It’s one thing to beat Sacto, or the Kobe-less Lakers, or the wounded Blazers. It’s another to beat the Denver Nuggets, at full strength, on the fourth game of a pivotal post-All-Star game road swing through the West coast.
3-1, and questions flood back in. Winning three out of four games would normally be a great record for a team trying to regain its winning ways in the midst of a trying four-game road trip. But for a Celtics team looking to not only get back on track but also to stamp its re-arrival among the exclusive pack of championship contenders, 3-1 is nothing but a letdown. These Celtics need to beat Denver, to prove to themselves and the rest of the NBA that they are capable of competing with the best of the best. Not to mention to let me sleep a little better tonight.
When Pau Gasol said the difference between this season’s Celtics and the champion Celtics of 2008 was that they are now “three years older and three years later,” you probably wanted to choke his Spanish ass out. His hesitancy to put the C’s among the group of contenders probably made you want to chop off his goofy hair and strangle him with it.
But facts are facts. Boston hasn’t beaten a contender since Christmas Day. (Sorry, I don’t consider a Bryant-less Lakers team to be a contender. No way.) Since then, they’ve been throttled by Atlanta, had their hearts broken by Orlando and L.A., and been smoked — at home — in their other meeting with the Magic. Against contenders, the only winning mark they have is against Cleveland, and their win against the Cavs in the teams’ only meeting came way back on opening night, when the Lebron James-Shaq experiment was still destined to fail.
All the C’s losing against the league’s best points to a reeling team in desperate need of a big win. Win tonight, and L.A., Orlando, Cleveland, Atlanta and Denver will all be served notice: the Celtics they know and fear will be back full force, ready to finally wreak some havoc.
But lose, and all the doubts flood back in. Are the Celtics too old? Are the too banged up? Do they have what it takes?
Today’s a big game. There’s no arguing that. Considering the timing, maybe even the biggest the Celtics have played all year. The need to fight against the altitude, ‘Melo, a physical team with legitimate championship aspirations, and their own tired legs of a team playing its fourth game in six days some 3,000 miles from its home court.
With all that going against them, losing would seem likely. But this is no time for excuses, and no time for losing.
It’s time for a championship contender to rise from the ashes and spread its wings.
Three things to look for in tonight’s game:
- Will Ray Allen’s hot streak continue? – Ever since the trade deadline passed and Ray Allen learned he would remain a Boston Celtic at least for the remainder of the season, it seems like he hasn’t missed. With Ray throwing daggers like the Jesus Shuttlesworth of old, the Celtics are a different team. His hot shooting stops other team’s runs cold or extends the C’s own runs with one quick flick of the wrist.
- Billups vs. Rondo - Rajon Rondo sometimes struggles to defend strong point guards, and Billups is just about as strong as lead guards come. Billups has also — very quietly — been having one of the best seasons of his career. Rondo’s got a tough task.
- Paul Pierce vs. ‘Melo – Lost in the three-game winning streak has been a struggling Paul Pierce. Pierce has averaged only 12.3 ppg during the winning streak, shooting only 36.3% from the floor in that time. If he wants to get back on track, he’ll have to do it against Carmelo Anthony. Not the easiest thing to do. I’d rather see Pierce focus more on the defensive side of the ball, to limit ‘Melo as much as he can.