Getting veteran help for the stretch run was easy for the Boston Celtics. After all, who wouldn’t want to join the NBA’s most storied franchise for a shot at a title?

However, they may find that working in Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore will be more difficult than it was to do the same with P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell last season.

“Last year everyone was healthy,” coach Doc Rivers said this week. “When you think about our team … we have (Brian Scalabrine) out, we have Tony Allen out, we have Kevin Garnett out, and then we bring in Mikki Moore and Stephon. That’s like trying to fit in, that’s a five-player change right now and so it is difficult.”

Especially because Marbury, who was waived by the New York Knicks last month, hadn’t played in a regular-season game in more than a year. Rivers said he may have to leave both newcomers on the floor for long stretches even if the team is struggling, as he did with Marbury in last Sunday’s loss to Detroit, so they play their way back into shape.

Still, they aren’t getting a chance to build continuity with some of their fellow second-teamers. Scalabrine is out until April because of concussions and Allen is expected to be gone a little longer after surgery on his left thumb. And while the Celtics had some breathing room last season while cruising to the NBA’s best record, they face a tight battle with Cleveland and perhaps Orlando in the Eastern Conference this time.

“I just told them we’re not making excuses,” Rivers said. “We have injuries, we have two new guys. It’s a lot of change, I’m asking guys to play different positions, but no one’s going to feel sorry for us. And so we can’t make excuses and we’re not going to be an excuse-making basketball team.”

Losing Garnett and two other players in the rotation could have been a more damaging blow to the Celtics’ repeat hopes, but they had already positioned themselves to get help if they needed it.

“We’re lucky, but we made our luck. The reason we can pick up a Steph and a Mikki is we have a winning record and we have hope of winning a title,” Rivers said. “Two years ago, I guarantee you neither guy would have come to us, so you have to put yourself in that position and we did with winning.”

GEORGIA ON THEIR MINDS: One more home win and the Atlanta Hawks might have made it to the second round of last season’s playoffs.

So the Hawks don’t just want home-court advantage. They all but admit that they need it.

“It’s very important to us, because I mean we learned from that first series it’s not easy going on the road trying to win a series,” coach Mike Woodson said. “If you can host first round at home, which we’re trying to do and that’s not guaranteed either, but it gives you a sense of relief and a good feeling starting the playoffs on your home floor.”

After a nine-year drought, Atlanta returned to the playoffs last year and met Boston in what was expected to be a brief, lopsided series. It seemed it would after the Celtics, who won 29 more games in the regular season, took the first two games by an average of 21 points.

But the Hawks won the next two at home to tie it, getting surprisingly strong crowd support, something they’ve lacked for years, then they tied it again by pulling out Game 6. However, they were blown out in Game 7 in Boston by 34, losing all four road games by 19 or more.

“That being our first time ever experiencing the playoffs, we do understand how important home-court advantage is,” forward Marvin Williams said. “We really want to play at home. Philips Arena is a great atmosphere for us to play in, the city of Atlanta really wants us to be at home, so we’ve really got to do our best to kind of hold home-court advantage.”

The Hawks are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, which would give them home-court advantage in the first round. But a poor defensive performance in New York on Wednesday gave them five losses in seven games, and Miami and Detroit were closing in for the final home-court spot.

“We’re still right where we need to be,” Woodson said. “We’ve just got to continue to fight and we can’t let opportunities like this slip away.”

SHAQ SLAM: Before ripping Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy after his former coach criticized him for flopping, Shaquille O’Neal took a shot at Chris Bosh.

It wasn’t the first time he seemed to make a dig at Toronto’s All-Star forward this season.

Bosh was not exactly respectful after O’Neal rammed his way to 45 points in the Phoenix Suns’ victory over the Raptors last Friday. He accused the big guy of cheating.

“He was just camping down in the lane,” Bosh said. “I mean, if they’re not calling 3 seconds – I thought it was a rule, but I guess not.”

Suffice it to say the Suns big man was ready for a response when he arrived at US Airways Center for Phoenix’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.

“That’s strong words coming from the RuPaul of big men,” O’Neal said, comparing Bosh to the famous female impersonator.

He said he looked forward to playing against Bosh and the Raptors again.

“I’m going to do the same thing (in their next meeting) I did before – make him quit,” O’Neal said. “Make ’em quit and complain. It’s what I do.”

Asked earlier this season if making the All-Star game was important to him, O’Neal said he wanted to be there, but added he was, “not going to do any campaigns. I’m not going to put on a cowboy hat and I’m not going to do none of that.”

Bosh, of course, made a humorous video last season to campaign for All-Star votes in which he wore a cowboy hat while appearing as a sort of used car salesman.

The next meeting will have to wait. The Suns don’t play Toronto again this season.

RACE for NO. 8: Perhaps Scott Skiles leads his new team past the one that fired him last season. Maybe Larry Brown gets a measure of revenge against the club that dumped him, then refused to pay the remainder of his salary.

Those were just a couple of the numerous possibilities that exist at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff ladder, where the only thing that can be ruled out is a quick ending of the race for the No. 8 seed.

Six teams went into the weekend separated by two or fewer games. Milwaukee, trying to make the postseason in its first season under Skiles, began play Friday a percentage point ahead of Chicago, which cut ties with Skiles on Christmas Eve in 2007.

New Jersey, Charlotte, Indiana and New York were right behind.

The Bulls, who last made the playoffs under Skiles in 2007, were perhaps in the best shape after strengthening their roster at the trade deadline with the acquisitions of John Salmons and Brad Miller from Sacramento, and Tim Thomas from New York.

The Bucks and Pacers were trying to hang on despite serious injury issues. Milwaukee lost Michael Redd to season-ending knee surgery, while Indiana expects Mike Dunleavy to miss the rest of the season and has been playing without All-Star Danny Granger, too.

Charlotte had won four straight entering Friday’s game against Atlanta and was seeking its first postseason appearance in Larry Brown’s first season. The Knicks, who fired Brown in 2006 after one ugly season, were hoping to end their seven-year postseason absence.

They faced a road-heavy schedule and are just 7-21 away from Madison Square Garden, but coach Mike D’Antoni said he expected his team to remain in the race.

“We are just trying to get as many wins as we can get,” he said. “Wherever they come from, they come from. We have kind of been in every game for the last 20 and I think we will stay that way.”


AP Sports Writer Bob Baum in Phoenix contributed to this report.

AP-ES-03-06-09 1500EST

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