BOSTON -- Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were sitting behind a press room table, avoiding questions about the future while the past was cackling away. In the hallway on the other side of the wall stood Bill Russell, and he was laughing. His laughter heckled them like a friendly ghost of long ago.
"This is a big win for us,'' Garnett was saying after a 90-78 victory over the Pistons gave Boston the tiebreaker advantage for their anticipated conference final against the Pistons sometime this May. It's hard to imagine it not coming to that. The Celtics, however, preferred not to imagine it. "I don't want to think about it,'' coach Doc Rivers said.
The East affords Rivers such luxury. An elite matchup in this conference comes along every second or third week, involving the Celtics or Pistons or the Cavaliers, depending on how much faith one has in LeBron James to pull the laces tight on his team. The future wouldn't be so predictable for the Celtics if they were in the West, another setting Rivers didn't want to visualize.
"I walk in,'' Rivers said of entering his office after his own game Wednesday, "and Denver's playing Phoenix. Denver was playing Houston the other night. The West is just amazing, how hard it is.
"It makes them better at the end of the day, though. People keep saying they're going to wear each other out; I disagree. I think it's going to make whoever comes out of the West a bitch because they've gone through every war.''
Which is not to say that the Celtics might have been better served by playing against similar competition, or that they haven't had enough to worry about within their own conference. That's because their biggest issues were internal. After overhauling their team last summer, the Celtics spent most of September meeting at their training facility each morning for a pre-preseason camp.
"We had to do everything on a faster curve than Detroit,'' said Celtics guard Ray Allen, one of the newcomers. "They were easing themselves into the season, they knew what the plays were, they knew everything already. For us, everything was from scratch. We had nothing established. We had to understand our roles and how we were going to play the game together. September was about being around each other and knowing what everybody was about, so we wouldn't have to go through that during the season.''
Notice that he was able to focus on Detroit as the team to beat in the East; surely Cleveland was up there too. Had the Celtics been in the West, they would have been aiming to overtake the Spurs, but the ensuing list of contenders wouldn't stop at two or three teams. There would be Phoenix and Dallas and New Orleans and Utah and Houston and Golden State and Denver and -- lately -- the Lakers, who may yet be the team to beat. The aforementioned Nuggets are on a 49-win pace -- and they are the No. 9 team in their conference.
The Celtics won their first 16 against the West and are 18-3 overall. But paying the occasional visit is entirely different from having to pay taxes there.
"Once the playoffs start, it's tough on both [conferences],'' Rivers said. "There are good teams that have been injured in the East that are down there waiting. But right now in the regular season, I can't imagine [competing in the West]. Day in and day out, you can go six games in a row with teams that are over .600. That's just unheard of. What's happening over there, I've never seen it before.''
The Celtics hold a four-game lead over the Pistons, who themselves are five games ahead of Orlando, which means the Eastern favorites can afford to pace themselves for the playoffs in six weeks. When asked about Garnett's minutes after he played 41 on Wednesday, Rivers said: "I'm going to get him back to 35 a night. There's no reason to take a chance.''
But there might be every reason to max out Garnett if he were playing in the other conference, where West-leading San Antonio's lead over the No. 6 Suns is a mere three games. Note that after 16 victories in a row, the Rockets are only four games ahead of the Nuggets, who would be in the lottery if the season ended now.
Meanwhile, the depleted Washington Wizards are headed to a 40-42 finish -- and they are No. 6 in the East.
I asked Rivers if it's possible for West coaches to rest their stars while competing for their playoff lives. "You can,'' he said. "It's going to be tough, though, especially for the teams that are in that fifth-sixth-seventh-eighth spot. They've got to tax their guys. The [teams like the Spurs] who have got the cushion up at the top -- and it's not a big one -- they've got a huge advantage.''
In the locker room before this game Wednesday that promised to play itself out in a postseason frenzy, Allen had been maintaining that he doesn't approach the Pistons with more gravity than any other opponent. Because then, I surmised, he might make the mistake of overlooking the losing teams that account for two-thirds of the East standings. As we talked, a replay of Boston's previous game at Detroit was on the TV screen nearby, and Allen interrupted our chat to ask the video coordinator to play back a sequence.
He watched it carefully, providing me with the assumption that he had discovered an advantage he might apply to Wednesday's game -- thereby indicating that he was treating this game more seriously than normal. When the play had been replayed, he looked up at me and said, "Now, did you think that was a foul?''
"And that was why you wanted to replay it?'' I asked.
I said, "So did you think it was a foul?''
Of course not.