Every year, it seems like there is a stretch of games during the regular season that makes or breaks a team. That may not be as important to a team that is all but guaranteed to make the playoffs like the Boston Celtics, but it can still serve as a barometer to see what the club is really made of.
That critical part of the 2012-13 for the Celtics will begin right after the All-Star break and run right through the middle of March. What makes that stretch so crucial, you ask? Well, during that three week period, Boston plays nine of its 11 games on the road, and almost all of those games will come against quality teams.
This past year, the C's made their move at the conclusion of the All-Star break, going 24-10 after trudging into the hiatus with a 15-17 record.
Hopefully this season, they won't be in such a position.
Let's examine these 11 games.
Thankfully, this game comes right after the All-Star break and is not smack dab in the middle of this brutal stretch.
We all know the Nuggets like to run, and we all know how much more difficult it can be to contain them in the high altitudes of their home floor. Opposing teams can easily get gassed running up and down the floor with the Nuggets in Denver, and the last thing the Celtics want is an already taxed Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in this type of contest.
Although the Nuggets lack star power, they are one of the deepest teams in the league, and they are built to get out in the open court all game. Think of them as a much better version of the Philadelphia 76ers.
The main positive here for Boston is that while Denver can score with the best of them (it was tops in the league in points per game in 2012), it also gets lit up like a Christmas tree on the other end. Only the Sacramento Kings allowed more points per contest than the Nuggets did this past year, and with a new and improved C's offense, that could spell trouble for George Karl and company.
Regardless, this will be a tough game for the Celtics.
Talk about a tough back-to-back.
The Celtics go from Denver to Los Angeles to battle their historic rivals the very next day.
This has "loss" written all over it for Boston, as this game would be the Lakers' first after the All-Star break. Plus, if you go into the season expecting to split with L.A., the game you'd think you would win would be at TD Garden, which comes about two weeks earlier. You generally don't mark a game at the Staples Center down as a win. Not against the Lakers, anyway.
After engaging what will most likely be a run-and-gun shootout with the Nuggets, going to Los Angeles to play the big Lakers looks that much more difficult. With Dwight Howard now in tow, L.A. is as physical as ever, and you have to wonder how many minutes Garnett will be able to play in a game of this nature.
While the Suns are no pushovers, they are certainly not as tall of a task as the Nuggets or the Lakers. Phoenix does not have altitude issues nor does it have Howard and Pau Gasol, so the Celtics get a bit of a breather here.
The Suns do have a solid frontcourt with the likes of Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola, but that is hardly anything to lose sleep over. Let's also remember that instead of seeing Steve Nash here, we saw him two nights ago in Los Angeles. That alone makes Phoenix a much easier opponent than it has been in years.
And hey, Jared Dudley has recently said that he would like to play in Boston, so maybe he'll go easy on the C's?
The Trail Blazers will not be a playoff team this season, but there is no doubt that they will be a thorn in the side to contenders.
It's not as if Portland is bereft of talent, as it owns one of the game's best big men in LaMarcus Aldridge, a Rudy Gay-type small forward in Nicolas Batum, a solid shooting guard in Wesley Matthews, plus a rookie point guard who is becoming a trendy pick for the Rookie of the Year award in Damian Lillard.
Don't think for a minute that a young team like the Blazers won't get up for a team like the Celtics, because they will. Portland is the type of club that treats these kinds of games as its own NBA Finals, and Boston better be prepared for that.
It is also well-known that the Rose Garden is one of the toughest places to play in the league, so this will not be any kind of cakewalk for the C's.
Another back-to-back, and another tough one, at that.
The Jazz made the postseason as a No. 8 seed in 2012, and one would assume that they will only improve upon that seeding in 2013.
Utah is one of the more underrated teams in the league, as it may very well boast the deepest frontcourt in the entire NBA. Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter? Are you kidding me? Of course, due to the fact that both of their contracts are expiring, there is a good chance that one of Jefferson or Millsap will not be wearing a Jazz uniform past the trade deadline, but still.
