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Celtics aiming to keep focus

Road trip ends vs. lowly Kings

After struggling two nights earlier against the Suns, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen lifted their games in a win over the Lakers. After struggling two nights earlier against the Suns, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen lifted their games in a win over the Lakers. (Alex Gallardo/Reuters)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / February 1, 2011

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SACRAMENTO —The Celtics don’t need any reminders for the big games.

Not long after the Celtics ran the Lakers off the floor Sunday at Staples Center, guard Rajon Rondo said, “We’ve got them again in less than 10 days.’’

It’s the potholes along the way that jolt the Celtics’ system. One night, they fall, 88-71, to Phoenix in an admitted “stinker’’ by coach Doc Rivers’s standards, and appear to be a fatigued, combustible team that stopped playing defense once their shots stopped falling. Then, with a day’s rest and seven months’ worth of pent-up NBA Finals frustration, they make the defending champion Lakers look like a struggling one-man operation, playing some of their most smothering defense of the season.

“I think the biggest thing with us is challenging ourselves every day, with every opponent,’’ Rondo said. “We’re always up for these types of games — the Lakers, the Heat, the teams supposed to be the teams to beat in the league. It’s just the teams that are under .500 that we’re struggling with right now. I think it’s a lack of focus. We’ve got to come mentally prepared better.’’

Only the Spurs and Mavericks have as many wins or more over teams with winning records. The Celtics have beaten seven of the teams currently among the top 10 in the standings, including the pace-setting Spurs, who’ve won 40 games with three weeks to go before the All-Star break. But more than half the Celtics losses have come against teams with losing records, and tonight’s opponent, the Kings, fits the description of a team that can lull the Celtics to sleep.

The Kings have rung two team’s alarms already, beating the Lakers at Staples Center just before the Celtics got there, then coming back to ARCO Arena and snapping New Orleans’s 10-game winning streak. The Celtics have won seven straight against the Kings, but if they bask in the afterglow of Sunday’s win, Sacramento could spoil their trip.

“We don’t want a letdown,’’ Rondo said. “We want to go into Sacramento and try to finish off this road trip right.’’

All of the Celtics losses to sub-.500 teams have either been trap games or wake-up calls. They drowned out a summer’s worth of hype and beat the Heat in their season opener, then went to Cleveland the next night, turned the ball over 19 times, and lost by 8.

After they let the Raptors steal a game in the final seconds at Air Canada Centre, giving up 100 points for the fourth time in a five-game stretch, they ripped off 14 straight wins.

The century mark is usually the breaking point for the Celtics — a number they never want to allow opponents to reach. The night Kevin Garnett strained his right calf in Detroit, the Pistons threw salt on the wound by ringing up 104 points. The Rockets put seven players in double figures and toasted the Celtics for 108 points Jan. 10, the most any team has scored at the Garden this season.

“You try to compete and go hard every night,’’ Kendrick Perkins said. “Obviously, you don’t want any letdowns, but it happens. I think it just takes focus.’’

In their last two slipups, defense wasn’t the issue. Washington only needed 85 points — and a 27-foot bank shot from John Wall — to eek out a 2-point win Jan. 22. The Suns only needed 88 points to beat Boston by 17.

The loss at Phoenix was the first absolute letdown — technical fouls led to ejections, poor shooting led to abandoned defense — and two days later they respond by beating the defending champions on their home floor.

“I don’t want to make excuses, but I thought we just played tired,’’ Paul Pierce said, explaining how the Celtics could go from scoring 71 points one night to 106 two nights later. “Obviously, if you get it over 100 points, you’ve got fresher legs, I guess.’’

Last year, the Celtics went 22-22 against teams with winning records, their worst mark in the new Big Three Era. They lost 10 games to losing teams (the Wizards, Nets, and Grizzlies all tagged the parquet), while the Lakers, Cavaliers, Spurs, and Magic all feasted on the scraps at the bottom of the league.

“We learned our lesson last year as a group that looked ahead,’’ Pierce said. “I thought that was the reason for our record, then when the playoffs came, we were able to turn it on, but we’re trying to play for home court. If we had home court last year, who knows?’’

The Celtics play four marquee matchups before the All-Star break (Dallas, Orlando, the Lakers, and Miami), but games against Charlotte and New Jersey sit in the schedule like trap doors.

“We know that moving forward we can’t have any hiccups,’’ said Ray Allen. “We’ve got to take care of business against everybody. We want to beat everybody. I don’t look any differently at anybody. I know that we are more focused in those games, but as the season progresses, we have to beat everybody.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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