Despite the lure of better weather, a couple of days in Los Angeles and a chance to rack up some victories in the stretch run, the Celtics are very wary of their five-game West Coast trip that begins Saturday in Phoenix.
The trip starts with a winnable game — the Suns — and ends with a winnable game – the Los Angeles Lakers — but there is a difficult stretch in between that could knock the Celtics down to sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Rarely do the Celtics explore the West Coast this late in the season. Saturday will be game No. 73, and yet this is Boston’s longest road trip of the year. The club sees the trek as perhaps season defining, with games against the Clippers, Trail Blazers and Warriors sandwiched between the Suns and the Lakers.
The Celtics will be underdogs in three contests, and although forward Jae Crowder will be traveling with the team, his return to play during the trip is still in question; he has missed five games with a high right ankle sprain. Boston isn’t whole, but it is good enough to come away from this challenge successful.
The players have 72 games of experience, a five-month stretch in which they have endured inconsistency, nagging injuries and erratic performances from a plethora of lineups. But the team has been on a steady roll in the past two months.
Just .500 (19-19) in mid-January, the Celtics have gone 23-11 since, the second straight year a Brad Stevens-coached team made a second-half ascension. But the stakes are higher this season. With expectations low, the Celtics sneaked into the playoffs as the seventh seed with 40 wins last year.
This season Boston is tied for third place in the Eastern Conference but just a half-game from sixth place. And the schedule conveniently includes consecutive games against their closest playoff challengers, Atlanta (on the road), Charlotte and Miami, to end the season.
But that’s a good thing. A team that believes it is overlooked and underrated, that believes it has been prepared for big games, now gets 10 of them. If anything, the Celtics will be playoff ready when mid-April arrives.
“We’ve come a long way,” point guard Isaiah Thomas said. “We’ve finally got a full season to really be with each other and really jell together. There were lows in this season we definitely [didn’t] want to hit, but at the same time, we played a pretty good year and we’re not finished. There’s (10) more games left and we’ve got finish the season off on a good note.”
The focus is there, but the Celtics were potentially dealt a blow when shooting guard Avery Bradley couldn’t travel because of an illness, but he could join the team during the trip. The Celtics need to be at or near full strength but a two-day break between games against the Clippers and Trail Blazers could give Bradley and Crowder time to return.
The days of low expectations or the Celtics being considered an upstart team are over. Boston is considered a formidable opponent. And this journey could potentially galvanize this team, although no club would choose late March for a five-game West Coast swing.
The incentive and motivation are there. Miami, Charlotte and Atlanta are playing its best basketball of the season. The Celtics would consider home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs a benchmark, and they have been one of the best home teams in the NBA in the past two months.
This trip has been in the back of the players’ minds for weeks. They long to play in Los Angeles, especially against Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and the Clippers. Damian Lillard said after the Celtics whipped the Trail Blazers in Boston that he was looking forward to the rematch, and Portland is playing to earn the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Boston, although the chances are slim, could make history on this trip with its April 1 game against the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have won an NBA record 51 consecutive home games entering Friday’s contest against the Dallas Mavericks.
The Warriors need to go 9-2 in their last 11 games to beat the regular-season record of 72 wins set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Golden State desperately needs that home win against the Celtics with two games remaining against the rival San Antonio Spurs. And finally, the trip ends with a game against the Lakers, Kobe Bryant’s final appearance against the Celtics.
This is one of the more significant Celtics road trips in the past few years and the players appear ready to respond to the enormity of the situation. And it’s games like these for which that Stevens has prepared them.
The Celtics have taken a significant step forward as a franchise so they won’t be overlooked, and Stevens and the players wouldn’t want it any other way.