BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Celtics sputtered down the stretch of the regular season. They were shaky at home all season.
Through injuries and inconsistency, coach Doc Rivers guided his veteran group into the playoffs, but only as the fourth-seeded team in the Eastern Conference.
With the same starting five that won the NBA championship just two years ago, he insisted the Celtics are “definitely” ready for the playoffs.
A few minutes later, though, his words weren’t as convincing.
“I think we’re ready,” Rivers said. “I mean, we have to be. It’s not like we can say, ‘Can you hold up for a week and let us get ready?’ So I think we’ll be ready.”
Moments earlier, Boston had ended its regular season with a 106-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night in which Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen didn’t play to avoid possible injury. Still, it was the Celtics’ seventh setback in 10 games.
If momentum counts for anything heading into Saturday night’s playoff opener against the Miami Heat, Boston doesn’t have it.
Even the home court may not help. The Celtics were 24-17 there and 26-15 on the road. Boston and Philadelphia were the only teams with more wins on the road than at home.
“Whether you’re home or on the road, it’s tough,” Allen said. “You see teams get 10- or 15-point victories at home but you still have to put it together to make it work.”
The Celtics had plenty of momentum early in the season with a 23-5 record then went just 27-27 to finish at 50-32, nearly as many losses as they had during the two previous seasons combined when they went 128-36.
And Rivers wasn’t sure what to expect from one game to the next. There was a win over Cleveland on April 4 followed by a loss to New York two days later.
“Things happen — injuries, communication failures, not playing together, not playing well,” point guard Rajon Rondo said, “but it’s behind us. We’ve got another season. Most teams would be happy with 50 wins.”
Injuries took their toll. Garnett missed 10 games from Dec. 30 to Jan. 20 with a hyperextended right knee and the Celtics lost six of them. Pierce sat out 10 during the season with knee, foot and thumb problems and the Celtics lost five. Neither has missed a game due to injury since late February as Rivers has closely monitored their playing time.
“I think this is the best Kevin’s been since early in the season,” Rivers said. “I think Paul is feeling fantastic.”
But Rondo may have been their most valuable player with his speed, ballhandling, passing, defense and rebounding. He finished the season with 40 double-doubles and led the NBA in steals.
Now, as the Celtics and Heat meet for the first time in the playoffs, after Boston swept the season series 3-0, he thinks he’ll still be able to keep the offense running at a speedy pace.
“We still should be able to push the ball. They miss shots. We get in transition and go,” Rondo said. “But in the playoffs each possession is slowed down. It’s not really an uptempo game. You have to value the ball and take care of it.”
The focus, of course, will be on stopping Dwyane Wade.
Even if the Celtics don’t, they’ve proven they can beat the Heat. He scored a season-high 44 points on Jan. 6 in Miami, but Boston won 112-106 in overtime. Rondo was Boston’s star in that one with 25 points, a layup at the buzzer to force overtime and a basket with 34.3 seconds left in overtime to decide the game.
“It’s more than Dwyane Wade,” said Rondo, ticking off the names of Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and Jermaine O’Neal who can cause big problems, “but the bulk of it is stopping Dwyane Wade.”
The Celtics likely will assign Rondo to that task with the energetic Tony Allen filling in. The other guards are too old, 37-year-old Michael Finley, or underachieving, Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson. The Celtics also need improved play from 35-year-old Rasheed Wallace, a disappointment on offense and defense in his first season with the team.
“We do have to be a better rebounding team in the playoffs than we were in the regular season,” Rivers said. “We have to take care of the ball better than we did the second half of the season. And we have to have better weak-side defense.”
That’s a lot to improve on.
“This year has worn on everyone. This has been a difficult year,” Rivers said. “Every night, you’re trying to find a button to push.”
Maybe that button is the start of the playoffs — a time when veteran teams can use their experience to start playing better.
A time, Rivers said, when “we’ll find out who we really are.”