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The long road ahead

Eight-game trip huge for Celtics

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / March 11, 2012
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LOS ANGELES - So it begins here with a bitter rivalry game. It’s Game 275 all-time against the Lakers, but Game 1 of a road trip that likely will define the final run of the Celtics’ Big Three.

Eight games covering all four time zones sandwiched around a trade deadline (Thursday) that has every Celtic skittish since the shocking swap of Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder 13 months ago.

The Celtics are 21-18 after Friday’s rather stunning 104-86 romp over the Trail Blazers, a game in which they led by as many as 43 points.

And with teams such as the Pacers, Hawks, and Knicks struggling, the Celtics have an opportunity to thrust through the Eastern Conference standings, perhaps to the third slot behind the Bulls and Heat.

The Celtics have played a home-heavy schedule through 39 games, but 18 of their final 27 are away from TD Garden, and the home crowd seemed stunned when it was announced that the victory over Portland was the final Friday night game of the regular season.

Like an old singing group making that one final tour before its breakup, the Celtics band hits the road.

“One idea that I was thinking about was having guys who are on the bench step up and play well for us,’’ said Ray Allen when asked how the Celtics can revive their title hopes in the next two weeks. “I think that makes us stronger.

“To start games, our focus has to be there. It has to be up, greater than it has been. We have to be focused.’’

The Celtics begin things Sunday in Los Angeles against the Lakers and then play the Clippers Monday. Two nights later, they face dangerous Golden State, followed by Sacramento Friday, Denver next Saturday, Atlanta a week from Monday, and they finish with Milwaukee March 22 and Philadelphia March 23.

Because of the lockout, the Celtics have been forced to make one West Coast road swing instead of two, and there’s nothing like adding on a couple of conference games on the way back East.

The prospects for success appear bleak. The Celtics are 5-10 on the road and have dropped six of seven, including a 32-point drubbing by Philadelphia last Wednesday.

In the past, the Celtics intimidated opponents on the road; now they take solace in positive stretches of road losses, hoping they develop momentum. Moral victories this time could cost the Celtics a valuable playoff seed.

“When you look at it,’’ said Kevin Garnett, “it’s kind of quite scary just because of the lack of rest and back-to-backs and the travel. But when you take it a game at a time, you know . . . it’s still what it is.

“I was going to adjust that. No, it’s all messed up. I want to use another word but I won’t. It’s difficult, but we’re going to take it a game at a time.

“This is the longest that I can remember.’’

Execution has been the key to the Celtics’ recent success (six wins in seven games). Rajon Rondo has flourished, and the Celtics are getting off to better starts - unlike the first 25 games. Coach Doc Rivers acknowledges that rebounding is never going to be this team’s strength, but it has to be an emphasis against more physical and aggressive opponents.

“We have to do a better job on rebounding, actually,’’ said Paul Pierce, whose team is last in the NBA with 38.9 rebounds per game. “We’re doing a good job of not turning the ball over, but we saw some things the way we were moving the ball. But if we can rebound at a high rate out West, I think I like our chances.’’

In what is most likely the last season for the Big Three, this extraordinarily long trip could serve as an opportunity for the Celtics to galvanize. They were the hottest band when they hit the road in 2007-08, taking inferior opponents out early with flawless first quarters.

That team was 31-10 on the road, but each of the next three seasons, the record away from TD Garden has gotten progressively worse. But there is confidence that that can change.

“The road does have the tendency to reel everybody in that way because you’re spending more time on airplanes and buses,’’ Allen said. “I may speak to my wife a lot more when I am on the road, but I going to be around these guys a lot more, so my conversations are going to be more with my teammates.’’

Rondo has collected four triple-doubles this season, and his name has been mentioned in trade rumors. He watched his best friend, Perkins, get dealt last season and the next few days could be nervous ones for him. But he insists he is concerned only about the road trip, and making a statement.

“We’ll be ready to go,’’ he said. “We have some big games ahead of us. We’re battling for seeding. I don’t think no one’s really worried about [the deadline]. Whatever happens, happens. We can’t be focused on all the trade talks. We’ve done a pretty good job throughout this trade talk of just getting wins.

“We’re professional, we’re an older team. Trades happen.’’

Chris Wilcox did not make the trip after it was determined that results from his recent cardiac tests have required further testing.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.

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