Celtics-Spurs brings buzz to Boston

BOSTON -- The Miami Heat stopped by on opening night. But, as we've seen the past month or so, that was miami, as opposed to the current MIAMI that is terrorizing the league. As for the rest of the NBA elite, the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers have yet to grace the TD Garden floor this season.

Their time will come. On Wednesday night, Celtics fans are in for a treat. The teams with the two best records in the league (as opposed to the two best teams, which covers the rampaging Heat) will meet when the San Antonio Spurs make their annual visit to Boston.

The teams have a combined 12 losses -- and it's the first week of January. (Twenty-three teams already have 12 losses apiece.) San Antonio has blown away the competition in the Western Conference in the first 30-plus games to the point where Gregg Popovich has been the only winner of the conference's coach of the month honors this season. The Spurs are on a ridiculous pace that even Popovich doesn't expect to last, but he's enjoying it while it does.

"You know us. We never talk about what our record is," Popovich said before the Spurs lost to the Knicks 128-115 on Tuesday night in New York. "It is whatever it is. But we know full well that this won't continue for 82 games. We're not the Chicago Bulls [who won 72 games in 1995-96]. That's not us. We'll come back to the center eventually, but our hope is that we're still a good team when it matters most."

Those four last words -- "when it matters most" -- have been the Spurs' mantra for the past number of years. Ditto with the Celtics of the new Big Three era. Doc Rivers, like Popovich, couldn't care less what his team's record is at this point. He probably couldn't even tell you. Same for Popovich.

They both want the same thing when it matters most (as do the other championship contenders): health and momentum in the springtime. But winning along the way sure doesn't hurt, especially when the playoffs come around and the seeds are parceled out.
The Spurs' four NBA titles all were won with them having home-court advantage in the Finals. They've never been in the Finals without having home court (which makes Popovich 4-0 in the big dance). The Celtics had the advantage in 2008 and won Banner No. 17. They didn't in 2010, which they came to realize might have cost them Banner No. 18.

Neither team downgrades the importance of the regular season. They play the games for a reason. But both teams know that to win an NBA title, you probably are going to have to win on the road at some point in the postseason, and that having your key guys healthy and focused is the main goal.

"Our guys have been around here long enough that they understand what is important and how it all works," Popovich said. "You don't have to convince them. It's the big picture that counts. You don't go into the depths of depression with a loss and you don't get all crazy if you win."

In Popovich's mind, the Celtics game likely has an asterisk attached to it because of the absence of difference-maker Kevin Garnett. The Spurs' coach downplayed a win at Dallas recently because the Mavericks played without rainmaker Dirk Nowitzki. Popovich has been lucky, having had the same starting lineup for the first 35 games of the season. Rivers has used seven starting lineups already with only two players, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, having started all 32 games.

Wednesday's game will be the eighth this season in which the Spurs have played a team with a .500 record or better on the road. The Spurs won five of the first seven games, the other loss, in addition to Tuesday's, coming Dec. 23 in Orlando. Before embarking on its three-game Eastern swing, San Antonio flexed its muscles at home, crushing Oklahoma City by 27.

The Celtics will have their hands full defending the Spurs, which hasn't always been the case. San Antonio has always been known as a lockdown defensive team, but this season it has become a menacing offensive team. The Spurs began the week ranked fifth in scoring at more than 105 points a game; they were at 101.4 last season and at 98.5 in 2006-07, the last time they won an NBA title.

The big difference this season, according to Popovich: the re-emergence of Richard Jefferson, who was a washout last season, and the health of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

"We're able to enjoy his talents this year," Popovich said of Jefferson. "We didn't get much of that last year. But he has worked hard, and we need him. And Tony and Manu are healthy for the first time in three or four years because they didn't play in the summer [for their respective national teams]."

We've come this far and not a word about "The Big Fundamental." Tim Duncan is cruising along, having passed David Robinson to become the all-time leading scorer for the Spurs. He has modest offensive numbers but still anchors the San Antonio defense. This is his 14th NBA season. He has been on one of the league's All-Defensive teams every one of them.

Wednesday should be fun, Garnett's absence notwithstanding. There aren't many marquee games in the regular season, but these next six weeks will bring a few of them to Boston. It starts Wednesday with the best one of them all -- at least until the fans can dust off their "Beat L.A." shirts for the Feb. 10 visit from the hated Lakers.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.