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Irish Coffee: Celtics are ‘Best of the Best’

12.20.10 at 12:03 pm ET
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Wake up with the Celtics and your daily dose of Irish Coffee …

In somewhat of a footnote in his most recent Sports Illustrated column, Ian Thomsen listed the records of NBA teams against oppoenents with a .500 record or better. You’ll never guess which team ranked atop the list.

Every day, people are coming up with new ways to capture how impressive the 2010-11 Celtics have been despite injuries that are piling up faster than my Christmas shopping list.

But the fact that the Celtics are 10-2 against above-.500 teams while no other Eastern Conference club has a winning record against those same squads might tell us all we need to know about the C’s chances of returning to the NBA Finals.

Against the best, the Celtics have been the best.

Only three teams in the entire league own a winning record against plus-.500 teams: the Celtics (10-2), Spurs (8-2) and Mavericks (9-3). Three others — the Thunder, Nuggets and Jazz — have .500 records against teams with winning records.

Considering the Spurs and Mavericks have been relatively healthy this season, what the Celtics have been able to accomplish is remarkable, as Rajon Rondo, Shaquille O’Neal, Delonte WestJermaine O’Neal and Kendrick Perkins have missed a combined 81 games already.

The Celtics’ biggest competitors in the East — the Heat (5-6), Magic (3-6) and Bulls (4-8) — have all been disappointing against above-.500 teams, as have the Knicks (3-5) and Hawks (2-7). In fact, 10 teams have two wins or fewer against opponents with a .500 record or better, including the Lakers, who are 1-3 in just four games against quality opponents this season.

One more interesting statistic on the Celtics: They have five double-digit win streaks since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in 2007-08; no other NBA team has won 10 straight games more than three times in that same span, according to ESPN.com.

The Celtics, Spurs and Mavericks haven’t just been the three best teams in the NBA — they’ve by far been the three best teams in the league. Which makes the C’s matchup against San Antonio at the Garden in two weeks all that much more special.

Now, if the Celtics can only get some troops back before the Spurs come to town on Jan. 5.

NATE ROBINSON vs. RAJON RONDO

One more interesting item in Thomsen’s SI.com piece: Doc Rivers believes the Celtics don’t lose much offensively with Nate Robinson in the starting lineup over Rondo; it’s the defense that suffers without Rondo:

“Offensively, we’re going to be fine. Hell, I think in the four games [started by Robinson] we’ve actually scored more when Nate’s in the lineup. Defensively is where you’re more concerned because of Nate’s size. His effort’s been great; it’s just his size has an impact on you. And then all of the injuries are the problem — Nate’s going to have to play a ton of minutes, and if he gets in foul trouble or anything, that’s where we’re really going to struggle.”

The fact that Rivers believes the offense doesn’t drop off much in Rondo’s absence is pretty remarkable, considering Rondo leads the NBA in assists. Maybe Rondo isn’t the most valuable player on this Celtics team, as Charles Barkley believes. Here’s an exchange Barkley had with fellow TNT analyst Kenny Smith on Sunday, according to the Saint Petersburg Times:

Barkley: “Rondo is the engine that stirs the drink.”
Smith: “You must have had two drinks before you said that.”

Speaking of Celtics guards, West continues to claim he’s way ahead of schedule in his recovery from right wrist surgery. He told the Worcester Telegram he could be back in a few weeks:

“I’m pushing for mid-January, but the doctors might have a different plan for me.”

Celtics big man Jermaine O'Neal is pondering retirement after this season. (AP)

JERMAINE O’NEAL PONDERS RETIREMENT

If the Celtics win the NBA title this season, Jermaine O’Neal — who has already missed 19 games due to a knee injury — could retire from basketball, according to the Indianapolis Star:

Once he hangs up his sneakers for good, which could happen next summer, Boston Celtics forward Jermaine O’Neal wants to retire with the team that helped him become an All-Star. …

“Just because I’m not there anymore doesn’t mean all the memories are forgotten,” O’Neal said. “If it wasn’t for the Pacers, the organization and the community, nobody would have probably known who I was. Anywhere in the world I go, they know me because of my Pacers days.” …

O’Neal, 32, said he’ll think about retiring next summer if the Celtics, who have the second-best record in the NBA, win the title this season.

If that’s the case, O’Neal would be walking away from a pretty big chunk of money next season, and that could be good news for the Celtics. So far, the Jermaine O’Neal signing has been a disappointment, and that would give the Celtics $6.2 million to spend elsewhere.

The C’s have seven potential unrestricted free agents at season’s end: Marquis Daniels, Glen Davis, Von Wafer, Perkins, West, Shaq and Allen (the last two have player options for 2011-12). And you can bet they’ll have to pay a pretty penny for Davis and Perkins.

There are plenty of other unrestricted free agents in 2011 that could be available for mid-level dollars, including Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier and Mickael Pietrus.

As for Jermaine O’Neal this season – according to ESPN.com – Rivers is optimistic that he could potentially play on Wednesday, when the Celtics host the 76ers.

JAMES POSEY’S RING REFLECTIONS

On a day when his new team (the Pacers) lost to his old team (the Celtics), 99-88, James Posey discussed his days in Boston as a member of the 2007-08 championship team. What he told The Boston Globe about integrating new players reminds me a lot about this year’s C’s:

“I was impressed with the leadership starting with coach Rivers and the Big Three. Just the guys at this age, at a time in their careers where they were all about winning and how they were able to jell and it made it easy for the other guys on the team. It was crazy because a lot of new guys were there that year, there was this swagger where we felt we should win every game. And there was that toughness that when we traveled, when we stepped on the court, it was about business.”

ANTOINE WALKER WIGGLES THROUGH NEW ENGLAND

Former Celtics All-Star Antoine Walker had his three best games in the NBA Developmental League during a three-game road trip in New England over the past week.

In front of larger-than-normal crowds who came out to see him play, Walker averaged 22.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and, of course, 9.3 3-point attempts in two games against the Maine Red Claws and one against the Springfield Armor.

Here’s what former Celtics teammate Dee Brown, who coaches the Armor, told The Republican over the weekend:

“He’s got to focus on trying to get back to the league, not all that other stuff that’s off the court that people talk about. He’s 34, I think he’s the second oldest in the league behind Antonio Daniels. But he hasn’t played in the last couple of years so I think he still has some good legs on him and two or three years left in him if he gets picked up.”

Is there a chance a playoff-bound NBA team could pick up Walker late in the season to bolster their depth up front? Maybe even Pacers coach Jim O’Brien, whose team is 12-14 and in the seventh spot for the Eastern Conference playoff picture, could use him. After all, the duo — along with Pierce — helped the Celtics make a run to the 2001-02 Eastern Conference finals.

“It depends on how the scouts evaluate him,” O’Brien told the Boston Herald. “If his skill set is still there, if he can still stretch the defense, if he’s in good enough condition, and teams down the stretch are looking for a veteran presence, someone who can play the game, then sure. He can still play the game. I don’t know what his conditioning level is, but I don’t think it’s ever too late – if you’re in shape.”

(Have a question, concern or conception for tomorrow’s Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach on Twitter.)

Read More: Antoine Walker, Boston Celtics, Jermaine O'Neal, Nate Robinson
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