- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Just an hour earlier, he stood in front of a pack of reporters outside the visitors locker room in Madison Square Garden and stressed how he didn't want to lean on a playoff-like eight-man rotation for the second straight game. But Celtics coach Doc Rivers was about to break that promise.
His team facing an early double-digit hole against the New York Knicks on Monday and knowing in the back of his mind that every win is precious in a race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Rivers leaned heavily on his starters and a three-man bench of Jeff Green, Glen Davis and Delonte West as the Celtics rallied from a 15-point deficit for the second consecutive game.
It was a glimpse into the difficult decisions Rivers must make over the final month of the regular season. Boston's coach knows he needs to limit minutes for his starters, but must weigh the risk of losing games while the Celtics are tied with the Chicago Bulls atop the East.
Rivers wants to get that eight-man playoff rotation floor time in order to develop much-needed chemistry, but he also needs to get Celtics on the end of his bench -- players like Carlos Arroyo and Troy Murphy, who combined for little more than five first-half minutes Monday in New York -- acclimated so that he has the faith to call on them over the final 13 games.
It's no easy task, and Rivers fully admits he's often conflicted about how to proceed.
"We don't have a great rhythm [right now], we're getting it back," Rivers said. "I screwed it up a little bit by forcing the [newcomers] onto the floor, because I'm trying to get them minutes. We're going to need some of them. But it doesn't just take [the newcomers] out of their rhythm, it takes the guys we've had out of their rhythms. And, on top of that, we're struggling."
In a way, things might have been easier a year ago. Maybe not easier to stomach, watching his team lose a bunch of head-shaking games, but the Celtics put a premium on health over seeding. Rivers has stressed that health remains paramount this season, but Boston can't settle for a lower seed -- as it did as a fourth seed a year ago -- and expect to make the same romp to the NBA Finals. Not in a beefed-up Eastern Conference.
So what's the key to finding the right balance? Right now it's on the starting five to make things easier on Rivers. Boston has been flat out of the gates in each of its last four games, trailing by a combined 28 points after the first quarter. What's more, the Celtics have stared at double-digit halftime deficits in each of their last three contests.
That's forcing Rivers' hand, not allowing him much room to experiment with the new faces. As thrilling as rallying from 15-point deficits has been in consecutive wins over New Orleans and New York, one can't help but wonder what sort of long-term strain that puts on the Celtics.
"There's something about this team, that we have an extra gear," captain Paul Pierce admitted. "We know when to turn it up and sometimes we're maybe going to the ground. That's what it takes. But I'd rather start the beginning of the game like that."
Here are three more things to watch over the final 13 games of the regular season:
ANYONE SEEN THE O'NEALS?: There had been growing optimism about Shaquille O'Neal's impending return, but that was tempered slightly by the fact that O'Neal was able only to work out on the exercise bike Monday in New York. The Celtics need to be confident the 39-year-old can withstand the rigors of basketball activities (particularly the physicality of playoff basketball) before they can green-light him. O'Neal hasn't been on the court since Feb. 1 because of right foot injuries. Meanwhile, Jermaine O'Neal continues to rehab away from the team and the end of March/early April timeline for his return is creeping closer. The Celtics could use some extra toughness on their front line and the two veterans have potential -- when healthy -- to provide it.
THE PLAYOFF (ROTATION) PUSH: Health could play a big role in how Boston's 12-man playoff roster shakes out. The locks right now (assuming good health): Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, Delonte West, Jeff Green, Glen Davis and Nenad Krstic. Then it's a bubble watch. Will Jermaine O'Neal be healthy enough to be in the mix? Can Von Wafer rehab that strained calf and get back on the court to challenge Sasha Pavlovic for depth at the swingman spot? Can Troy Murphy shake enough rust to warrant a spot?
PLANTING SEEDS: EYES ON SPOTS 6-8: The Celtics, Bulls and Miami Heat may have a race at the top of the East, but eyes could soon shift to the bottom portion of the standings, where the Philadelphia 76ers and New York are jousting for spots Nos. 6 and 7, while the Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats and Indiana Pacers are in the mix for spot No. 8.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.