WALTHAM, Mass. - Larry Bird’s Celtics never did it. Neither did Bob Cousy’s. None of the franchise’s 17 championship teams did it either.
With a win Thursday night in Washington, the group led by Paul Pierce can do what never has been done in club history — start a season with a 21-2 record.
Coach Doc Rivers’ response: a shrug of the shoulders.
“I don’t even care,” Rivers said Tuesday. “I would trade that for the best finish ever. That’s what we’re looking for.”
He got both last season.
With the new Big Three of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen together for the first time, Boston opened at 20-2, finished at 66-16 and won the NBA title in a six-game series against the Los Angeles Lakers. The only other Celtics team to go 20-2 was the 1963-64 squad and it finished at 59-21 then won the championship.
But both lost their 23rd game.
That probably won’t happen to the current club. The players will be well rested with three days off before facing the Wizards, one of the NBA’s worst teams with a 3-15 record going into Tuesday night’s game against Detroit.
“The record doesn’t make us any better from one night to the next,” said Ray Allen, a sharpshooter who is off to an outstanding start. “You just have to continue to beat that team regardless of their record because we could have easily been sitting here with a loss against Indiana the other night and they’re not one of the top two or three best teams record-wise in the East.”
After trailing the Pacers by three with 8 seconds left, the Celtics won 122-117 in overtime against one of the teams that had beaten them. They also lost to Denver on Nov. 14 but have won all 12 of their games since.
The 12-game winning streak is the Celtics’ longest since 1985-86 when they won their 16th NBA title. But they won’t match the NBA’s best record for the first 23 games of a season. The New York Knicks in 1969 and Houston Rockets in 1993 opened at 22-1.
They can, though, move within three wins of their total for the entire 2006-07 season when they went 24-58. That’s very impressive, considering they’ve had little rest this season. No team had played more than the 22 the Celtics had played through Monday.
“That was a big hurdle for us to clear,” Rivers said. “At some point, everybody will play 82 games. So everbody’s going to go through tough stretches. We just happened to have ours early. Now the stretch of games coming up aren’t as many, but they’re tough teams.”
After Washington, the Celtics’ next three games are against New Orleans, Utah and Atlanta.
So Rivers is concentrating on correcting mistakes. The defense was mediocre and the backups struggled against Indiana once Boston opened a 10-point lead after one quarter.
The coaches, Rivers said, “don’t look at our record. We look at where we think the team should be some day, and we know that we have to be better.”
With a full season as teammates, Allen, Garnett and Pierce have been outstanding. The greatest improvement, though, has come from speedy third-year point guard Rajon Rondo.
“He’s pushing the ball up the floor and everybody’s back on their heels defensively,” Allen said. “I know how to get to the open spots and we get so many open looks.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Rivers thought the Celtics had an “incredible” training camp but wasn’t as pleased with their performance in exhibition games. So he didn’t know if they were capable of a strong start.
“You just know with Paul, Kevin and Ray that they have so much pride that they were going to come out and play,” Rivers said. “What I didn’t know was if our role players would play well. And Rajon has played so well, too, and that has helped.” But the season is barely one-quarter over. An injury, a slump or a string of games against strong teams could cut into the Celtics’ success.
“We have a good record right now and, lose later, and then what does that mean,” guard Tony Allen said. “We’re looking for the end.”
To get there with another title, the Celtics insist they must improve, despite their nearly perfect start.
“No team has gone 82-0,” Pierce said, “so we always can get better.”
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