THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Celtics had a productive trip, with just one stumble

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / February 3, 2011

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SACRAMENTO — With everything the Celtics managed to accomplish on their trip out West — winning a physical contest with the Trail Blazers, sending the Lakers’ season into more turmoil, and finishing up with a comeback win over the Kings — the ugly loss to Phoenix still sticks out, mostly because it felt inevitable to them.

“It always seems like we get stuck in a weird position when we go down there,’’ Ray Allen said. “You’ve still got to come out and play.’’

They did. But when Paul Pierce missed his first four shots, Allen started 1 for 5, and the Suns forced the Celtics into six early turnovers, all the outside factors — the bad flights, the time change, the fatigue — started to gain weight.

“That was a tough game for us,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “Just the travel. Flying to Portland seven hours, flying to Phoenix, getting in at 4 in the morning, going to bed at 5:30 or whatever. That was just a tough game for us.’’

The four-game trip felt like it took forever. The Celtics couldn’t get out of Phoenix Friday night because of fog, arriving in Los Angeles a day later than scheduled, then snowstorms made it impossible to get out of Sacramento Tuesday night.

The schedule doesn’t get any easier once the Celtics return home. The Dallas Mavericks are scheduled to be at TD Garden tomorrow night, and the Celtics wrap up their season series with Orlando Sunday. Then after going to Charlotte Monday, the Celtics meet the Lakers again next Thursday.

“It gets tougher, but at least we’re home,’’ Rivers said. “The two-day break is nice, even though we’re not going to get it now. Dallas, then Orlando, it just gets tough, and that’s fine. We just had to get through this stretch first.’’

The challenges on the trip went beyond travel.

Kevin Garnett knew he’d have his hands full with the Lakers’ Pau Gasol, but LaMarcus Aldridge was a tough draw in Portland, and an incident with the Suns’ Channing Frye sparked a minor scuffle in Phoenix. Tuesday night was supposed to be a chance to initiate Kings rookie DeMarcus Cousins into the league, but Cousins was too busy going for 20 points and six rebounds to kiss rings.

“These young guys have been having some unbelievable stretches,’’ Garnett said. “The young boy was doing really well, and I was locked into slowing him down, giving him different looks.’’

At the same time, Shaquille O’Neal’s numbers have dived the past two months. After going for 12.8 points and 7.6 rebounds a night in November, O’Neal scored 8.8 points and grabbed 3.8 rebounds in December and dropped to 7.9 points and 3.9 rebounds in January, a month in which he missed three games because of a hip injury.

But Rivers was content with the six rebounds O’Neal was able to grab in 13 minutes in Los Angeles.

“Shaq actually played well,’’ Rivers said. “We would have liked him to play more minutes, with the fouls. But I thought Shaq was terrific in the time he was on the floor. To have six rebounds in that short a period of time, it set the tone for us.

“We know, like they know, we came into that game knowing rebounding would be the difference. He really set an early tone that it was going to be one-and-done on the offensive glass for them, and it was.’’

The Celtics showed they could dominate an elite team, but they also can still lose focus and slip up. With that in mind, they look at themselves as a team with room to improve. Delonte West, coming off a broken wrist, traveled with the team for the first time this season and has a meeting with doctors this week. He hopes to be cleared for practice soon and wants to return this month, giving the Celtics added depth.

“We like the position we’re in because we’re still getting better,’’ Allen said. “I’m looking forward to seeing Delonte coming back and us getting stronger as the season moves forward.’’

The Celtics will be a different team after the All-Star break, but after excelling on the road, their next task is simply surviving the games up to All-Star weekend.

“We’ve got so many big games coming before the break, it’s hard to really look forward,’’ Pierce said. “We’re playing, it seems like, every other night a contender, a top team in basketball. Going into the All-Star break, it’s going to be our toughest stretches of games. Even though we play a lot of them at home, it’s going to be a lot of good teams.

“I take pride in getting better. Wins and losses do say a lot, but we know when we’re playing good basketball. We won in Portland, but we didn’t feel like we were getting better that game. We regressed in Phoenix.

“So it’s about us playing better basketball going into the playoffs regardless of what our record is, because those records go out the window once the playoffs start.’’

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

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