Celtics' starts are startling

Evaluating a team by the opening months of a season is a bit like judging a book by its cover -- and the table of contents. Maybe the dedication, too.

Only so much can be concluded from how a team plays in the first two months of a season. But this much is clear. Since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were acquired in 2007, the Celtics have unequivocally dominated out of the gates.

Off to a third straight hot start, it's now fair to call the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen-era Celtics the greatest early-season team in NBA history.

Since that group got together, Boston enters Friday night's game against Atlanta 57-6 before Christmas. Let that sink in for a second. 57-6. That's easily the best early-season record in the NBA in that span. Consider that the next best team, the Lakers, is 46-16 before Christmas. That would put them 10½ games behind the Celtics, who are on pace to make some history.

From 1980-81 to 1982-83, the Dr. J-led 76ers were 73-14 before Christmas. That's the best such three-year stretch in NBA history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Right now, the Celtics' .905 winning percentage is dwarfing Philly's .839. Boston needs to go just 11-7 from now until Christmas to stay ahead of those Sixers.

But nobody gives out trophies for a great start. It won't keep you healthy in April, and it doesn't guarantee you'll be playing games once June comes around. In the end, a great start is simply that: a start to something more.

So no one is calling this the greatest team of all time. These Celtics have won only one title together. That's not even a dynasty.

Yet, with the 2009-10 edition again causing Celtics fans to salivate, Boston's early dominance is worth exploring for its historical relevance alone.

For the third straight season, the Celtics reeled off eight wins in their first nine games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Rockets were the last NBA team to pull that off. They did so for four straight seasons from 1993-94 to 1996-97, with two of those seasons ending in championships.

If the past two seasons are any indication, the Celtics' 8-1 start is merely a preview of what's to come in the next six weeks or so. In 2007 and 2008, Boston's hot starts extended well into winter, making history along the way.

In 2007, the Celtics ushered in the new Big Three era with eight straight wins to open the season. By Jan. 5, they had added two additional nine-game win streaks for a 29-3 start, the fourth-best three-loss start in NBA history. The only three teams ahead of them -- '95-96 Bulls (41-3), '71-72 Lakers (39-3), '66-67 76ers (37-3) -- typically are mentioned among the best teams of all time.

Last season, working off the momentum of a 17th championship banner, the Celtics got off to an even faster start. After winning eight of their first 10 games, the team reeled off 19 straight wins, a franchise record and tied for the fourth-longest single-season streak by any team. Before the streak ended against the Lakers on Christmas Day, the Celtics sat at 27-2. That was the best two-loss start in NBA history, eclipsing the '69-70 Knicks and '66-67 76ers, who both started 26-2.

The 2007-08 season ended with a parade. Last season ended in MRIs, disappointment and a commitment to replenish the bench.

So what was the difference? Quite simply, health. Specifically, the health of Garnett, who missed 25 games and the postseason. With him, the Celtics were 44-13. Including the playoffs, they were 25-14 without him.

Boston's early-season success can be similarly explained. In the past three seasons, the Celtics' primary starting five -- Allen, Pierce, Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins -- has started more games as a unit than any other in the NBA. When healthy, these guys are close to unbeatable, and they've been very healthy early in the past three seasons. In fact, of the 63 pre-Christmas games played by the Celtics since 2007, that fivesome has started 59 of them.

As a group, those starters are 94-25 together. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that is easily the best record of any starting five with at least 50 starts over the past three years. The next best unit is the now-defunct Pistons five of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Antonio McDyess and the Celtics' own Rasheed Wallace.

In fact, this group is establishing itself among the best in franchise history. Need proof? When in the starting lineup together, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish went 138-38, according to Elias data. That's a .784 win percentage -- lower than the .790 percentage of the current group.

Apart from winning, keeping the starters healthy and fresh has become a clear priority for coach Doc Rivers this season. That's what makes this 8-1 start different from the last two.

Consider the combined minutes of Pierce, Allen and Garnett through nine games. In 2007, they had played 1,059 minutes. Last year, it was down to 955. With the added bench depth this season, the Big Three have combined to play only 890 minutes so far.

You are witnessing the greatest early-season team ever. If the Celtics stay healthy, just how great can they be? Imagine if the Celtics of the fall are still healthy when the leaves on the trees match the green on their uniforms.