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The gauntlet: Celtics start a difficult stretch heading into December

Boston has already faced some adversities in the young season. Now, the games get even tougher.

Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

The Celtics sit a game above .500, just a win over an imaginary Mendoza line between fan frustration and “if this team finds some consistency, they could be dangerous in the playoffs.” With less than a quarter of the season played, we’ve already seen versions of deja vu. Strong play from its starters (21.1 NetRtg) is an obvious showcase of the team’s potential, but health concerns and inconsistent shooting have again reared their ugly heads.

Boston’s opening scheduling was particularly brutal with 10 of its first 15 games on the road. Head coach Ime Udoka called it a sort of “extended preseason” with Jaylen Brown and Al Horford missing a bulk of training camp after both starters landed in the league’s health and safety protocols. They naturally stumbled out of the blocks until a Marcus Smart missive intentionally or coincidentally or indirectly or whatever sparked an 8-4 run. That stretch was marked by identify-defining defensive play and the re-emergence of Jayson Tatum.

But now, we’re here.

First, the Celtics must deal with one of strangest scheduling quirks in years whenever the tryptophan coma wears off. After playing the Nets the day before Thanksgiving in Boston, they travel to San Antonio for a post-Turkey Day game against the Spurs where Udoka will be facing his mentor, Gregg Popovich. Then, they travel north of the border to Toronto to complete a short, two-day road trip on Sunday. They’ll get a nice two-day respite back home before they face the 76ers on Wednesday and then travel cross country to Salt Lake City to start a five-game out west to kick off NBA winter. Google Maps clocks that at nearly 7,000 miles in less than ten days.

But that’s just the beginning. Included on that extended roadie to the left coast are more measuring stick games against the Portland Trailblazers (winners of 5 of their last 7), a stop in LA for a rematch with the Lakers and a date with the Clippers on the back end of a back-to-back, and a primetime game in Phoenix against a Suns team that has won 14 games in a row. And while the Celtics will welcome a trip back to Boston for five games at TD Garden, they’ll tangle with the Bucks, Warriors, and Sixers during the homestand.

If the first ten games of the regular season were used to get the team’s feet wet and the following ten was learning to swim, Games 21 through 30 is advanced scuba diving 100 feet deep with real consequences. Seasons aren’t necessarily defined by a team’s December, but with the trade deadline fast approaching, front office plans could evolve and change over the next few weeks.

The good news is that the Celtics are only two games out of second place in the East. Save for Brooklyn, nobody has really separated themselves in the conference and even the Nets don’t seem completely right either. Cold and flu season has already claimed a few games on Boston’s lineup, but they should return Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams to the starting lineup shortly with Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson, Grant Williams, and Romeo Langford pretty much set as the nine-man rotation.

As Al Horford put it, “this next stretch is going to tell us a lot. I think you guys said, eight of nine, seven of eight on the road, and things like that. This stretch here, we’ll learn a lot more about our group. But I do believe that this is a great opportunity, and now we’re getting healthy, so that’s a positive.”

January is home-heavy with only a handful of games outside of Eastern Standard Time. Considering what the Celtics are up against next month, keeping their heads just above water would be considered a success heading into 2022. We’ve been waiting for this team to make a real push, but it may not be until after New Years until we can finally make some firm resolutions.