- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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During the course of the past week, the Celtics have started to pull themselves from a funk the likes of which the Big Three have not encountered since uniting in Boston.
The Celtics dropped 8 of 12 to close out January, their first losing month since Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen joined forces in 2007, highlighted by a particularly woeful three-game stretch that featured losses to elite competition in the Magic, Hawks and Lakers.
A three-game win streak with triumphs over the Wizards, Heat and Nets this week has done little to instill the sort of confidence that existed at the start of the 2009-10 season. But a win Sunday when the Magic visit the TD Garden in a Super Bowl XLIV appetizer (ABC, coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET) could go a long way toward re-establishing Boston as a championship contender.
Some players and coaches will tell you Sunday's clash is just one game on an 82-game schedule. So just how big is this Magic-Celtics clash?
"I think, for ourselves, we're not going to put too much emphasis on it, but we do know that it's a big game and that we do need to play better [against top competition]," Garnett said after Friday's way-closer-than-it-should-have-been win over the Nets. "I don't think we're fully satisfied with our current play. I won't make overemphasis of this game, but it is a big game. Going into the [All-Star] break, our goal was to finish off [strong]. We got two more games, and we want to win these next two games.
"So, yeah, this is not a quiet game. This is not a typical game. But it's not like a big, big, super, super game. We need this game to finish out what we set forth for our short-term goals."
Translation: It's not a playoff game, but it's a regular-season game that means a little something extra.
Maybe a lot extra.
Which is exactly why Pierce (left midfoot strain) and Marquis Daniels (left thumb surgery) are champing at the bit to make their returns for Boston on Sunday. The Celtics haven't had their entire roster healthy since the preseason, and what better time to first enjoy that luxury than a nationally televised game against the defending Eastern Conference champions?
What's more, the Celtics are in dire need of a statement victory. As much as coach Doc Rivers and his troops brush off the notion of measuring-stick games, Boston hasn't logged a true defining victory since a Christmas triumph in Orlando. You might have to go back to opening night against the Cavaliers to find another.
Since Christmas, the Celtics have lost to the Hawks three times, the Magic once (fumbling away an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead in Orlando last week) and the Lakers once.
In a league with a short memory, Sunday's game -- one played in front of millions as a warm-up for the New Orleans Saints-Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl -- could go a long way toward reaffirming Boston as a truly elite team.
"[The Magic are] a good team," Rivers said. "There's a bunch of good teams in the East, and they're one of them. We know what they do, they know what we do.
"They want to take a ton of 3s, post up with Dwight [Howard] and spread the floor, run a ton of pick-and-rolls, and our job is to take them out of some of that stuff."
So what exactly does Boston have to do to be successful Sunday? Here's a look inside the numbers -- four categories for the fourth meeting of the season -- with help from our friends at ESPN Stats & Information:
1. Push the ball after Orlando misses: The Celtics thrived in transition against the Magic in three previous meetings this season. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Boston is 18-of-28 overall for 42 points (1.11 points per play) in transition, while the Magic are 3-of-11 for 16 points (0.77 points per play).
2. Avoid a half-court game: If the Celtics don't get stops and are forced to settle for a half-court game against the Magic, Synergy's stats show Boston could be in trouble. The Celtics rank fourth in the NBA in shooting percentage from the half-court set at 46.9 percent. But that number dips substantially to 37.5 percent (78 of 208) against the Magic this season.
3. Stay out of foul trouble: The Celtics dominated Howard with single coverage (mostly from Kendrick Perkins) during the first three meetings, but early foul trouble left Perkins on the bench last week in Orlando. The Celtic must continue to be aggressive with Howard, particularly after he labored through 2-of-7 shooting with five turnovers in the first two meetings. Howard rebounded to go 7-for-11 with only three turnovers in the third meeting.
4. Get Pierce on the court: How important is Pierce's potential return? Boston is 28-13 when Pierce is in the starting lineup but 4-3 without him. Boston ranks as the top team in the NBA in terms of plus/minus by its starting unit. Boston's regular five-man lineup of Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Rajon Rondo and Perkins easily outdistances any other starting five in the plus/minus category. (Celtics at plus-193, Grizzlies at plus-152 and Hawks at plus-140 are the top three.)
"We played well enough to win last time," Allen said. "We have to make sure we do everything right this time, follow our checklist."
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
With a win over Magic on Sunday, Celtics can make a point on a Super stage.