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Irish Coffee: Why Atlantic Division matters to Celtics

12.04.12 at 1:36 pm ET

The Celtics (9-8) are almost a quarter of a way through their season and rank fourth in the Atlantic Division.

The Knicks (12-4), Nets (11-5) and 76ers (10-7) all own better records. During the first four of their five consecutive Atlantic crowns, the Celtics owned no worse than a five-game lead through 20 games and seemingly had the division wrapped up by Christmas. Last year, the C’s started 10-10, fell behind by four games and spent the season chasing the Sixers for a fifth straight title. And that was without either of the New York teams involved.

“When you look from top to bottom, it’s a well-balanced division,” said Paul Pierce. “So, each and every game is important. At the end of the day, our goal isn’t to try to win the division; our goal is to win the championship. As far as the division is concerned, it’s about as competitive as it’s ever been since I’ve been a Boston Celtic.”

Declaring they’d rather win an NBA title than the Atlantic Division sounds nice and all, but announcing their aim “isn’t to try to win the division” is a mistake, since doing so gives them a better chance to reach that larger goal.

The Celtics need look no further than May as a prime example. If they hadn’t caught the 76ers, a) the C’s face the Bulls as the No. 7 seed on the road and likely lose in the first round if Derrick Rose doesn’t tear his ACL; and/or b) they play Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Philadelphia, where they lost 2-of-3 playoff games.

Can the Celtics win a sixth straight Atlantic Division crown and set themselves up for another date with the Heat in the conference finals? Of course, but it’s going to be a lot tougher to chase down three teams rather than one.

The first two tiebreakers for deciding the division are 1) head-to-head record and 2) division record. The Celtics have started 1-3 against Atlantic opponents, and the only victory came against the Raptors (0-1 vs. Philly; 0-2 vs. Brooklyn), so this weekend’s back-to-back against the Sixers becomes magnified on a number of levels.

With two remaining games against the Nets — including Christmas in Brooklyn — the Celtics can only tie them head-to-head. The C’s would have to sweep the remaining three games against the 76ers, including two on the road, to win that series. And they will have to win 3-of-4 against the division-leading Knicks to own that tiebreaker. The Nets (4-0), Knicks (2-1) and 76ers (3-2) also all own significantly better division records, so the Celtics really can’t afford to lose any of the remaining nine games against that trio.

Another option: Finish the year with a better record than all three rivals. That starts when the C’s host a mediocre Timberwolves team on Wednesday. As Kevin Garnett said of the division race, “It’€™s been pretty competitive. Obviously, teams are better. They have confidence, but as Celtics we have to have more pride playing at home.”

That’s been the difference for the Knicks and Nets, who own 7-0 and 7-1 home records, respectively. Meanwhile, the Celtics are 5-4 at TD Garden. For the previous five years, the road to the Atlantic Division crown has run through Boston, and if the C’s want to make it six straight, they need to start playing like it.

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

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