The Boston Celtics stand on the precipice of their most difficult stretch of the season, coming off of one of their most successful.
The Celtics are 13-5 since the All-Star break and have seemingly come together after a trade deadline that came and went with nary a casualty. Experts both local and national predicted dozens of different scenarios to unfold at the trading deadline, but few if any predicted Danny Ainge and the Celtics to stand pat. While the jury will remain out on Ainge's to soldier on with the Big Four, in the short term it appears to be the right move.
The Celtics have been beating (most of) the teams that should be in the second half of the season; something that plagued them earlier in the year. The odor of losses to Phoenix, Cleveland and (ahh!!!) New Orleans remain ripe for Celtics fans. With their stinky start in the rear view mirror, the Celtics now have an opportunity show what type of team they can be in the playoffs, with eight consecutive games against solid teams.
|LR: "Eww. It smells like cigarettes and regret." KL: "Come closer. You need to learn my scent."|
Friday night the Celtics face the young, but talented Timberwolves in Minnesota. Wolves forward Kevin Love has been out of his mind recently. (And he has the ominous beard to prove it!) Love's second half numbers have people asking who was the better T-Wolf(ve?), Love or Kevin Garnett in his prime! Out loud! As crazy as that conversation may be to some, the fact that the scoring and rebounding numbers lend credence to the argument is astonishing in its own right. And let's not forget that beard! I'm enamored with how crazy he looks. He's like a big, burly woodsman, but with a sensitive side. Like if Paul Bunyan read poetry or organized a foliage themed book club. The issue for the Celtics on Friday, however, is that Love can dominate them physically as much as he can follicle-y. If the Celtics are going to get out of Minnesota they need to make sure that they collectively out-rebound Love.
The seven games following Minnesota are where the stretch gets extremely difficult.
Boston plays seven games in eleven days; four of which are at home, all of which are against playoff teams with better records. The Celtics face the first (Bulls), second (Heat), fourth (Sixers), fifth (Pacers), and sixth (Hawks) place teams in the Eastern Conference. This stretch will determine whether or not the last few weeks represented a marked change in the team, a corner turned, or a fluky streak against the dregs of the NBA.
The Celtics don't have to sweep this stretch, or even go 6-2, in order to prove to themselves that they are a worthy competitor in the East. If the Celtics compete in six of the eight, and win four of the seven after Minnesota, I think it will show that they have a puncher's chance to make a deep run in the playoffs. Remember, all you have to be is one game over .500 to win a playoff series. The Celtics proved that against Atlanta and Cleveland in 2008, and came close in the 2010 Finals. Now, if the four wins they get are against the Hawks, Pacers, Wolves and Sixers, we won't learn much. Boston has to beat the Heat and/or Chicago to prove to themselves, and to the top two seeds, that they can beat the best teams in the NBA.
These games aren't "must wins." They are five games ahead of the ninth place Bucks. The Celtics are going to the playoffs now matter how impressive they play in the next few weeks. What they do when they get there, however, may be foreshadowed by how they fare in the eight game stretch that lies ahead of them.
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