Commentary

All boats rising in Atlantic

Knicks, Nets and 76ers could threaten Celtics' stranglehold on division title

Updated: October 6, 2012, 8:25 PM ET
By Peter May | ESPNBoston.com

There's a lot of noise coming out of both teams in New York City. (Big surprise, huh?) There's also optimism in Philadelphia.

So is the Boston Celtics' recent, Secretariat-at-the-Belmont domination of the Atlantic Division over the past half-decade in jeopardy?

"The Knicks are going to be better, because they're going to have a whole season under one system," coach Doc Rivers said. "The Nets have improved. Philadelphia has [Andrew] Bynum. Our division got a lot tougher."

[+] EnlargeDoc Rivers and Paul Pierce
Barry Chin/Getty ImagesCan Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce keep the Celtics on top of the Atlantic Division again this season?

(As for Toronto, well, there's no hockey, which borders on the unbearable, and the Raptors still look to be terrible.)

"Dominant" only begins to describe the Celtics' play in the Atlantic Division in recent years. From 2007-08 through 2010-11 -- non-lockout seasons -- the Celtics won the division by an average of 17.5 games a season. The closest any division contender came in those four seasons was 10 games -- Toronto in 2010. In each of those four regular seasons, all of which went into mid-April, the latest the Celtics clinched the division title was March 26. (The Celtics won the division by three games last season.)

But it's the preseason, and everyone is optimistic and eager. The Knicks are talking -- spoiler alert! -- title.

"We have as a legitimate shot as anybody in the NBA this season," New York coach Mike Woodson said last week as camp opened.

The Knicks may have lost their preferred starting backcourt of last season -- Jeremy Lin and Landry Fields -- but they have brought back Raymond Felton and added graybeards Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace (gulp), Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas. They have the oldest roster in NBA history, according to Stats LLC.

Avery Johnson, the coach of the relocated and reconfigured Nets, chimed in: "Are we a championship team right now? No. Do we have the potential to be one? Absolutely. And that's where we want to be."

Brooklyn has brought in Joe Johnson to pair with a re-signed Deron Williams. The Nets also brought back Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace while adding veterans to the bench.

The Sixers did a dramatic makeover after coming within a game of the Eastern Conference finals last season. Gone are Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Jodie Meeks. The new Sixers include Bynum, Jason Richardson, Dorell Wright and Nick Young. Coach Doug Collins is pleading for patience as he tries to blend in the newcomers.

What does this all mean? It could mean that there's actually a race for the division title for the first time since 2007, when the Raptors won the division by six games.

Since 2007-08, the three teams poised to challenge the Celtics have been cannon fodder for Boston. Kevin Garnett, for instance, has never lost a game in TD Garden to the Knicks. The Celtics have won 11 straight regular-season games against New York in TD Garden, the longest current streak against any NBA opponent. They also beat the Knicks twice in Boston in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.

From 2007-08 through 2010-11, the Celtics were 14-2 against New York, 14-2 against New Jersey, 14-2 against Toronto and 13-3 against Philadelphia. Maybe that explains those double-digit, division-winning margins in those four seasons.

Last season was different. Chalk it up to the lockout, the weird schedule or, as Celtics opponents would like to believe, the beginning of the end of Boston's divisional domination. The Celtics were 2-2 against the Knicks, 3-0 against the Nets, 1-2 against the Sixers (including two beatdowns in Philadelphia) and 2-2 against the 23-win Raptors. Boston still won the division with a late charge; the three-game cushion was a bit misleading in that Rivers sat many of his regulars in the final regular-season games.

[+] EnlargeWade/James
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireThe Celtics know Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and the Heat represent the ultimate roadblock in the Eastern Conference.

And the postseason? More of the same. The Celtics are the only division team to make the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. The Nets, meanwhile, are the only division team not to have made the playoffs in that span. The Raptors have one appearance (in 2008), while the Knicks have two (the past two seasons) and the Sixers four, missing only in 2009-10.

The Celtics are also the only team from the Atlantic in the past five seasons to be seeded No. 4 or higher, which has been the case all five seasons. They were the No. 4 seed last season by virtue of their division title but had the fifth-best record. Atlanta had one more win than Boston and thus had the home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs as the No. 5 seed.

In the past five years, no other Atlantic Division team has been seeded higher than sixth, and only one other division team, last season's Sixers, won so much as a single playoff series. The Celtics have won 11 playoff series in the past five years. The Knicks have gone out in the first round in each of the past two seasons, winning one game in that span, while the Sixers were first-round casualties in 2008, 2009 and 2011. The Raptors went out in the first round in 2008.

While noting the improvement of the division teams, Rivers hastened to add that he thought his team had improved as well. He cited the additions of Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger and even Darko Milicic as well as the return of Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox. He still has Paul Pierce, Garnett and an MVP-in-the-making in Rajon Rondo.

Rivers highlighted the one team that is in the Celtics' crosshairs and is likely to remain so for the course of the 2012-13 season: The Miami Heat.

"At the end of the day, we have to get out of the East, and the defending champs are in the East," he said. "We have one target, and that's Miami."

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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