Eight games don't make a season, but in a lockout-shortened campaign, every game counts. The Boston Celtics will have to do their winning on the road for the next two weeks, as they embark upon an eight-game West coast trip that will go a long way towards playoff positioning.
Boston enters this stretch with a 21-18 record and is currently second in the Atlantic Division while holding onto the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Since the All-Star break, the Celtics have won five of six games, with their only loss coming against the division-leading Philadelphia 76ers in blowout fashion this past Wednesday.
The Celtics open their West coast at 3:30 p.m. EDT Sunday swing with a doozy against the Los Angeles Lakers, who they have already lost to this season. Kobe Bryant took control down the stretch and scored 27 as L.A. escaped with an 88-87 win in overtime. Pau Gasol, who has been the subject of seemingly endless trade rumors, had 25 points and 14 boards. Ray Allen scored 22, Paul Pierce added 18 points and Rajon Rondo chipped in with 14 points and seven assists.
Boston won't have to travel far for its next game of the road trip, as it faces Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers the next night (Monday) at 10:30 p.m. This will be the only meeting of the season between the Celts and Clips, but they were originally schedule to meet once in Boston before the game was cancelled because of the lockout.
After that, the C's visit the Golden State Warriors (Wednesday, March 14; 10:30 p.m.), the Sacramento Kings (Friday, March 16; 10 p.m.), the Denver Nuggets (Saturday, March 17; 9 p.m.), the Atlanta Hawks (Monday, March 19; 7:30 p.m.), the Milwaukee Bucks (Thursday, March 22; 8 p.m.) and the 76ers (Friday, March 23; 8 p.m.). Of the eight teams they'll face, five have records over .500 and they have already played three of them (Lakers, Bucks, 76ers).
"It's a long road trip, but I do think there's rest in it," said Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, who said this would be his longest career road trip. "The first two games are tough because of the long flight, you play and then you play the next day. But then after that, there's days off in between. I think the other one is the last, the Denver game before we go back East, that's a hard game. Whenever you play Denver on a back-to-back, that's a hard game because there's no oxygen."
The Celtics have had a lopsided schedule, with most of their home games coming at the beginning of the season. But that's all in the past now, although the C's did dominate their last game at TD Garden against the Portland Trail Blazers, winning 104-86. The final score made the game look much closer than it was, considering that Boston led by 43 at one point in the third quarter. It was a very important win and a great way for them to go out on.
"We needed this, and put a lot of focus into this game," said reserve Sasha Pavlovic, who scored 10 off the bench against Portland. "If we play like this on the road, we'll be fine. We can beat anybody with this type of mentality."
"He would probably say that we want to win every game possible, we have to have great focus, and get our proper rest, and stay together through adversity," said Rondo, speaking on behalf of Pavlovic about the road trip (you'll just have to take our word on this. Rondo was in a weird mood).
Success on this road trip could alter the Celtics' season. Right now, they are in prime position to compete for first place in the Atlantic Division, as the 76ers have been struggling as of late. Despite being blown out by the Sixers, the C's will have a chance to redeem themselves at the end of the trip, and it's possible they may have already overtaken them by then.
Getting into the playoffs is what's most important, but if Boston plans on sticking around longer than one round, they will need to focus on winning the Atlantic. Why? Well, a first-place finish in the division secures a top four seed, regardless of the record of the teams below them. If they don't win the division, there's a good chance they will finish seventh or eighth in the East, which would mean a first-round matchup with the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls. Not exactly optimal.
There's only one way to get there: winning. To do that, team green will take it game-by-game.
"One game at a time," Kevin Garnett said about the team's outlook. "When you look at it, it's actually quite scary just because of the lack of rest and the back-to-backs and the travel. But when you take it a game at a time, that's still what it is ... We're going to take it one game at a time."