WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) – It’s always tough to repeat as champions, and it will be tougher still for the Boston Celtics when they begin their pursuit of title No. 18 next week.

This time they’ll have to do it on the road. And the road goes through Cleveland.

“We’re mad we didn’t get the No. 1 seed,” said Paul Pierce, the MVP of last year’s NBA finals. “That’s the challenge of trying to go back-to-back. … We said this was going to be the most difficult thing that we had to do. We’re not going to have home-court advantage, so we’re going to have to go on the road and win.”

The Celtics make their last regular-season visit to Cleveland on Sunday, a game that has lost some of its luster in recent weeks – partly because the Cavaliers locked up the first seed in the East on Friday night, and partly because the Celtics won’t be at full strength.

All-star Kevin Garnett will miss the game with a strained right knee, and backups Leon Powe and Brian Scalabrine are also sidelined. It will be the 20th game out of the last 24 Garnett has missed and the seventh in a row.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Saturday that Garnett is also likely to sit out the penultimate game against the Philadelphia 76ers and return only for the final regular season game the next night against the Washington Wizards.

“We’re going to throw him out there and see what he can do and how long he can do it,” Rivers said.

The Cavaliers clinched the home-court advantage through the conference finals on Friday night, and that advantage is significant when it comes to a possible matchup with the Celtics: In 14 regular-season and playoff games between Boston and Cleveland since the new Big Three was assembled in 1997, the home team has won every one.

“If no one can beat you at home and you’ve got home-court advantage, you’re probably the front-runner. It’s going to be on one of us in the East to beat them there,” Celtics guard Ray Allen said. “But we’re geared toward a month from now, knowing we might have to go into that building and win.”

The Cavaliers might be tempted to rest up for the playoffs, but they still have the Western Conference to worry about. Cleveland needs two more wins to earn home court in a possible NBA finals matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers, who beat the Cavs twice in the regular season.

“They’re not worried about the East. They’re trying to get home court” against the Lakers, Rivers said. “We hope that the Lakers part of that never comes into play.”

The Cavs aren’t thinking about it, either.

“You can’t think about the finals because you have to win in the first round,” forward LeBron James said. “You have to win on the road in the playoffs.”

The Celtics need one more win to clinch the East’s No. 2 seed and lock Orlando into No. 3. Boston’s first-round opponent will be Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago or Detroit.

The Cavaliers, who are 38-1 in Cleveland so far this season, also have a chance to match the NBA record of 40-1 for the best home mark.

The current record-holders: The 1985-86 Boston Celtics.

“They have the potential to go 40-1 at home; that’s impressive,” said Minnesota Timberwolves coach Kevin McHale, who played on that team along with Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. “I think the farther it gets away from you, the more you look back on it and say, ‘That was a tremendous achievement.’ The farther I get away from the championships, the more I look back and say that was a heck of an achievement.”

Rivers said he wasn’t worried about the record because his team was confident it could win anywhere “even in places we haven’t won.”

But he won’t be giving them any speeches about protecting the franchise’s legacy.

“I’m sure going into there on Sunday they’ll be reminded of that 1,000 times,” Rivers said. “I’ll send Danny in to give them the “Rah! Rah!” speech. But we want to beat them for a whole other reason.”

AP sports writers Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia and Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this story.

AP-ES-04-11-09 1450EDT

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