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Celtics begin tough stretch against Western Conference opponents

Friday night’s victory was the Celtics’ sixth in a row, and they have also won nine of their last 10.BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF/Globe Staff

The Celtics have compiled a solid 11-6 record against the powerful Western Conference this season, although that mark is a bit deceiving. Ten of those games have come against teams that currently sit among the bottom six in the West. But the rest of this month will offer a much better gauge of how Boston stacks up.

The next eight games will come against Western Conference teams. Six will come on the road, six will come against surefire playoff teams, and that doesn’t even include a game at Portland against the hottest player in the NBA, Damian Lillard. The only respite, if it can be called that, is the Feb. 21 game in Minneapolis against the Timberwolves, who just added former All-Star De’Angelo Russell.


The treacherous stretch begins with this two-game trip to Oklahoma City and Houston. The Thunder figured to be in a bit of a rebuild mode when they traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George last summer and collected a boatload of future draft picks in return.

But veteran All-Star Chris Paul and rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — two pieces the Thunder received in the George and Westbrook deals — have combined to give Oklahoma City one of the league’s most fearsome backcourts.

“I think that Oklahoma City’s had a heck of the year and they present a lot of problems,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Excellent, excellent play all the way up and down their lineup and look really connected, and one of my favorite teams to watch in the league this year. So it’ll be real challenge.”

The Rockets, meanwhile, just underwent a slight midseason facelift, trading center Clint Capela in a three-team deal that netted them former Timberwolves wing Robert Covington, as they go all-in on small ball with the 6-foot-5-inch P.J. Tucker as their starting center.


This 3-point-splashing, screen-switching, speedy group went to Los Angeles and stunned the Lakers on Thursday night, leading the NBA world to wonder if this approach just might work. Then Houston lost to the Suns by 36 on Friday, although Westbrook sat out and it was the second game of a back-to-back set.

“It’s tough,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “You’ve got two teams that are playing really good basketball and we have to go into their house and try to come out with a win. This is something that we need right before the break and it’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be a great test . . . If you don’t like a challenge you shouldn’t be here.”

Stretches such as this one will become the norm for the Celtics over the final two months of the regular season. Their remaining schedule is tied for the fourth toughest in the NBA, with opponents holding a combined winning percentage of .527. The three teams with harder schedules are all in the Western Conference.

By winning six games in a row and nine of their last 10, the Celtics have helped break up the five-team logjam behind the Bucks in the Eastern Conference, with the slumping 76ers and Pacers settling into the fifth and six slots.

But the Raptors and Heat remain formidable, and both have favorable remaining schedules. Toronto, which has won 13 games in a row and leads the third-place Celtics by 1½ games, has the 16th most-difficult remaining schedule.


The fourth-place Heat, who sit two games behind the Celtics, have just the 27th-toughest remaining schedule, as their opponents have a combined winning percentage of .463.

Boston has dealt with nagging injuries all season, and its hope is to inch closer to full strength for Sunday’s game in Oklahoma City. Gordon Hayward is expected to return after missing Friday’s win over the Hawks to rest and mend assorted bumps and bruises. But center Daniel Theis and forward Jaylen Brown are both considered day to day as they recover from ankle sprains.

The absences have created opportunities elsewhere, however. Rookie Grant Williams continues to improve and has turned into one of the team’s most reliable bench options. And over the last two games, rookie wing Romeo Langford has shown that he can be trusted in important spots, too.

He entered Wednesday’s game against the Magic with just 32 points and 12 rebounds all season. But he started against Orlando and played key crunch-time minutes against the Hawks and has 22 points and six rebounds over his last two games.

“Coach Stevens tells us young players that the way we get on the court is with defense, and him trusting us in the defensive end,” Langford said. “That’s what I work on, as well as my shooting.”

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach
. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.