TORONTO - You won't see the Celtics in the flesh for a while. Rick Pitino and his .500 team open a five-game road trip here this afternoon in the new Air Canada Centre. The trip ends a week from today in Indiana.
In between, there's a Southern swing to Charlotte and Atlanta and a meeting with the Pistons at the Palace. It's a schedule only a pilot could love, but, aside from the quirky travel, the games represent a chance for the Celtics to not only stay alive, but maybe even exhale.
Of the five games, the first three are against teams that are struggling. The last two stops are the toughest - they always are on long trips - with the Pacers standing as, on paper anyway, the toughest assignment. (Then again, Indy lost at home Friday night to Golden State, so all bets are off.)
"If we can stay afloat for the rest of the month," Pitino said after Friday's 102-94 victory over Denver at the FleetCenter, "then we come back and have a lot of home games in April." In other words, the Celtics need to simply remain in the picture until April and May, when they have 14 of their last 21 at the FleetCenter.
The Celtics should need no motivational speeches for this afternoon's game against the Raptors. All Pitino needs to do is replay the tape from the season opener, when Toronto manhandled the Celtics and took a 103-92 victory in the FleetCenter. Pitino said that after that loss, he never felt more disappointed in all his years of coaching.
The Raptors are coming off a tough home loss to Orlando and are not the automatic "W" they were last year. Still, as Antoine Walker noted, "It's really important that we get that first one and get off to a good start on this trip. We haven't played that well on the road, so we need to establish something right away."
The Celtics are healthy for the first time in a while. Pitino has his rotation pretty well set, using the "Bomb Squad" to come in, harass, and wear down the opponent and then have his starters feast on the leftovers. But the team is struggling on defense and the Raptors present an inside challenge with Charles Oakley, Kevin Willis, and, if he's used, Michael Stewart. But it's a game the Celtics have every right to expect to win.
Here's a quick look at the rest of the trip. The Celtics won't play in the FleetCenter again until they host the vaunted Clippers on March 17, St. Patrick's Day.
Tuesday at Charlotte: Until Anthony Mason and Glen Rice went down, this looked like a tough one. But the Hornets are a mess; their owner is moving, their coach feels unappreciated, and it's all showing on the court. Derrick Coleman sat out Friday's loss to Washington; who knows if he'll decide to go? Rice is all but headed to the Lakers. TheCeltics should win this one.
Thursday at Atlanta: The Hawks have been a disappointment lately, but now have their main man (Steve Smith) back. They play defense when they want to and will be a good test for the Celtics, who will have a day to prepare. Atlanta has the personnel to be one of the better teams in the East when healthy. This also is the day of the trading deadline, so if the Celtics bottom out in Toronto and Charlotte, well, who knows?
Friday at Detroit: The Pistons won't forget the last Boston visit, when Dontae Jones led a fourth-quarter rally and Walker hit the winner and strutted around the Palace thumping his chest. Detroit has been up and down as well, but still has firepower and will be catching the Celtics on the second end of back-to-back games.
Sunday at Indiana: The Celtics' first meeting with the Pacers and Larry Bird this season. They played Indy tough last year, even in going winless, and should do the same this year. The Celtics should not be too pooped and Indy is a decidedly un-athletic team. Regardless of how things have gone to this point, a victory here would be a terrific way to end the trip.