The Boston Celtics finally made it back to the top of the Atlantic Division, but staying there will be a challenge.
The Celtics begin a stretch of games against playoff-hopeful teams, starting with this afternoon's bout versus the star-studded Miami Heat at TD Garden. They will also engage in battle with San Antonio, Chicago, Indiana, Philadelphia, Miami again and Atlanta on the upcoming slate.
Boston moved into first place atop the Atlantic Division for the first time this season with Friday's 100-79 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Kevin Garnett had 24 points and 10 rebounds, while Paul Pierce contributed 21 points and Rajon Rondo tallied 17 assists to go with six points and six rebounds for the Celtics, who have won four straight and six of seven games.
"Our defense is who we are," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "With Kevin Love and that group, they're a terrific offensive unit. It takes a ton of discipline to try and take away all the back cuts and pushing the ball. I thought our guys did a great job of it all night."
The Celtics climbed to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference after the Philadelphia 76ers dropped one in Washington. The Sixers defeated Atlanta last night and are a half game behind Boston, which will put its seven-game home winning streak on the line Sunday and is 18-8 in Beantown. Sharpshooter Ray Allen sat out his fifth straight game for Boston due to a sore right ankle and could return versus Miami.
Rondo has at least 10 assists in 12 straight games, the longest active streak in the league. Avery Bradley scored 17 points in the recent win.
Miami also has a grueling stretch ahead against the Celtics, Sixers, Thunder and Grizzlies -- all playoff-hopeful teams -- and will wrap up a quick two- game road trip this afternoon.
The Southeast Division-leading Heat, who are 16-11 as the guest and seeded second in the Eastern Conference, are coming off Friday's 113-101 victory at Toronto in which Chris Bosh scored 30 points against his former team and Dwyane Wade also scored 30 points. LeBron James had 26 points and nine assists for Miami, which turned 16 Toronto turnovers into 21 points and outscored the Raptors 64-36 in the paint.
"They were knocking down some tough shots, so as the game went on we had to get better at defending those shots," Bosh said after Miami's ninth win in 13 tries. "We needed every basket tonight. We're getting better working together as a team."
Heat forward Udonis Haslem was not with the team for personal reasons. He will rejoin the team in Boston on Sunday. Miami is 23-3 when scoring 100 or more points this season and improved to 28-7 against teams from the East. After today's game the Heat will return to south Florida for a five-game homestand and have won 15 in a row as the host.
Wade may have more things on his mind than the Celtics after he learned that his nephew was shot in Chicago this week. Wade said he expects the youngster to recover.
"I played for him and with him in mind," Wade was quoted as saying after the Heat beat Dallas on Thursday. "I was nine years old when he was born. I was an uncle at nine years old. A lot of thoughts go through your mind. ... My prayers go out to all the families involved, especially the one family who lost a child. My prayers go out to them. It's tough."
The Heat and Celtics will play the second of four meetings this season, and Miami won the first matchup, 115-107, on Dec. 27 at AmericanAirlines Arena. Boston has won 14 of 17 and 15 of the last 20 meetings between the teams.
Miami has lost seven straight trips to Beantown.