Utah also has one of the game's more talented young wings in Gordon Hayward who improved month-by-month during his sophomore year in 2012.
Fortunately for the Celtics, the Jazz don't really have anyone who can even attempt to contain Rajon Rondo. Regardless, this will be a tough game.
The nice thing about this game is that the Celtics get two big breaks before and after, so they will get to rest their likely weary legs by this point. You know what else is nice? It's a home game.
That said, the Warriors are anything but an easy opponent. There is a very good chance that Golden State makes the playoffs this year, as it has a talent-laden and fairly deep roster.
Should Andrew Bogut stay healthy, he and David Lee will comprise what will be a very formidable frontline, but fortunately, Garnett and company will be well-rested for the challenge. Perhaps the most worrisome part about the Warriors is their ability to get out in transition, but, again, Boston will have pretty fresh legs for this contest.
Just looking at the schedule, I like the C's' chances in this one.
Remember last year when the Celtics were always playing the 76ers on the back-end of back-to-backs? Well, in this one, Boston gets a full four days rest before traveling to Philadelphia.
For the first time in this stretch, the C's are playing a divisional opponent, so that obviously increases the magnitude of this game. Of course, the Sixers could be so far behind the Celtics by this point of the season that you would need a telescope to see them, but for the sake of this article, let's pretend they are not.
There is no doubt that Boston will be up for this game, as you sensed a different kind of feeling whenever these two teams matched up last year as opposed to seasons past. It just seemed like a rivalry was developing, and the seven-game series in the playoffs confirmed that.
Garnett in particular will be raring and ready to take on Andrew Bynum (as will Jason Collins, as it is these types of matchups that highlight why GM Danny Ainge signed him in the first place), and Pierce will just be salivating at the prospect of having Evan Turner defend him instead of the departed Andre Iguodala.
Mark this one down on your calendar, folks. It could be a big one, and it will mark the final time these two division rivals meet during the 2012-13 regular season.
Well, here is another one of those back-to-backs. Fortuitously, the Celtics will come into this contest having only played two games in the past eight days, so it might not be all that bad.
All of that aside, the Pacers are a tough opponent no matter what. Collins will come into play again here, as K.G. cannot defend 7'2" Roy Hibbert all by himself. Boston will also need to find a way to hold David West, and let's not forget that the Pacers have an up-and-coming star in Paul George who can give Pierce fits with his stingy perimeter defense.
Although I don't think Indiana ultimately has enough to seriously challenge the C's or the Miami Heat in the playoffs, it certainly has enough to do some damage against either squad during the regular season.
This will be one of the more difficult nights Boston will have to endure during this 11-game stretch.
Almost there, C's. Almost there.
This marks the second and only home game of this 11-game run for the Celtics, and while it isn't against an easy adversary, it's a very winnable game.
Boston will be playing an Atlanta Hawks team sans Joe Johnson, so one would imagine that the Hawks would be a fringe playoff club at this point. Atlanta doesn't really have any one particular player that will cause the C's any significant problems, and who knows? By this time in 2013, Josh Smith may be playing elsewhere.
The key here for the Celtics is just to not get caught looking ahead to their next game against...
...the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder were a matchup nightmare for the Celtics last year, possessing the most athletic trio in the league in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Plus, they were able to throw both Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka at Garnett, a luxury that no other team in the league has.
With the additions Boston made during the offseason, the club is now much better-equipped to deal with Oklahoma City. Still, it will be an extremely tall task, especially when the game is in OKC.
This will be the last tough game the C's play during this run.
Don't exhale yet, though. There is still one more game left.
I included this game on here for two reasons.
One, it represents the ninth road game the Celtics will play in 11 games, and two, Boston occasionally lays eggs in these types of contests.
Let's say the C's beat the Thunder in Oklahoma City two days earlier. There is a chance that they will be on such an emotional high that they come into this game against the Bobcats very flat. It's not like they haven't done it before (remember that disastrous loss against the Toronto Raptors late in the season this past year?).
Chances are, the Celtics will win this game rather handily, but you never know.
And so ends the 11-game stretch.