To even a diehard Celtics fan, the regular season, at times, can feel like a snooze. We know the Celtics are good, we know they are going to the playoffs. Let me rest until we get there.
Not to take anything for granted, but with a veteran team built to win a title, it is sometimes easy to look forward to the playoffs as the point where the real intrigue will begin.
But thankfully, the NBA schedule makers have provided us with a mid-season wake-up call. Beginning Thursday night, Boston will play three games in four nights against the Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks, and Los Angeles Lakers.
Due to injuries and uneven play, it has been difficult to gauge just how good this Celtics team is and can be. That is why this stretch of games is so important. Coming on the heels of Patriots and Red Sox seasons that were both characterized as not measuring up against the elite teams, we all want to know whether this Celtics team has more in common with the ’09 Pats and Sox or do they have the make-up for a title run like the ’07-08 C’s?
Enter the Lakers, Hawks and Magic, who have the second, fifth, and seventh best records, respectively, in the NBA this season, combining for a .689 winning percentage. The Celtics, at 29-13 (.690), have the third best record.
The stretch begins Thursday night in Orlando. Defense has been the way to victory in each of the two Celtic-Magic meetings this year. On Christmas day, Boston, without Paul Pierce, held Orlando to just 33-percent shooting from the floor and 19-percent from three (5-26), on its way to an 86-77 win.
Back on November 20, in Boston, it was Orlando that put the clamps down on the Celtics offense in an 83-78 victory. Boston shot just 34-percent from the floor and made only two of 19 three-point attempts.
The key match-up will no doubt be All-Star center Dwight Howard against should-be All-Star center Kendrick Perkins. Howard has the recognition but it is Perkins who has kept Howard to just seven points per game this year in the two meetings, ten points off of Howard’s season average and his lowest output against any opponent.
After the Orlando game, the Celtics will then move up the East Coast for a game at Atlanta on Friday night.
By now, I hope, we are all taking this Atlanta team seriously.
Maybe we weren’t before. Yes, the Hawks forced the Celtics to seven games in the 2008 playoffs. But considering that Boston won its four games in the series by an average of 25.0 points and then swept all four meetings last year, it is likely no one was too worried about the Hawks being a roadblock to the Celtics this year.
The Hawks, however, have established themselves as serious contenders in the East. They have won all three meetings between the teams this year, including two wins earlier this month.
Joe Johnson continues to be a thorn in the side of the team that drafted him, averaging 24.0 points per game against Boston this year, including 36 in the previous meeting.
Atlanta stormed out of the gates to an 11-2 record and then were 19-6 before dropping six of nine. But entering their game with the Spurs on Wednesday night, the Hawks have won eight of ten and currently are a game up on the Orlando Magic and only a half-game back from the Celtics.
Boston played the previous two meetings against Atlanta without Kevin Garnett, and the last one was also without Rasheed Wallace. Nevertheless, the Hawks are a young, confident team that, though at times inconsistent, they bring their A-game when going up against the Celtics.
With Boston likely to win the Atlantic Division, it is probable that the Celtics will wind up facing either the Hawks or the Magic, whichever team holds on to win the Southeast Division, in the second round of the playoffs.
No need to over-hype a Celtics-Lakers game, but these are the last two NBA Champions, and the teams with the second and third best records in the league at the moment.
Last season, in addition to winning the title, the Lakers swept the season series with Boston, a year after the Celtics beat L.A. for the title and swept the regular season series.
We all know about Kobe Bryant, who despite being 31 and having played in well over 1,100 regular season and playoff games, is still averaging 28 points, five rebounds, five assists, and nearly 40 minutes played per game.
A Laker to watch, who didn’t play in either game against Boston a year ago, is Shannon Brown. The Lakers are his fourth team in four seasons, but he may have found a home in L.A. He is averaging nearly eight points per game in 20-minutes a game, and his points and minutes per game have both increased in each month this season.
The Lakers had a 28-6 record on January 5, but then dropped five of their next ten. But they still have Kobe, they still are coached by Phil Jackson, and they still remain defending champs.
The Celtics hope to take back that title from the Lakers. This three game stretch may tell us a great deal about whether or not they are capable of doing just that.