Renewed Celtics are ready for playoffs

WALTHAM, Mass. -- As the Boston Celtics assembled at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint on Thursday for the first of three scheduled practices leading up to their first postseason game Sunday against the New York Knicks, it almost felt like training camp again.

Nearly 200 days have passed since the team convened for a season-opening, three-hour session at the Rodgers Recreation Center on the campus of Salve Regina University. Thanks to a late-season stumble, Boston failed in its preseason goal to secure a top seed and make its playoff path a little less daunting this time around.

But none of that seemed to matter Thursday. For the first time since a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, the Celtics have a chance to actually start the atonement process. What's done is done with the regular season, but there's a chance to make things right in the playoffs.

"This is what we play games for, this opportunity," said captain Paul Pierce. "We've got three days of practice and then no more excuses for us."

Which might be exactly what these Celtics need. The regular season had a built-in safety net in which every stumble meant only a slight dip in the standings. Now it's win or go home, and that's something these Celtics can't even fathom.

"Playoff time gives us the opportunity to get back to where we want to get back to," said coach Doc Rivers. "It's tough -- you lose a Game 7 in the Finals and not only do you have the rest of the summer, which is short, but you have the entire [regular season] to get through just to start to get back to where you were at. That is tough."

Rivers isn't trying to justify his team's inconsistent play over the final 21 games of the regular season, when Boston limped to a 10-11 mark and slid from the top of the East standings to a 3-seed. Now, besides a daunting first-round draw in a Knicks squad that added playoff veterans such as Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups before the trade deadline, the Celtics have lost home-court advantage beyond the first round, unless there are upsets in other series.

For now, at least, the Celtics don't seemed concerned about that. They've maintained for much of the season that it isn't about the opponent, but rather whether the Celtics are able to play to their own potential.

They certainly didn't last week while enduring head-shaking losses in Chicago and Miami, sealing their No. 3 fate. Those games have done nothing to inspire confidence outside the Celtics' locker room entering the postseason, but the likes of Rivers and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge remain steadfast that this team is capable of winning a title.

Which is why there was new energy in the gym Thursday, even as the Celtics prepared to simply look at game film and walk through their defensive game plan. The games really matter starting Sunday and, the way Boston sees it, the Celtics are 16 wins away from erasing all those bad memories from a year ago.

"I think everybody's excited," said Kevin Garnett. "Regular-season games prepare you just for this right here, so I think everybody's locked in, focused and ready to go."

Captain Paul Pierce had a newfound bounce in his step (at least for a fleeting moment) as he gushed about feeling relaxed and revived after sitting out Boston's final two games of the regular season. He even said he's excited about locking horns with an elite talent like Anthony in the first round, eager for the challenge that provides. Pierce thinks the downtime helped get the Celtics on track again, both mentally and physically.

"Those little aches and pains, it's amazing -- when you play so many games, the little injuries you get, you play through them," said Pierce. "You get numb to them. Then you sit down for a couple games and those injuries go away. That's when you see the difference. I'm feeling pretty good right now."

So are the Celtics as a whole. In fact, Boston hasn't been this healthy since maybe the first day of training camp, when only Kendrick Perkins (offseason ACL surgery) was on the mend.

Yes, Boston still has concerns about Shaquille O'Neal (right calf sprain) and Delonte West (right ankle sprain), but practices on Friday and Saturday should tell the team what they can expect from that dinged-up duo in the early stages of Round 1. The rest of the team is as healthy as you can get this time of year, and you won't find any Celtics complaining about lingering bumps and bruises.

As Pierce said: "It's a fresh start today."

All the trade drama and all the struggles over the final month of the regular season are in the past for the Celtics. Which is even more reason why Thursday felt like the start of camp. There's a fresh slate for the first time since October.

"In some ways [it is like training camp], it's nice," said Rivers, whose squad emerged from camp to win seven of eight preseason games and 23 of their first 27 games to star the regular season. "If we can come out like we did in training camp, that'd be phenomenal."

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.