- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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BOSTON -- When they were 15-17 in late February, mired in a five-game losing streak and devoid of rhythm, results and healthy bodies, the Boston Celtics were an easy choice to eliminate from the NBA playoff conversation with a large, ominious, red X.
Somber experts declared the men in green were too old, too fragile and too predictable to accomplish much more than squeaking into the postseason as a No. 8 seed in the East -- in other words, as first-round fodder for the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat.
At the time, one and done seemed to be a fitting motto. Boston was a poor rebounding team, inconsistent on the defensive end and plagued by harrowing bad luck. Jeff Green was lost for the season with a heart ailment before he even had a chance to pull on his Celtics jersey. Chris Wilcox started the season injured, then was ineffective, and, incredibly, just as he was beginning to contribute, he also was felled by heart trouble that required major surgery.
As his lineup shrank and his stable of able big men diminished, coach Doc Rivers doggedly insisted, "I like my team."
Apparently he knew Paul Pierce would eventually round into form after a sluggish start puncuated by a sore heel. Once the coach moved Kevin Garnett to the center spot, KG began (reluctantly) to assume the role as a primary scorer. Sprinkle in a carrot that the mercurial Rajon Rondo simply cannot resist -- a flurry of games on national television -- and Boston's new pursuit became the No. 6 seed, a coveted spot because it would enable them to sidestep the two designated juggernauts in the opening round.
Over time, the newcomers caught on to the defensive rotations. Over time, second-year guard Avery Bradley found his way into the lineup, proving to be an electric defensive agitator, albeit an offensive liability because of his limited ballhandling skills and unreliable perimeter shooting. He found other ways to score, primarily on cat-quick back-door cuts and slashes to the basket when teammates Pierce and KG were double-teamed.
And now? Your Boston Celtics have cemented their hold as the leaders in the Atlantic Division with a thorough dismantling of the fading Philadelphia 76ers on Easter Sunday. If the Celtics close out their regular season in proper fashion, they will land as the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, with home-court advantage in the opening round.
The 103-79 thrashing of the increasingly hapless Sixers gives the Celtics a three-game lead over their division rival with just 10 games to play. The only thing that could prevent Boston from capturing the division crown would be a collapse of epic proportions.
"They're getting strong at the right time," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "They're going to be a handful.
"I know everybody is looking at Chicago and Miami, but don't blink on Boston."
No need to get carried away with delusions of Eastern Conference grandeur, but Collins backed up his assertion that the Celtics could upend the playoff heirarchy in part because of matchups.
"One of the keys when you play Miami is you've got to defend [Chris] Bosh, and they've got Garnett to do that," Collins asserted. "That's a huge thing for them."
We've known one factor to be self-evident since KG came to town four years ago: When he's right, so is the Celtics' defense. That has been their identity and their calling card. It motivates them, energizes them, defines them.
"I don't care how well you play, your offense is going to fail you sometimes," Rivers declared. "But if you come with the right mindset, your defense never should."
Collins built his young Sixers team on the same platform -- relentless, aggressive defense. Even though his club is offensively challenged, the spirited effort on the other end of the floor was the one thing he could always count on.
Not so much on Sunday. The Sixers looked weary, disinterested and deflated. Their tender age, lack of experience and absence of that No. 1 scorer has caught up with them. The Celtics shot 62 percent through three quarters and finished at 58.8 percent.
Philly is staring down at a brutal schedule that includes 10 of its final 14 games on the road, with their final five away from home. It's hard to imagine the Sixers in their current state mounting a colossal charge in the final weeks.
Since Feb. 15, the Sixers are 3-11 on the road. A team that started 20-9 is now in dire danger of dropping out of the playoff picture completely.
Boston's final two-and-a-half weeks are hardly cushy, but three of its final four games will be at home. The dreaded back-to-back-to-back scenario rears its ugly head April 13 at Toronto, April 14 in New Jersey and April 15 in Charlotte, but if you have to play three in three days, you'd be hard pressed to choose three more desirable opponents.
One other thing: There's no longer a need to pencil in Bradley as a temporary starter. Put it in ink. Rivers revealed Sunday that he's wanted to bring Ray Allen off the bench for close to two seasons.
Bradley cements a starting five that's all about pressuring the ball and causing havoc. Allen now anchors the bench with instant offense and instant energy. The proud veteran has maintained a stiff upper lip when asked about the change, even though you know and I know it's very likely killing him. The man, remember, is incredibly proud. He's also all about routine, and his has been disrupted in a very big way.
"It says a lot about him that he's been willing to do this," KG offered.
As teams watch more film of Bradley, those back-door cuts he has been feasting on will dissipate. Philadelphia spent some time forcing Rondo to give up the ball so it could exploit Bradley's dribbling weaknesses. Rivers doesn't care about any of that.
"He's in there for his defense," his coach said.
Funny how the Celtics suddenly are pushing all the right buttons. They've tweaked their rotation and survived yet another critical injury (to Mikael Pietrus).
Prevailing wisdom tells you they can't play small ball all the time against teams with legitimate big men, such as Orlando and Indiana. You've got to figure their rebounding woes will eventually burn them. And, like it or not, this is a lineup loaded with veterans who will, at times, fall victim to fatigue.
That's all true, but so is this: The Celtics very likely will host a first-round playoff series.
The red X is no longer staining the Boston logo. It has moved on to the former Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia 76ers.
13hMatt Walks, ESPN.com