It's finally here - an honest-to-goodness Road Trip. Most of the teams in the Eastern Conference have ventured into the Mountain and Pacific time zones this season. Every team but the Celtics and Bobcats has had at least one road game against a Western Conference foe.
After 25 games, or nearly one-third of the NBA season, the Celtics finally will hit the road for their annual post-Christmas trip, playing four games in five nights in two time zones, starting and ending the trip in California. It's not exactly bruising from a competition standpoint; only one of the teams, the Lakers, is among the top eight in the Western Conference - and they are currently ranked seventh in the West. In other words, this is hardly a venture through the conference's iron belt.
But it is a trip of more than two games, which the Celtics haven't had so far in what has been the schedule from heaven. (They've had only one road trip of two games - and that one had two days between games). Stan Van Gundy, the Orlando Magic coach, undoubtedly spoke for a lot of NBA observers when he said, "I think the challenge for them will come on the road. We've played 10 Western Conference road games, which, I believe, is 10 more than they have played. They're for real. But I think their challenge is coming."
Whether it comes this week remains to be seen. Two of the three opponents are below .500 and a third has lost 9 of 11. Looking at his first four-in-five scenario of the season, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "Our bench is going to have to play well. Otherwise, it could be a long trip." Paul Pierce said, "It's a big test for us." And Rajon Rondo must know something we don't, saying, "We've got to get our rest, stay mentally ready, and it's going to take all 14 guys." At last check, the Celtics had only 13 guys.
At any rate, a preview of the week:
Tomorrow at Sacramento: In yet another scheduling break, the Celtics will finish the season against Sacramento without ever seeing Mike Bibby or Kevin Martin, two of its best players. The Kings aren't bad at home (8-5) and the Celtics haven't won at Arco Arena since 1996, a streak of 11 losses. But most of those losses came because the Kings were among the best teams in the league and the Celtics weren't. Now it's the other way around. From the For What It's Worth Dept.: Sacramento does have the distinction of being the only team this season to lead the Celtics at halftime in Boston.
Thursday at Seattle: The first reunion with ex-Celtics from last year's 24-win train wreck, as they meet up with Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West, the latter of whom may not be able to go (plantar fasciitis). This won't be a back-to-backer for Seattle as the Sonics play tonight against Portland. Seattle has righted the ship after a disastrous start (0-9) and has been playing around .500 with bruiser Kurt Thomas in the mix. But three other story lines dominate this game: the return of Ray Allen, the Celtics' first look at Kevin Durant, and what may well be the Celtics' final game in Seattle. A lot of memories here, from Cedric Maxwell saying he gobbled up Tom Chambers "like Pacman" to Vin Baker making a (brief) return from alcohol suspension to Kevin McHale blowing out an ankle.
Saturday at Utah: What looked earlier to be a tough game might still be one - but the Jazz are in a tailspin in which they have gone 2-9 in their last 11. But they also have played 18 of their 29 games on the road and are a pretty tough 9-2 at Whatever Their Building Is Called These Days. What's bugging coach Jerry Sloan, aside from having to look at Gordan Giricek, is that his team isn't stopping anyone. The Jazz are giving up 100 points a game - a scandalous, unthinkable number for a Sloan-coached team. Utah hopes to have Mehmet Okur back for the game; he has missed seven straight with a strained shoulder. And Deron Williams will give Rondo all he can handle. A bonus for Boston: Utah will have played the night before, in Los Angeles against the Lakers.
Sunday at Lakers: What better way to end the trip than with a battle against the Kobester and friends? Derek Fisher sort of set the tone for this one after the Lakers got drilled in Boston when he said, "We'll see them at our place." This might well be the best LA team since the Shaq-Kobe shotgun marriage was rent asunder. Andrew Bynum (an MIA in Boston) is playing well, Lamar Odom is healthy, and Bryant, apparently, is pleased for now with what he sees. How long that lasts is anyone's guess. While the Celtics will be finishing on a back-to-back, the Lakers will have had the night before to themselves. You can rest assured that these guys don't want to be the first Lakers team in six years to get swept by the dreaded Celtics.
"The good thing, and I keep saying this ... [is] we're playing OK. We're going to be so much better. We have a chance to be, if we keep on working on it, so much better than we are right now."
Said Celtics guard Ray Allen: "We've won games in a lot of different ways. We just want to keep winning."
Four Celtics starters scored at least 21 points: Allen (22), Paul Pierce (game-high 24), Rajon Rondo (23, tying his career high), and Kevin Garnett (21, with 12 rebounds). The Celtics shot 52.1 percent from the field, nailed 8 of 19 3-pointers and made 19 of 24 free throws.
The last time the Celtics had four players score at least 20 points during a regular-season game was May 5, 1999, when Pierce (27), Dana Barros (26), Ron Mercer (23), and Antoine Walker (23) led the home team past Charlotte, 133-129, in two overtimes.
"We had great distribution of the ball," Rivers said. "The 52 percent is what I'm more proud of."
The talented Magic (18-11) handed the Celtics their first loss, 104-102, in Orlando Nov. 18. Garnett said the focused Celtics wanted to make amends for that defeat.
The Celtics also completed a tough homestand against three Eastern Conference playoff teams from a season ago with a tough loss to Detroit followed with wins against Chicago and Orlando.
The next challenge is a West Coast road trip that begins Wednesday night and features four games in five days against Sacramento, Seattle, Utah, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
"We totally didn't like how we played when we were down in Orlando," said Garnett, who also had five assists and three blocks. "We thought we were better than that. We circled this, matter of fact, this week with Detroit, Chicago, and Orlando. So this was a huge week for us, especially with the West Coast trip coming up. We wanted to play really well, obviously, at home.
"We only play [the Magic] three times. There wasn't a whole lot to be said."
The Celtics took a 49-42 halftime lead after shooting 52.8 percent from the field. Despite shooting just 37.1 percent from the field, Orlando stayed close by nailing six 3-pointers and making 10 free throws in the first half.
The Celtics' only 3-pointer in eight tries in the first half came on Rondo's first of the season at the halftime buzzer.
The Celtics nailed 5 of 8 3-point attempts in the third quarter in taking a 78-64 lead. Pierce and Allen nailed two treys, Rondo hit another, and even Garnett tried a 3-pointer that didn't fall.
"We have guys that can knock down those shots," Pierce said. "I had a couple, Ray had some, and you know that's what happens when you play inside to out."
Orlando center Dwight Howard, who had team-highs of 23 points and 14 rebounds (but only made 5 of 16 free-throw attempts) said: "They did what they were supposed to do. They loaded the paint and flushed out for the other guys to shoot the threes."
The Magic got within 9 (85-76) on a dunk by Howard with 7:55 remaining but couldn't get closer. Even so, Rivers was still nervous about Orlando's perimeter shooting despite holding a 99-89 lead as the final minute approached.
"[Hell], with 51 seconds left I still was nervous because they make threes," Rivers said. "This team can shoot. They are so explosive. To hold them to 91 points and 44 percent [shooting from the field] was really nice."
There is still a lot of basketball to be played. But considering that these unsatisfied and focused Celtics have won 22 games this fast, despite entering the season with nine new players, it will be interesting to see what they can achieve in the next 25 games, then the next 25 games, and then the likely postseason.
"We aren't going to be perfect, but we can be close to it," Pierce said. "That's the type of level we want to get to."
Said Orlando guard Keyon Dooling: "When you play a team that good, there is no room for error. You have to play almost flawless, or pretty close to it."