The Boston Celtics were maybe the happiest team in the NBA to get to the All-Star break last week. A season that began ominously with Paul Pierce on the sidelines for the first two weeks never really got going in a positive way. There have been injuries, suspensions, bad luck, and a whole lot of rumors and controversy swirling around them basically since the abbreviated training camp began.
After losing their last five games before the break (including the last two with All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo suspended), the team desperately needed a break. At 15-17, they're currently sitting in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and staring at a doomsday scenario of having to play the Miami Heat in the opening round of the playoffs. Even the most diehard of Celtics fan will have to admit that a series against the Heat right now would be little more than a disaster of unbelievable proportions.
The thinking goes that this team got a chance to rest for most of the weekend (excluding Rondo and fellow All-Star Paul Pierce), heal up some injuries and refocus for the critical second half that awaits them. A look into the future though, shows that the easy part of the season might already be behind them.
The season restarts Tuesday night in Cleveland, where the Celtics will play a Cavaliers team that is vastly improved from last ear thanks to the emergence of Kyrie Irving. Center Jermaine O'Neal is expected to miss this game along with several others thanks to more issues with his achy knees. The road game in Cleveland is the first of 19 games that the team will play away from the friendly confines of the TD Garden to close out the regular season. The road has not been a friendly place for this Celtics team either.
Among those road games is a bruising eight game road trip that will see them pick up some serious frequent flyer miles as they snake the country playing against both Los Angeles teams along with Denver, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. This death march is not exactly spread out either, as the team will play two sets of back to backs (more on these later), and will only once have more than a day off between games. In reality, this trip probably will decide whether this Celtics team will even make the playoffs, let alone be competitive. To date, the C's have won just four of their 13 games away from home, and are coming off a four game road trip that they lost every game of. To make matters worse, they've managed just a single solitary win over a team with a winning record away from home (over the Orlando Magic). If they don't play at least .500 ball on that trip, this team may close it's brief golden era on a very sour note.
Think the road games are the worst of the teams problems? Think again. Tuesdays game against the Cavaliers also marks the start of the first of 10 back to backs for the Celtics (including a dreaded back to back to back in April). That means, of the 34 games remaining on the schedule, 21 of them (or 62% of the remaining schedule) will be played on consecutive nights.
There aren't a whole lots of games against teams like the Washington Wizards among those remaining games either. With three games against the Atlantic Division leading Philadelphia 76ers, two each against the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, and single games against the Chicago Bulls, Lakers, Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, and Nuggets, this Celtics team faces a major uphill climb toward respectability and one last miracle run in the playoffs.
With that many games in a short period of time while playing against the leagues elite teams, the aging Celtics will have to put forth a tremendous amount of effort over the final two months of the season in order to get their heads back above water and avoid certain doom in the open round of the playoffs. For a younger team, exerting that much energy isn't generally a problem, but for this group, it borders on impossible.
Among the normal starting five, the average age per player is roughly 33 years old. That's an impossibly old team by NBA standards, which means that they're far more prone to injury. After playing himself into shape in the first month of the season Pierce has been relatively injury free, but both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have shown signs of beginning to break down, while O'Neal may already have done so.
The trouble is that with so many difficult games and so many of them on consecutive nights, head coach Doc Rivers doesn't have the luxury of giving them a rest if they require it. In fact, it's more likely that he's going to have to push his aging starters even harder, playing them more minutes and more games, just to give the team a shot in some of the games. The bench has been largely ineffective aside from super sub Brandon Bass thanks largely to some poor free agent signings by team president and general manager Danny Ainge in recent years (another story for another day). As a result, there's nobody to give guys like KG, Ray, and Pierce a breather in the middle of a long road trip or on the second night of a back to back. So as Doc tries to push this team across the finish line, injuries will probably continue to mount and the end result will either be a very low seed in the East playoffs and a quick exit, or the teams farewell will be the April 26 home finale against the Milwaukee Bucks. Either way, barring a miracle, this great run of Celtics basketball is probably over.