Hot start nothing new for Celtics

WALTHAM - We have all been here before.

There is a definite sense of déjà vu with these Celtics and their shot-from-guns start. It's become the norm here over the past four years.

Twenty games into the season, Doc Rivers' crew has an 80 percent winning mark. No team in the East has a better record and only one team in the West (San Antonio) has a superior mark. The Celtics are slowly, but steadily, becoming the defensive juggernaut they aspire to be. They have continued to win despite myriad injuries.

This has been the trend and, frankly, the mission of the Celtics in the era of the New Big Three. We're on Year No. 4 now and one thing in common about all four seasons has been the team's rocket-like break from the opening gate.

This year, they are 16-4 after 20 games and, as Shaquille O'Neal reminded everyone last week, they haven't really been beaten by anyone yet. They've won 16 and thrown away four, including a pair to a couple of undesirables (Cleveland, Toronto). They've won nine of 10 at home, the best home record in the conference and second-best in the NBA (behind Denver's 10-1.) They take a seven-game winning streak into Wednesday's game against the Nuggets, who had won seven in a row going into Tuesday night's game in Charlotte.

The Celtics are one of a handful of teams in the top 10 in the three big defensive categories: points allowed, defensive field goal percentage and defensive 3-point percentage. They even have a positive rebounding differential despite being last in the league in offensive rebounding (which may have something to do with the fact that they are No. 1 in the NBA in shooting percentage by a wide margin and that Rivers is not a big proponent of crashing the offensive glass.)

Here's a look at what the Celtics have done in the first 20 games in each of the last four years:

2007-08: 18-2. They ended up winning 29 of their first 32 games. They then returned to earth (comparatively) and went 37-13 over their last 50 games.

2008-09: 18-2. They ended up winning 27 of their first 29, including a franchise-record 19 straight, before losing to the Lakers on Christmas. They went 35-18 over their final 53 games, a stretch which coincided with Kevin Garnett's season-ending knee injury.

2009-10: 16-4. They peaked on Christmas Day in Orlando, beating the Magic without Paul Pierce to improve to 23-5. They then went out West and lost three in a row (all without Pierce and the final loss without Garnett as well). That started them on their 27-27 downward spiral the rest of the way. What no one foresaw was the complete 180 for the playoffs.

What we still don't know, of course, is whether 2010-11 will look more like 2007-08, when the Celtics won 66 games, like 2009-10, when they won 62 games or like last season, when injuries and a franchise decision to rest the veterans resulted in a very underwhelming final 54 games (27-27).

They will get a good test for the remainder of this month, starting with the arrival of the Nuggets on Wednesday. There are two games with surprising Indiana, a back-to-back featuring improved New York (on the road) and trick-or-treat Atlanta (at home). There's a Christmas Day rematch in Orlando and a New Year's Eve afternoon game at home against New Orleans to wrap up 2010.

While the Celtics may not approach the 66 wins of 2007-08 or even the 62 of 2008-09, they are determined to replicate those teams in one critical area that was missing last season: success at TD Garden. Those teams were each 35-6 at home and, in those two seasons, the Celtics had the home-court advantage in each of the six playoff series in which they competed.

Last season, they were a ridiculously pitiful 24-17 at home (they had a better road record), which meant they had the home-court advantage only once, in the first round against Miami. They say they won't stand for that this time around.

"It's an emphasis here,'' Pierce said Tuesday, referring to getting the best possible record at home. "We mentioned it right after we lost to LA [in the Finals]. We always feel like it's an advantage, except last year, when we had the injuries and then the fatigue.

"When you look back to last year, if we had won a couple more, maybe we'd have had the home court for Game 7,'' Pierce continued. "The mindset this year has been, hey, we want to win as many games, beat the teams we're supposed to beat, and get into a dogfight with the other teams that are great out there."

So far, after 20 games, you'd have to say, mission accomplished, save for the blips in Cleveland and Toronto. OK, losing at home to an Oklahoma City team without Kevin Durant qualifies and, while we're at it, blowing the game in Dallas does as well.

Come to think of it, they should be 20-0. Shaq is right. They really haven't been beaten yet.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.