NEW YORK — If playing on Christmas Day were based on this season’s record, the Celtics likely would not have been chosen to participate. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Nets in Brooklyn with a 13-13 record, and their maddening inconsistency and series of disappointing defeats almost certainly will be discussed in front of a national television audience.
The uniforms may be the same, and some of the players may resemble those you recall from previous seasons, but these are not the same Celtics who would walk into opposing arenas and impose their will on opponents. Those teams would relish the visiting atmosphere, soak in the adulation from the handful of fans in green behind their bench, and notch victories.
The Celtics are 4-8 on the road this season, with losses at Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Houston, Brooklyn, and Detroit The Green are no longer intimidating, but with four critical road games on tap — starting with the Nets and continuing with the Clippers, Warriors, and Kings — the Celtics realize that something has to change.
“I feel the confidence that we can play with anybody and beat anybody,” said Paul Pierce. “But do we have the swagger? No, I don’t think we’re giving anybody the swagger yet. You have to develop that. And that comes with your record and how you play.
“You can’t be a fighter, lose all your fights, and come in there like you the man. It just doesn’t work that way. We’ve got to get some games under our belts. We’ve got to get some big wins under our belts and then you develop that swagger.”
The Celtics wanted to make inroads on their previous trip to Houston, San Antonio, and Chicago but lost by double digits in each game. Against Chicago, which was coming off a difficult loss in Memphis the night before, the Celtics trailed by as many as 20 points and were soundly beaten.
They returned home and beat Cleveland the next night, but dropped a disheartening overtime decision to Milwaukee Friday night at the Garden.
As it turns out, the Celtics and Lakers are the only teams on the NBA Christmas slate without a winning record. The Celtics didn’t want to use this trip to have to get back on track, but now it’s become very important.
“We’re playing better, we’re just not winning,” said coach Doc Rivers. “I like where we’re trending as a team, but the facts still say we’re a .500 team right now and we have to do a lot of things better. Obviously every trip is important, and this is another one.”
The key, Rivers said, is getting a victory on Christmas against a Nets team that has beaten the Celtics twice already, including the fight-marred game at TD Garden Nov. 28 that resulted in a two-game suspension for Rajon Rondo. Revenge definitely will be on the minds of the Celtics, who have improved their overall intensity and execution but still have faltered in key stretches.
They nearly gave up a 20-point lead to Cleveland and allowed Milwaukee to rally from an 8-point fourth-quarter deficit to lead by 7 before the Celtics forced OT but ultimately lost.
“It would be a great win to get because it sets up the rest of the trip,” Rivers said. “It’s always nice when you can win the first game on a road trip because it kind of gives you a positive feeling going out on the road.
“They’ve beaten us twice and we need to beat them, so it would mean that.”
Rivers agrees with Pierce that the Celtics have to collect more road victories to earn more respect from their opponents.
“We may [have that confidence], but I don’t know if the other team senses it yet,” he said. “You’ve got to earn that. You’ve got to earn it every year. We haven’t earned that right yet.
“Again, our record suggests no. Teams don’t go into next year thinking about the team you had last year. They go in trying to beat this year’s team, and until you go on the road and start playing well and getting people’s notice, no, I don’t think anybody fears us right now.”
The Celtics haven’t won more than three consecutive games all season, and the players realize it’s going to take a sustained effort to return from this trip better off than when they left. The Clippers have won 13 straight games, the Warriors are one of the league’s pleasant surprises, and the Kings battered the Celtics at the end of a trip last season.
“I wouldn’t say it’s either all or nothing on this road trip, because we have almost 50 games left afterwards, but this is a big stretch for us,” Rondo said. “We’re playing a lot of good teams. The Clippers are playing well. Golden State is playing well, but we don’t want to overlook Brooklyn. They came and pushed us around a couple of times, so it’s going to be a physical game.
“We have to bring it. Not just one game, but continuously put some games together because our record is .500 but we’re a much better team. But there’s no excuses.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe