But with three of his preferred starters injured, and a fourth hurt during the game, the Nets are really an N.B.A. team in name only. They gave it your basic college try, which given their roster was about as much as could be expected, before falling, , to the Celtics.
It was the Nets’ sixth straight loss and the Celtics’ fourth straight win. Slowly, but surely, the natural order of things is starting to emerge in the Atlantic Division. The Celtics, who started the season 0-3, are back near the top of a division they have ruled for the last four seasons. They have allowed an average of 83.3 points a game in those four victories.
“I like the way we’ve been playing defensively,” said the Celtics’ captain, Paul Pierce, who had a game-high 24 points. “We’ve really picked it up because we’re a defensive team first. We just want to see what kind of team we really have once we get healthy.”
The beleaguered and battered Nets (1-6) are at the bottom of the division, last in the league in shooting, but leading the league in celebrity husbands (Shelden Williams and, for 72 days, Kris Humphries). The Knicks want to be the team that challenges the Celtics this season, but do not look like it now after home losses to Toronto and Charlotte.
The Celtics did not have Ray Allen (flu) and have had their preferred starting five for only two of the seven games they have played this season. But after their rocky start, they have taken advantage of a favorable schedule to vault from the bottom to the top of the division.
Wedneday’s game was the Celtics’ fourth in a stretch where they will play 19 of 25 games at home, and many of the opponents are more like the Nets than the Miami Heat. Their four wins (the Nets, the Pistons and two over the Wizards) have come against teams with a combined record of 3-16.
An even greater luxury looms, one game in the next six days, a rarity in this truncated season. Things do get much tougher in March and April, but a fifth straight division title is a distinct possibility.
“I think this is probably their last big stand with this team and when you’re looking at Garnett and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, those guys, they don’t have five years left,” Johnson said, referring to Kevin Garnett. “But I sure think they have one great year left in them, and that’s why they’re playing as well as they playing.”
Johnson said his team went through a spirited shootaround Wednesday morning — “our guys were really into it” — and then, noting who the Nets were playing, wistfully added, “hopefully, we’ll handle it well.” They did handle things reasonably well until the Celtics went on a 20-5 run in the third quarter, with Pierce scoring 9 points in the run, including consecutive 3-point field goals. The run gave the Celtics a double-digit lead they would not relinquish.
“Everyone now is trying to get into rhythm,” Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. The Celtics will hold their first practice Thursday since the start of their season on Christmas Day. “It’s not here yet. But it’s getting better.”
The Celtics are 4-0 since Pierce returned after missing the first three games with a bruised right heel. On Wednesday, Garnett registered his first double-double of the season (14 points, 12 rebounds) and the super-sub Brandon Bass also had a double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds). The rookie MarShon Brooks led the Nets with 17 points, 15 of them in the first half.
The Nets did not have Deron Williams, who bruised his right side Monday against Indiana. Humphries (left shoulder) and Brook Lopez (broken left foot) were also out, and Damion James hurt his right foot just before halftime and did not return. Brooks turned his left ankle, but X-rays were negative, and he is listed as day to day.
“In this league, whether you’re 0-5, 1-6, 0-6, 1-10, 2-12, whatever it is, no one feels sorry for you,” Johnson said. “We’re an N.B.A. team. Our future is bright. The future is not now.”
Not for the Nets, it isn’t. But for the future-is-now Celtics, it looks to be business as usual.