They toted home luggage under their arms and eyes, legs weary and worn, body clocks that were set and re-set as they bounced around between Mountain and Pacific time.
After nearly 8,000 miles in the air and five games in five cities in seven days, with stops near desert, mountains, salt lakes, palms, and pines, the Celtics are finally back in Boston.
They posted a 2-3 record on that trip, their longest of the season, and now comes a much-needed break.
The Celtics play just one game in seven days – Friday against Golden State at TD Garden – and coach Doc Rivers gave everyone two full days off before they resume practice Thursday.
That breather is vital for 35-and-up veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry, all key cogs whom Rivers said he plans to keep off the court for a few days.
But the time off is also critical for the Celtics’ new assets: guard Jordan Crawford (obtained via trade with Washington) and swingman Terrence Williams (signed to a 10-day contract).
Neither Crawford nor Williams has practiced with the Celtics since joining the team and both have been working with a limited playbook. Rivers will work extensively with both during this lighter part of the schedule as he tries to bring them up to speed.
“It’s going to take them a while,” Rivers said.
On the court, defense is the biggest knock against Williams and Crawford, and learning the Celtics’ schemes is a priority.
That said, it’s unclear what kind of role either will play. Rivers prefers to play his veterans during crucial stretches, and that was evident during the team’s 110-107 overtime win against Utah Monday night.
Rivers went to an eight-man rotation for much of the game, with Williams sitting out for all of it and Crawford playing a meaningless 4:41 early in the first half.
The players Celtics fans mostly can expect to see will be Garnett, Pierce, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Terry, and Chris Wilcox. (Yes, that means no Fab Melo.)
The Celtics are set to sign 6-foot-9-inch D.J. White to a 10-day contract whenever his paperwork from China clears, which should help a thinned out front line.
Still, like Williams and Crawford, White isn’t expected to play heavy minutes during his stint in a Celtics uniform.
Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said that at some point before the playoffs the team would add one more player to the roster, boosting it to 15. But even Ainge admitted that finding a player at this point who can contribute and isn’t locked up elsewhere would border on the impossible.
“Now that we’ve got some bodies back and everybody seems to be pretty much healthy, this is our team,” Terry said. “This is what we’re going forward with and we’re very confident in what we can do.”
So, what’s the theme for the rest of the Celtics’ season?
Exactly what they’re getting now.
“That’s what we’ve been the last four years with the group we have, you look at the schedule, you look at how they’re playing and you go by your eye and you also go by conversation,” Rivers said. “And there’s some of the guys who need it and some who don’t.”
Rivers said during the trip that he was going to specifically monitor minutes for Garnett, Pierce, and Terry, and that Garnett would sit out a few games before the playoffs start.
Garnett already sat out against the downtrodden Suns, a game that became the Celtics’ biggest win of the season — 25 points — but the rest of the schedule is brutal, leaving few games that Garnett could sit out without seriously damaging the team’s chances.
How brutal is the upcoming schedule? Thirteen of the Celtics’ final 25 regular-season games are on the road, with trips to Oklahoma City, Memphis, New York, Indiana, and Miami. Plus, after they face the Warriors Friday, the Celtics play four of their next five on the road.
Rivers wants first for his team to make the playoffs, but he also wants to keep the Celtics out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference so that they don’t face the Heat in the first round. As of Tuesday, the Celtics were in the seventh place in the East, 2½ games ahead of Milwaukee.
But resting key players while not playing anyone wet behind the ears will be tricky when it comes to keeping games competitive, a must if the Celtics want to avoid the Heat.
If anything, though, the West Coast trip truly tested the post-Rajon Rondo Celtics.
The team won eight of nine without him before the All-Star break in part because it largely played struggling teams at home.
On the road, it was a different story. The Celtics were up and down, losing three of four after the break.
They did salvage the trip by gutting out a tough win at Utah, but Pierce was unhappy that the team couldn’t close out the win earlier — a growing issue, he believes.
“That’s what we need to start focusing on — when we get the lead, when we need crucial stops, we have to figure out how to get them,” Pierce said. “That’s the next step for us.”
Now, the only step is to not take any, to rest up before grinding through a road-heavy second half while still keeping something in the tank for the playoffs.
A breakdown of the Celtics’ recent 2-3 road trip:
|Feb. 19: Denver, L 97-90||Jeff Green scores 20 points||Paul Pierce shoots 2 for 14|
|Feb. 20: Lakers, L 113-99||Celtics 11 of 18 on 3-pointers||Dwight Howard’s 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting|
|Feb. 22: Phoenix, W 113-88||With Garnett resting, Green scores 31||Practically none; even Fab Melo scored a point|
|Feb. 24: Portland, L 92-86||Pierce shoots 9 of 16, scores 23||Celtics outrebounded, 47-36|
|Feb. 25: Utah, W 110-107||Rivers says it’s best win of season||Celtics outscored, 25-17, in fourth quarter|