BOSTON -- Doc Rivers was golfing in Chicago with Knicks coach Mike Woodson last summer when he admitted the obvious. "It really sucks that you guys are good now,'' he said.
The Celtics coach was laughing then and laughing now as he sat at his desk a couple of hours before his preseason home opener against the thoroughly reinvented Nets. Someone in his office mentioned how much stronger the Atlantic Division had become. "I loved it the way it was,'' Rivers said, noting that the Celtics had won the division in six of his eight years coaching in Boston. "I like it just like that.''
The Celtics may yet win a seventh divisional title for Rivers this season, but the easygoing of the past is no more. Woodson's Knicks and Avery Johnson's Nets are each intending to not only finish ahead of the Celtics but to also beat up each other in order to become the best team in New York. Then there are the 76ers, who acquired the NBA's most skilled low-post scorer in All-Star center Andrew Bynum. Even the athletic young Raptors will put up a fight around the defensive intensity demanded by coach Dwane Casey.
"I think it's the strongest division top to bottom,'' said Johnson as he stood in the hallway outside Rivers' office before the game Tuesday. "Even some of the teams like us that are coming up from the bottom -- we've improved our roster. Boston has been the example in this division for a long time, and what they've done has just been great. Philadelphia, they've had a good run -- and obviously we're going to have to wait and see what happens with Bynum. And New York, they've kind of turned around their team for the last year or two. It's going to be a tough division every night.''
It could grow to resemble the Atlantic of the early '80s, when the Celtics, 76ers and Knicks were contenders averaging around 50 wins a season. The Northeast is not only the birthplace of basketball but also its spiritual home. In recent years it had threatened to become a kind of no-go area for NBA stars who preferred warmer weather, lower taxes and less demanding audiences. But Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have restored and maintained the Celtic identity. Bynum has welcomed his move from laid-back Los Angeles to confrontational Philadelphia. Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony chose to leave the West and become Knicks, and Deron Williams turned down a chance to move home to Dallas in order to follow the Nets to their new home in Brooklyn.
"I think the fans are a lot more passionate here,'' said the Nets' Joe Johnson of his return to the Atlantic. He had been drafted originally by the Celtics in 2001 before they traded him to Phoenix, where he established himself in Mike D'Antoni's seven-second offense. Johnson's subsequent move to Atlanta proved that he could lead a 50-win team, and now he is finishing the long lap of his career in Brooklyn, a few hours south of where he started.
He was talking about the support of the traditional NBA power centers in Boston and New York when he said, "The fact that the fans come out even if the team is not so great -- you still see a pretty good crowd.'' Seven years in Atlanta will teach an NBA star to appreciate such surroundings.
"I used to love to play here,'' said Johnson. He was lying on his stomach on the sideline, stretching his core before a game in which he would not play. "Obviously that was a long time ago.'' He went on: "It's not like that anymore.''
He is hoping for another kind of satisfaction when he plays in Boston this season -- one that will feel less like a homecoming and more like an overthrow of the Celtics by he, Williams and Brook Lopez. But they'll have to establish who they are before they can dream of unseating Boston.
"We're definitely not going to get it just in the preseason,'' said Avery Johnson of the contender's identity that he is seeking for his team. "We've got to get it at home, on the road against some really tough teams; we've got to get it by making the playoffs and winning some playoff series. It's not just going to come by osmosis. It's going to take a lot of hard work.''
Patience will have to be blended into the personality of every contender in this edgy division, because it's going to be hard for one of them to pull away from the other two (or three, if Bynum turns out to be both healthy and unguardable for the Sixers). It was this focus on the long road ahead that persuaded the Nets' coach to rest his starters Tuesday and replace them with Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, Josh Childress, Keith Bogans and Earl Watson.
The Celtics went with the more familiar lineup (Garnett, Pierce and Rajon Rondo) they hope will remain healthy in April and May. The Nets looked like they did last season on one of those sorry nights when Williams was injured and unable to play. And yet the Nets went onto steal a 97-96 win with a 12-point comeback.
The playoffs are seven months away and the empty seats outnumbered the filled. But there was Garnett bumping his head against the stanchion before he took the court, and there were the Nets in the same road black uniforms their stars will be wearing when the games really matter, and together they reminded everyone of what is yet to come.
"Growing up, for me, this was the division,'' said Rivers. As it was, so it is again.