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Friday, April 8, 2011
Celtics playing with a purpose

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- If the Boston Celtics had taken care of business in the nation's capital back in January, then maybe Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett could have kicked back on the sideline Friday night and simply watched as the Washington Wizards made things uncomfortably close in the fourth quarter of Friday's tilt at the TD Garden.

But Boston has made things difficult on itself this season -- not just with its own inconsistent play over the final month of the season, but by letting winnable games slip away before that.

So coming off Thursday's lopsided thrashing at the hands of the Chicago Bulls, the Celtics -- a mere 7-10 on the second night of back-to-backs this season to begin with -- couldn't afford another letdown, particularly not against the lowly Wizards.

Rajon Rondo
Rajon Rondo helped the Celtics with 20 points, 14 assists and 6 steals in 42 minutes Friday.

Fatigue was not an option, as Kevin Garnett declared after the game.

But on a night the starters could have used some rest -- and maybe some fourth-quarter chuckles with an in-game appearance by Gino -- Rondo and Garnett stood up with 6:48 to play in a four-point game and headed for the scorer's table, all with the idea of preserving Boston's chances at landing the No. 2 seed in the East.

Aided by their "big four," the Celtics dug in and produced 10 consecutive stops in the defensive end (also aided by Washington's own inability to not trip over its own feet). Boston scored the game's next six points while pushing its lead to double digits with 3:25 to play, and the Celtics ultimately scored 17 of the game's next 19 points en route to a 104-88 triumph.

To be sure, there won't be a trace of this victory in Boston's season scrapbook. Even on a night the Celtics shot 50.7 percent, got to the charity stripe 35 times and watched its starters combine for a whopping 85 points (each of them reaching double figures), it did little to cover up an ugly win.

But beggars can't be choosers this time of year.

"Fatigue's not an option right now," Garnett said. "It's not an option. We are trying to get better and we're doing it with hard work and effort, as usual."

It didn't have to be this hard. But an inability to harness its intensity night in and night out has left Boston stumbling to the regular-season finish line.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers certainly doesn't like the position his team has put itself in. He's admittedly bothered by the fact that his troops have made the final week of the regular season so important to their potential postseason success.

And so, after shunning seeding talk for much of the week, Boston is now fixated on securing the No. 2 seed in the East, which would ensure home-court advantage through the first two rounds of the postseason.

"It does bother me," Rivers said. "If we had done our job, this would have been decided. That should bother me. Now we put ourselves in this position, where we're going to get an extremely hungry team in Miami [on Sunday], for a lot of reasons.

"Even if we had [the No. 2 seed] clinched, [the Heat would be motivated] because we've beaten them three times. We're going to the hornet's nest and now we have to deal with it."

With Friday's eyesore of a win, the Celtics maintained pace with Miami. The teams boast matching 55-24 records with three games to play, and Sunday's tilt will essentially be for the right to boast home-court advantage if (or when?) the two teams meet in the conference semifinals.

Thursday's loss to the soon-to-be Eastern Conference top-seeded Bulls initially did nothing but cause Boston to wonder if its own inability to play with any sort of consistency over the past month would doom it in the postseason.

But less than 24 hours after that blot, the Celtics were using the loss as motivation to fuel the team heading into Sunday's showdown in South Beach. Boston is adamant it will boast the sense of urgency it lacked in Chicago.

"This is a big game for us," said captain Paul Pierce, who logged a whopping 40:28 on Friday while chipping in 22 points and 12 rebounds to fend off the Wizards.

"That's what we are playing for, for the home-court advantage -- not only for the first round, but hopefully we will see [the Heat] in the second round. This is a big game for us when you are talking about seeds and trying to advance in the playoffs. It's huge."

Of course, we heard the Celtics talk about how big Thursday's game against the Bulls was, then the team got absolutely throttled. Does Pierce honestly believe the Celtics will be fully engaged Sunday?

"I know we'll be ready," he said. "I just know we'll be ready. A lot more ready than we were in Chicago."

Like ignoring Friday's fatigue, Boston has no other choice but to be ready.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.