It is most likely needless to say in this space that the Celtics' two-game home-stand this week did not end in the most pleasant of manners. A spanking from the Jazz, the end of the organization's first ten-game winning streak in more than two decades and an injury to Ray Allen removed "pleasant" from the occasion last night at the New Garden.
Fortunately for Celtics Nation, there is no shortage of opportunities to make the worst loss of the season to date a distant memory sooner rather than later. The C's embark Saturday on a five-game road trip that looks to start off innocently enough but will also include four of the team's toughest tests this season. Virtually without question is that the adversaries will be difficult, but this trip also has the potential to provide one more crucial set of proving grounds for the Celtics as they move into the stretch run toward the playoffs and look to continue to demonstrate that they can hang with any competition this league has to offer.
So with that in mind, we take today's column to break out our official road trip primer. We would tell you that this feature was back by popular demand, but the facts that we haven't run it ever before and that it was a suggestion by our very own Jeff Clark rather than some sort of factional declaration mitigated the possibility of using that cool jargon. That disappointment notwithstanding, thanks to Jeff for his suggestionm and trippin' away we go:
(Aside, FYI: Reader requests are always welcome here. Can't promise that they will always be granted, but as what makes this site so special is its function as a community, your ideas will be met with an open mind without fail.)
Milwaukee Bucks: A win here would prove, well, probably nothing. At 51-13, it is an overstatement to suggest that there are any must-win regular season games left for the C's, but if there is one that this team needs to have on this trip, it will be tonight at the Bradley Center. The Bucks have suffered through another putrid season, with mounting injuries, inexperienced coaching and just a poorly established roster all playing key roles. The 23-42 Bucks now sit at dead last in the league in defensive efficiency, and unless Michael Redd or Mo Williams is going off for a great individual scoring effort (although I hasten to warn all readers on this board not to run the risk of incurring dedicated reader Who's wrath by complimenting Mo Williams), they aren't going to blowing anybody's doors off offensively either. Rumors have circulated around the team that owner/senator Herb Kohl has sandbagged several trade attempts by GM Larry Harris this season and that Harris will likely be shown the door at season's end. The team is once again featuring several members of the walking wounded, with Yi Jianlian, Desmond Mason and Mo Williams all listed as questionable and Frank from Brew Hoop telling us that center Andrew Bogut may not be able to go either. Particularly after the blowout loss to the Jazz on Friday, the Celtics should have the wherewithal to come out strong early and lay a pasting on the hapless Bucks.
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San Antonio Spurs: Possibly the biggest wild-card of this trip, which is odd considering that come playoff time, the greater likelihood is that this group will be a bastion of consistency. The problem is that the Spurs are phased by virtually nothing in the regular season. This team doesn't have big regular season games. The Spurs just don't care. They know that they are going to win 55-65 games each season thanks to the fact that they are superbly coached, they play great defense, they play as a team, and they have three stars who keep opponents' hands full with ease in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. They recently won 11 in a row and then followed that up by losing supposed showdown games to Denver, Phoenix, New Orleans and Detroit in an eight-day span, and they just don't really care that much. Maybe they will come out looking to break this recent cold streak and to avenge a loss earlier in the season to the Celtics. Maybe they won't. Nobody understands the concept of marathon-not-a-sprint better than Gregg Popovich does. The goals for the Spurs are the same every night in the regular season: Keep the big three as fresh and well rested as possible, and avoid injuries. After a rough night with Deron Williams on Friday night, Rajon Rondo will bear watching in the first of three major point guard match-ups on this trip as he battles Tony Parker, who sat out injured in the last contest between these two teams.
Houston Rockets: A late-blooming nominee for story of the year in the NBA. They are now the proud owners of the second longest winning streak in the history of the Association at 21 straight victories, with the Lakers coming in on Sunday and the Celtics making their trip to the Toyota Center on Tuesday. By now, you know the basics: team wins 12 in a row, Yao Ming goes down, Tracy McGrady et al. just keep trucking, team keeps on winning. Of particular note with this team is the fact that though Rick Adelman was hired this summer as a high-octane offensive maven to replace Jeff Van Gundy, the Rockets have made their name with a stifling second-ranked defense this year. Besides McGrady, point guard Rafer Alston and forward Luis Scola are especially worthy of attention. Alston's improved play has been critical to the increase in the Rockets' flow offensively over the past month. Prior to entering the Association this season, Scola was known as the world's best non-NBA player, and he has really begin to show the first consistent flashes of his being that player over the course of htis winning streak. Sadly for fans interested in seeing him, crazy-productive rookie Carl Landry has been out with an injury that may carry his absence into next week. This game will be a moderately-paced defensive struggle from start to finish, and the Celts wil need all hands on deck on both ends of the floor to pull out a win in a game that will likely be anything but pretty.
Dallas Mavericks: A team suddenly in need of a challenge. The Mavs have won their last four games by 20, 29, 25 and 19 points apiece. They have also won those four games at home against New Jersey, New York, Charlotte and Indiana. This comes on the heels of a set of actual challenges, in which the Mavs lost four of five, running into trouble against San Antonio, Utah, Houston and the Lakers. The Mavs and new point guard Jason Kidd are still getting acclimated to each other, and the contention here is that no matter what Kidd brings to the table, Dallas left itself too thin inside when it made the Kidd trade. Expecting Erick Dampier to log big minutes and play solid interior basketball for several consecutive months seems like too much to ask. The Celts pulled out a win in Kevin Garnett's absence in their first meeting with the Mavs this season, and they certainly have the capability to beat the Mavs in Dallas this time around (with KG back in uniform, of course) as well.
New Orleans Hornets: Welcome to the big show in the Big Easy, Raj. Tony Parker and Jason Kidd will be the warm-up acts for the main point guard attraction of the Celts' opponents on this trip: MVP candidate Chris Paul. Paul scores with high efficiency (21 points per game on 49 percent shooting), is an excellent facilitator (11 assists per game) and limits his turnovers (2.52 per game). The fact that he grabs a few boards (3.9 per game), plays some defense and is lightning-quick doesn't hurt either. In short, he is everything a point guard should be and more. Battling CP3 will be an intriguing 'measuring stick' experience for Rondo. Meanwhile, Tyson Chandler has become the type of player that the Celts would love Kendrick Perkins to be -- an excellent rebounder and defender first and foremost as well as a guy who shoots a very high percentage by getting a lot of garbage baskets. The Celts will need to focus on preventing Chandler from dominating the boards, keeping first-time All-Star forward David West from going off from mid-range and inside and somehow limiting Paul. That last part is the most crucial, but if Rondo plays the defense he is capable of playing and gets the sort of stifling help behind him that the C's have provided throughout the season, it can be done.