Celtics aim for wins despite injuries

BOSTON -- Despite cobbling together a league-leading 14-game winning streak in the face of a head-shaking amount of early-season injuries, the Boston Celtics have taken little joy in what they've put together over the first two months of the NBA season.

Maybe it's because they know it can all disappear so quickly.

The Celtics flew to Orlando on Thursday morning in advance of Saturday's Christmas showdown against the Magic with cautious optimism packed beside the presents being lugged 1,000 miles from home. There's satisfaction in what they've been able to accomplish, particularly without key players, but Boston also remembers full well how, at this very moment last season, the wheels started to come off.

The Celtics made the holiday trek to Orlando last year without Paul Pierce, who had developed an infection in his right knee that needed to be flushed (including once on Christmas Day as his teammates topped the Magic to improve to 23-5 overall). It was the first of a cocktail of injuries Pierce would endure, and the first of a spate of maladies the Celtics battled over the next four months.

Boston lost its first three games after Christmas, 11 of its next 17 overall and ultimately played .500 basketball over the final 54 games of the regular season. Two games after Christmas, Kevin Garnett got kicked in his surgically repaired right knee and looked hobbled again until the playoffs arrived, when Boston surged despite being an unheralded fourth seed.

Given the injuries they've already battled this season, the Celtics know how delicate NBA success can be. They've stockpiled wins like squirrels collecting nuts before winter arrives.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers suggested after Wednesday's latest eyesore of a win over the Philadelphia 76ers that he's not concerned about a similar slide because his team is "healthy." What he means is that Boston's Big Three of Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen are healthy, and that's been enough to carry the Celtics even as Rajon Rondo (ankle), Shaquille O'Neal (calf), Jermaine O'Neal (knee), Delonte West (wrist) and Kendrick Perkins (knee) have all missed extended time due to injury.

"The only reason we went on a slide -- and no one wanted to hear that last year during the whole stretch -- was that we had the whole team hurt," Rivers said. "It's not like we started playing bad. We started playing injured and we never really got healthy, completely. Then we made the conscious choice to shut bodies down.

"If we can get healthy, we're not concerned by [another potential slide]. If we can't, we're always concerned."

So can the Celtics get healthy? Jermaine O'Neal, Boston's biggest offseason addition in terms of price tag after being inked to a two-year pact at the full mid-level exception, is expected to be active on Christmas after missing 19 straight games (18 due to lingering left knee soreness; Wednesday's game due to the flu).

His return will start a trickle of Boston (potentially) getting back to full strength. Rondo is moving well after spraining his left ankle last week in New York, and while the team has offered no updated timeline on his return, it would seem the Green will be hard-pressed to keep him off the court on Christmas should they allow him a few more days to recover.

West and Perkins should ramp up their own recoveries in the new year, both cautiously pegged for return around the All-Star break in late February. That would allow the Celtics to spell guys such as rookie center Semih Erden, who is playing through a shoulder issue that will likely require surgery when the team can afford for him to go under the knife.

Asked to assess his team's performance so far this season, Rivers shrugged.

"I don't know," he said, "because we don't have our team, really. Record-wise, we're great. But as far as getting better and progressing as a team, as a coach, that's my concern.

"We're winning games, but we're not improving a lot because we don't have enough guys right now. Our second unit is not getting any work because the whole second unit is in street clothes, for the most part. So we're just going to keep trying to win as many games as possible through this stretch. It feels like we got a finger in a dam right now and we need some bodies to plug it up."

The Celtics know they can't control the injury bug, so they're governing what they are able to alter -- such as winning games that might have slipped away last season when injuries mounted; the type of wins that prevented them from making their march toward a title a little bit easier.

Shaquille O'Neal wasn't with the team last season, but he's picked up the company line quickly.

"We're not really concentrating on the streak," he said. "One of our goals is to try to stay dominant at home, beat the teams we're supposed to beat and stay above .500 on the road. We're playing well, doing whatever it takes to win."

O'Neal has been quick to point out that Boston should be 27-0, and he honestly believes what he says (as do others in the Celtics' locker room). But the only way the win-loss record aids Boston is if it makes its path to a world title easier, and that won't be known until late June.

The Celtics firmly believe that if last season they had been able to win the type of games they're winning now, they would already have raised banner No. 18. As Garnett said: "Living and learning, man. We've paid attention to [the] past, try to learn [from it]."

Sports reminds us so often of philosopher George Santayana's proclamation: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The Celtics are trying to alter history, rewrite the ending. Joy now does not promise joy later.

And all Boston wants for Christmas is to be happy in June.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.