Tougher times straight ahead
Injuries, schedule making it difficult
WALTHAM — Regardless of their current state, the Celtics’ focus is on maintaining consistency. Letdowns are always in the back of players’ minds, especially when things are going well.
The Celtics head into tonight’s matchup with the Denver Nuggets, winners of seven straight, but ailing and vulnerable. Last season, Boston began 23-5, ran into turbulence on a West Coast road trip, and wound up going 27-27 in its last 54 games.
Again, the Celtics have shot to the top of the Eastern Conference, yet they are quite aware of the pitfalls. Four players missed practice yesterday, forcing coach Doc Rivers to shuffle lineups and give little-used players extensive time with the first and second teams.
The schedule this month is a minefield. A tough matchup with the Nuggets is followed by road games at Philadelphia, Charlotte, and New York. There are two meetings with improved Indiana, a home matchup with athletic Atlanta, a Christmas Day game against Orlando, a meeting with Detroit, and a New Year’s Eve game with New Orleans.
And the Celtics are shorthanded for the short term. Nate Robinson (personal reasons), Glen Davis (illness), Rajon Rondo (hamstring), and Shaquille O’Neal (knee) all missed practice. Robinson is expected to return today. Davis was sent home as soon as he reported a high fever. Rondo and O’Neal are questionable for tonight.
“We can’t get too comfortable with the win streak,’’ said Paul Pierce. “We’ve been playing well and everything, but we’ve got to understand we got bigger goals, and it’s not about a seven- or eight-game win streak but for the long run and expect a hungry Denver team coming in.’’
With the injuries, Rivers slid Pierce, Ray Allen, and Avery Bradley into the point guard position yesterday. At one point, Luke Harangody was moved to center and began giggling because he’s barely a power forward. Kevin Garnett quickly reminded his rookie teammate to take the assignment seriously. Harangody may have to play the 5 during a game.
“You have to create a practice,’’ said Rivers. “It’s good for them.
“You have to go over your whole defense again because everybody’s in different positions. But it’s gotta happen. We gotta get healthy.’’
Coach is mourned Rivers spoke about the passing of his former Marquette coach, Hank Raymonds, whom he credits for helping him become a standout NBA player. Rivers was close with the coach, who died of cancer Monday at 86. Raymonds succeeded the legendary Al McGuire and was coach at Marquette from 1977-83.
“He was very important for me,’’ said Rivers. “I flew back probably three or four times this summer just to see him.
“Honestly, I would not be here without him, in a lot of ways. He saved me as a person. He’s one of those coaches who cared far more about the kid than actually even the program. There’s very few college coaches like that anymore. I wish there was a lot more.’’
Raymonds led Marquette to five NCAA Tournament appearances in six seasons despite the large shadow left by McGuire, who captured the NCAA title in 1977.
“It was a tough situation for Coach,’’ Rivers said. “Replacing a legend like Al was very difficult. He did great. We had a great run. He’s just a terrific person.’’
Raymonds called Rivers every day while the Celtics were in the playoffs last season, but when the calls began to tail off, Rivers found out his coach was growing ill.
“I got to see him a week before the season,’’ Rivers said. “He was still pretty much there and we got to spend a lot of time together.’’
Working at it Jermaine O’Neal returned to the practice court yesterday, working on free throws and post moves with assistant coach Roy Rogers. O’Neal did not speak with the media, and there is no timetable on his return. Rivers said he won’t play O’Neal until he’s completely healthy . . . Former Celtic Antoine Walker officially became a member of the D-League’s Idaho Stampede, who are 0-7, and will play tonight against the Dakota Wizards. “I love the game,’’ said Walker, “and being out of the game for the past year and a half has been very difficult. I’m getting the chance to do what I love to do every day, and I want to help the team turn things around and get back to being a competitive playoff team.’’ . . . Garnett recorded his 10th double-double of the season Sunday in New Jersey, in the Celtics’ 20th game. He had 10 double-doubles in 69 games last season.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.