals if both teams manage to get that far.
Despite the hype surrounding the Miami Heat and the blockbuster trade that bolstered the Orlando Magic's title hopes, the Celtics have remained confident that they will be the last team standing at the end of the season.
And they're pretty confident the Lakers will be right there with them, even if they're not the best team in the West right now.
"They're back-to-back champs," said C's guard Rajon Rondo. "Whether they're .500 right now, they're still the team to beat. They pretty much went through the West last year. They're the team to beat, regardless of their regular season record."