- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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After Boston's 109-96 thumping of the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday at the Staples Center, there can be no argument. The Celtics wrapped up the month of January with a glossy 5-1 record against teams with records better than .500, including a 105-103 triumph over those very Spurs (which, if not for some careless final moments, wouldn't have been as close as the final score suggests).
It's clear the Celtics have saved their best basketball for top competition. For the season, they have a 17-5 mark overall against teams above .500. In fact, against the seven other Eastern Conference teams that would currently qualify for the postseason, Boston boasts a 13-2 mark, falling only to Chicago (the second night of a back-to-back to wrap up a slate of six games in nine days in January) and Orlando (a Christmas Day battle in which Boston fumbled away a double-digit, second-half lead).
Boston is not too shabby against the potential West playoff squads either, with a 6-3 mark against the eight current qualifiers (those losses being to Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Dallas). For what it's worth, the Spurs' seven losses this season include Boston, Orlando, Dallas, New York, the L.A. Clippers and a pair against New Orleans.
Give San Antonio credit for feasting on the lesser opponents, a 22-1 record against teams below .500 this season. That's an area where Boston hasn't been able to always keep its focus.
But, heck, before the Celtics even beat his team three weeks ago in a battle of conference juggernauts, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admitted his team was a cut below Boston.
"We're a significant notch below the big boys, and, of course, Boston being one of the big boys," Popovich said. "Boston [was] third in defensive field goal percentage. Those are the kind of stats we used to have defensively. Right now, I think we're a good basketball team. We have to step up defensively. Luckily, it's early. Maybe I can get these things across."
The scary thing for opponents is that, despite all of Boston's success to this point, the Celtics feel like their best basketball lies ahead. In fact, they've been so riddled by injuries, Boston's biggest concern might simply be getting its ailing players back early enough to allow proper time for its bench to gel.
"Listen, with all the injuries, if you told me that we'd have this record [in late January], I'd take it and run with it," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "But my concern is always moving forward. We have to get our team ready [for the postseason] and it's tough to do that when you have all the injuries. When you're playing game-to-game, you feel like you're stuck in place and you can't move forward. That's my biggest concern. Especially with our bench. We have to get our bench intact in time, so they can get used to playing with each other."
It's ironic that Rivers is so concerned about the bench, because it's his starting five that Boston has not had in place all season. The team will soon be able to trot out that familiar five once center Kendrick Perkins rejoins the starting unit . He has four games under his belt since returning in late January from offseason ACL surgery.
Once that happens, the Celtics will have the luxury of shifting Shaquille O'Neal to a reduced-minute reserve role. A second unit that has struggled to score with consistency should benefit from having one of the league's most dominant scorers ever in the post, generating a newfound ability to simply chuck the ball into the post and hope for easy points or a foul when the offense goes stagnant.
Delonte West (fractured right wrist) has appeared in only five games this season and is expected to be back in late February. He's the X-factor in all of this as Boston pegged him as the key to that second unit that desperately needs a solid ball-handler (something the team has sought around the trade deadline in seasons past).
Jermaine O'Neal (left knee soreness) is in the middle of a four-week strengthening process for his ailing knee that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge adamantly believes will allow him to be a contributing player over the final months of the season.
"I don't know when [Boston will have a healthy roster], but it'd be nice to see [Shaquille O'Neal], Baby, Marquis and Delonte playing together," Rivers said. "In a lot of ways, that group is new to each other, so we have to get them to play together and show them what we need them to do."
It seems impossible, but the Celtics might actually find another gear when that happens. Having leaned on rookies Semih Erden and Luke Harangody at times this season, the return of veteran talent makes the Boston pine that much deeper.
With a three-game cushion over Chicago and Miami in the East entering Monday's action, Boston will eventually find itself concerned with seeding and how the playoff bracket will shake down. They are cognizant of it, especially knowing how home-court advantage might have benefited them in Game 7 of the NBA Finals last year against the Lakers.
But for now, the Celtics contend that they're not worried about anything but improving their own level of play and consistency -- which is no easy task when you're a team shooting a league-best 50.1 percent from the floor while also limiting opponents to the fewest points per game in the NBA (91.6 per contest).
Yes, if the Celtics play to their potential, they feel like they should win every night, regardless of opponent or circumstance. And that's exactly how they should feel. After all, Boston is the best team in basketball.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.