By Rich Levine
BOSTON Last year, the Celtics werent much for home cooking.
They finished the regular season with a 24-17 record at the Garden, which wasnt awful, but mediocre enough to rank them last among the leagues 16 playoff teams. And considering the C's had gone a combined 70-12 at home the previous two seasons, it certainly wasnt up to the lofty standards established by the Big Three.
For most of the Big Three's first two years, the Garden was a place that other teams feared, an arena where opponents took the court hoping to maybe steal a win but knowing that most of the time that hope would result in embarrassment. But last season, as teams like Washington, Memphis, Detroit and New Jersey had their way on the parquet, the mystique surrounding the Celtics home-court advantage slowly started to fade. Teams came to Boston not only hoping, but expecting to win. And often times they did.
The fans booed. The players grumbled. Rasheed Wallace shot a ton of threes.
You remember. It was a mess. And while the team cleaned that up some once the playoffs began and re-established the Gardens Jungle mentality, they knew that coming into this season, there was still work to be done.
Yeah, we talked about it, said Doc Rivers after Wednesday nights win over New Jersey. We knew we had a ton of injuries and we were playing guys strange minutes last year, but one of the things we still expected through all that was to win the home games. And we didnt do that. So obviously this year has been much better."
Much better is an understatement. With Wednesdays win, the Celtics improved to 25-5 at the Garden, already surpassing last years total. The 25 homes wins tie them with San Antonio for the most in the NBA, and leaves the Cs at the All-Star break, well on their way to reaffirming themselves as the leagues pre-eminent home team.
Since Ive been here, home court has always been the emphasis, said Kevin Garnett, who registered his double-double (14 points, 10 boards) of the season. Its always primary. The form which we did in 08 is the form we follow to this day, and home court is a big part of that.
Of course, the fact the Celtics surpassed the mark by barely (the final score is David Blaine-level deceiving) outlasting a struggling Nets team doesnt lend itself to the notion that the Celtics are once again a dominant home team. When a squad like the New Jersey comes to the Garden, you expect the Celtics to make quick, easy work.
But thats not always how it happens. You cant dominate every game in this league, regardless of the opponent. There will always be nights when things start slow, or a lesser team catches you off guard, but the great teams overcome that. And on Wednesday, thats what the Celtics did.
"Listen, not every game's going to be beautiful," Rivers said. "It's the NBA. We just want to win the game."
And that's what they did. But like many games theyve experienced this season, Wednesday nights was one that last years team would have lost. As the Nets fought hard, hung around and led by as many as nine points in the second half, last years Celtics would have folded. They would have let the Nets escape and just thrown the night on the garbage pile with all the rest of the pathetic home losses. But thats not how this years teams built.
"A lot of people came here and beat us last year," said Glen Davis, who played 20 minutes off the bench, "and we didn't like that. We did a better job in the post season but we still lost games. We want to protect home court."
And unlike last year, Davis and the rest of the Celtics know that while not every night can be a cakewalk, what matters especially at home is that the team is ready and willing to get it done in the clutch. And not let anyone run away with a win in Boston's gym.
We took the same approach last year but this is a different team," Davis said. "Were all just different, because of what we went through. We finish games. Thats what its all about. Finishing. But at the same time we know we still need to get better for the second half of the season."
And they do. But unlike last year, they have the luxury of counting on some serious home cooking.