15 games left. The playoffs await the Boston Celtics after only 15 more games.
As Kendrick Perkins says, every team is 0-0 when the playoffs roll around. That’s true. But you know what else is true? Teams that can’t beat other good teams don’t fare well in the playoffs.
Tonight, it’s time. Time for a big win. Time to start a winning streak against opponents that actually deserve to be playing in the NBA. Time for the return of the team the Celtics were supposed to be.
The Houston Rockets may not seem like a great measuring stick. If the season were to end today, they wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. But do you want to hear a startling fact? If you discount wins against the Lakers (Kobe was hurt) and the Blazers (everybody was hurt), a win tonight against the Rockets would mark Boston’s best since Christmas.
Coupled with three dominant home performances in a row, a “W” tonight would provide the Celtics a springboard to the toughest portion of their schedule. Tonight begins a string of nine games, eight against the Western Conference, eight against winning teams, capped by a home tilt against the league-leading Cavaliers on April 4.
The Celtics play in Houston tonight, Dallas tomorrow, and Utah two days after that. (From Dallas to Utah? Doc Rivers says, “I don’t think I’ve ever done that. Not since I’ve been here. That’s a strange one.”) Two days after Utah, they’re at home against the Denver Nuggets. They take a breather against Sacramento, then continue a home stand with San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston (again), and finally finish the brutal string of games with the aforementioned clash against the Cavs. For a team used to beating elite opponents, that’s the schedule from hell. For the Celtics? It’s nothing but a test.
Are they worthy of being considered a contender? Can they make a late run to regain their status among the NBA’s elite? Or is the season all but over, as it seemed when Boston was beaten into submission by the Cleveland Cavaliers, less than a week ago?
If you have doubts about this Celtics team, you are part of a list as wide and ever-growing as Tiger Woods’ detractors. Some nights, they’ve looked every bit the team expected to challenge the NBA record of 72 wins, and others they’ve looked like a team that should be challenging the New Jersey Nets for NBA wretchedness. They win on the road, lose at home, and confound everybody who watches them from one night to the next. Through it all, one constant has remained, as steady as Ray Allen at the line: The Celtics can’t beat good teams. Not on the road, not at home, not on weekdays, or weekends, or on outside courts with chain nets. The C’s haven’t beaten a contender since Christmas, and there is no denying that fact.
Yet they look like they’re rounding into shape. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce look better than they have all season. Ray Allen has found his shooting touch. Rajon Rondo is learning how to balance keeping the Big Three happy and continuing to be aggressive himself. They haven’t yet done it against the Big Boys, but the Celtics are starting to resemble the team we believed we’d see all season long.
Now, they need to make us believe. To make themselves believe. They’ve got an opportunity to put it all together, to enter the playoffs with momentum, confidence and a couple wins they can take pride in.
The schedule is daunting, and it’s going to be a challenge. But with the Celtics looking to peak heading into the postseason, and desperately needing to prove themselves against teams that have a chance to be playing into June, perhaps the schedule from hell couldn’t have come at a better time.
Only the next nine games will tell.