And now for the hard part. The Celtics finished arguably the easiest stretch of their schedule one game below .500 after defeating Toronto Friday night and enjoyed yesterday off from practice. Over the next two weeks, they will face the fast-starting Cavaliers on the road and the Atlantic Division-leading Sixers at home.
If you think a road game against the Hawks Wednesday represents the best chance for the Celtics to earn their first road win, think again. Winless Atlanta does not play again until Boston comes to town for what will be the Green's second of back-to-back road games. Before the end of December, Boston will take two trips west and play tough Central Division rivals Indiana, Milwaukee, and Chicago at home.
While the Celtics may be aware of what lies ahead, they preach the one-game-at-a-time mantra. And they are at a point in their development where their focus remains largely internal. The defense needs work. Coach Doc Rivers continues to search for the right combination of players for the second unit. Veteran newcomers such as Dan Dickau and Brian Scalabrine are still adjusting to the system. Rookies Ryan Gomes and Orien Greene are still adjusting to the NBA.
With the degree of difficulty about to increase in terms of schedule, executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge shared some of his thoughts yesterday.
"I anticipated that there would be some highs and lows with us," said Ainge. "There are with all teams. Right now, I'm not result-oriented as much as I'm looking at our players. I love how we finished training camp and started the regular season. I think we've taken a step back defensively from the first five games. We need to reestablish our defensive intensity."
The heady early days of being ranked at or near the top of the league in rebounding, blocks, steals, and opponent field goal percentage are gone. The Celtics are currently ranked 19th in rebounding (41.2 per game), 13th in blocks (5.3), and ninth in steals (8.22). The most disconcerting drop has come in opponent field goal percentage, where they went from 11th to tied for 25th with Charlotte, allowing the competition to shoot 46 percent.
The Celtics have held opponents at 40 percent or below only three times this season. Until winless Toronto shot 39 percent at the TD Banknorth Garden, Boston's opponents in four of the previous five games had shot better than 50 percent. The Celtics next play a Cleveland team shooting 47 percent from the floor. They know they must sustain the energy displayed against Toronto and execute more consistently on the defensive end.
"I think we played with a lot more energy [against the Raptors]," said Paul Pierce. "We scrapped for loose balls. That's what we're going to need on a more consistent basis."
Rivers thought Kendrick Perkins was "the star of the game" for the way he "cleaned stuff up" on the glass, grabbing seven rebounds in almost 19 minutes. Defensive effort like that will earn Perkins more playing time. The Celtics can certainly use the big, physical presence Perkins provides inside. Perkins knows he has a tremendous opportunity in front of him.
"Nobody is really stepping up and taking jobs," said Ainge. "So, as a result of no one clear-cut winning, Doc is still trying to figure out who's going to win those jobs."
Count Dickau as one bench player hoping to find his comfort zone soon. He has moved between second- and third-string point guard this season, and says he has yet to hit his stride in the Celtics system.
"I still have a ton of room for improvement," said Dickau. "I don't think I've shot the ball the way I'm capable. As far as getting guys involved, getting in the flow, I'm starting to learn more of the sets where everybody's going to be, rather than just the main first option or second option."
While Perkins and Dickau work to earn solid spots in the rotation, rookie Gerald Green will continue to work out with the team, according to Ainge, instead of being sent to the NDBL team in Florida. Ainge likes the progress being made by the rookie with a routine supervised by the strength and conditioning coaches.
"We're not sending Gerald to Florida for the time being," said Ainge. "Gerald is working extremely hard on improving his body. We're working with Gerald to improve his work ethic, not that he has a bad one.
"We like the progress he's making. I saw great progress in a couple practices. For now, we're going to double his workload and see his confidence grow and his body get stronger."
When asked specifically what he meant by "the time being," Ainge said, "The next six or eight weeks. We'll keep him with us probably two months anyway. He's progressing really well."
The Celtics will take the same wait-and-see approach with Tony Allen and his rehabilitation from knee surgery. Ainge will evaluate Allen during a week of practice before making any decisions about whether the second-year guard will spend time with the Florida Flame.
"We're just waiting to see where Tony is [when he comes back]," said Ainge. "He needs to get on the court for a week to see if he is the Tony Allen of last year, if he can help us, or if he needs a lot of work, if he is rusty and out of shape and we need to explore other opportunities."