9-Day Road Trip to Test Up and Down Celtics


SACRAMENTO - In a season with very few certainties, Celtics coach Doc Rivers knew he could count on two things in the upcoming weeks.

   First, he predicted Boston would find itself on a roll. In late November games against Miami and Orlando, he sensed the team coming together, playing with better effort and improved execution. And indeed the Celtics are on a three-game winning streak.Second, he saw a five-game West Coast swing looming as one of the toughest challenges on the schedule. The Green arrived in Sacramento yesterday, ready to start their longest trip (nine days) of the season.

Rivers called the tour "a necessary evil," and he was not referring to the Celtics' stay in California's maddeningly quiet capital city. He was talking about the challenges all Eastern Conference teams face against bigger, stronger, more heralded Western Conference teams. A five-game stretch against the Kings, Warriors, Trail Blazers, Sonics, and Clippers could kill the momentum the Celtics have built.

"I do think most teams go out there with defeatist attitudes," said Rivers. "In my first year [as a coach], I told my team I wanted to sweep the West. We weren't going to sweep the West, but it was a better attitude than, 'Let's get a split.' I hate that. We went out and won one game, but still I thought our guys were trying to win them all.

"That's the attitude we're going to have to have. It's not going to be an easy trip. I know that going out, but that doesn't mean we should think any negative thoughts going out there."

To maintain such a positive attitude, the Celtics would do well not to think about past trips. When they have ventured beyond the Rockies in recent years, they have met with major stumbling blocks. Look no further than last season: Boston finished its big trip west 0-4, part of a seven-game game losing streak.

For better or worse, the Celtics are on the West Coast earlier than usual. Traditionally, Boston's biggest trip falls in mid-February, coinciding with school vacation and the arrival of the Ice Capades (or similar theatrics) at the FleetCenter. This year, they will return to the West at the end of February for four games. In other words, the biggest trip doesn't come as Boston tries to build momentum for a playoff push. Instead, it takes place as the Celtics try to figure out who they are and how to play with consistency.

"We're going to be OK," said Gary Payton, who has spent most of his career with Western Conference teams, feasting on the East. "It's going to be one of those things where we're going to have to go out there and be focused. We've got a lot of good teams that we're going to play, and we've just got to go out and play hard.

"Sacramento is going to be hard. Golden State plays well at home. Portland, Seattle - I think Seattle is the best team in the NBA right now. Then the Clippers, and they're playing very well.

"Hopefully, we can win three or four of them. If we get three of them, we'll be fine."

There may be no good time to visit Arco Arena. After a shaky start, the Kings have won 10 of their last 11 games. On paper, the easiest opponent should be the Warriors, the lone sub-.500 team on the slate. But the Celtics will visit The Arena in Oakland on the second night of a back-to-back set. It doesn't get any easier with Portland or Seattle. The last time the Celtics played at The Rose Garden, the Blazers welcomed them with a 22-0 opening run. The Sonics went into last night tied with the Spurs for the best record in the NBA at 14-3. And the Clippers are currently the best team in Los Angeles.

"We can't outrun them," said Payton, when asked the secret to beating Western Conference competition. "We've got to set them up. We've got to rebound. We've got to execute. And we've got to keep our focus because they like to run out in the West. They've got good shooters, so we've got to be steady on defense."

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