Celtics eager to defend title

FRANK ZICARELLI

, Last Updated: 7:39 AM ET

Opening night is unlike any night in the NBA when teams begin the marathon of an 82-game schedule.

For the Boston Celtics, tonight represents a banner night as the franchise's 17th championship banner is raised to the rafters as the club gets set to play host to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

As much as tonight represents a moment to reflect on last spring's title run, it also brings together what many believe as the two top teams in the Eastern Conference, perhaps a preview for what lies ahead.

The Celtics will miss James Posey, a clutch veteran who bolted in free agency for the New Orleans Hornets, but the team's big three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce return.

Pierce, the reigning NBA final MVP, reported to camp lighter and is poised to continue the dominance he showed in helping the Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the marquee championship matchup.

The Celtics last won a title in 1986 and are eyeing a repeat for the first time since the club's dynasty years in the 1960s.

"We have to be a better team than we were last year to win it," Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said. "We believe that.

"To us, that's a process we're going to have to go through all year to improve as a basketball team. And I think I have a group of guys who are willing to do that."

No team has repeated since the Lakers began their three-peat in 2000.

Like any defending champion, the Celtics realize they'll have a bull's-eye on their back each night as teams take their best shot.

Then again, Boston was predicted by many last year to succeed following the moves to acquire Garnett and Allen.

"It's hard to disagree with anything we did last year," Allen said. "We want to be more efficient. We want to get better on both ends of the floor.

"It's going to be tough to equal what we did last year, but we're going to be up to the challenge."

As long as the big three continues to come up big, as long as Rajon Rondo continues his development at the point position, the Celtics are more than capable of making plenty of noises this season.

In a recent survey that polled league GMs, the Celtics were the overwhelming picks to win the Atlantic Division.

In the same survey, the GMs picked the Lakers to win the title, though.

Bill Russell knows a thing or two about winning.

Given his allegiance to the Celtics, it's not surprising to note that Russell sees no reason why Boston can't repeat.

"I don't see why not," Russell said. "What you have to ask is: 'How many teams are going to be improved this season?' A lot of teams improved on paper, but the games are played on the floor.

"Red (Auerbach) used to always say: 'You don't win a championship in the off-season.' And he's right.

"The one question that seems to consistently come up regarding the Celtics this season is: 'Can they win the championship without James Posey?' The attitude to take when you lose one of your key contributors is to always do the best with the personnel you have. Don't review your roster and say: 'I wish I had this or I wish I had that.'

"The Celtics have to look at their current roster and say: 'This is the team we're going with, and it seems like they have. And to answer the question, yes, the Celtics can repeat without Posey. I have all the team pictures of the championship teams that I was on.

"I have the first championship team photo from 1957 and the last one from '69. I am the only guy in both pictures and during those 13 years, we only made one trade and that was Bailey Howell for Mel Counts. We had a complete turnover in that 13-year span.

"When you lose a player, you not only pick up the slack but the team system and attitude come into play in determining your overall success."

Who's going to argue with the greatest champion of all time?


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