If not for a few scheduling-gifted wins over the sputtering Brooklyn Nets and lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, the Boston Celtics would be in complete disarray.
Even with those two victories, coach Doc Rivers' team has dropped four of its past six games. Boston's new big three (Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) continue to play spirited basketball, but their supporting cast has failed to match that level of play.
It's an unenviable position as it is, but it only gets worse with a road matchup looming with the NBA's hottest team.
The second game on Boston's four-game road trip features a visit to the Staples Center for Thursday night's meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers.
While the Celtics have faltered, the Clippers have embarked on a franchise-best 14-game winning streak.
Coach Vinny Del Negro's team isn't simply defeating teams, it's dismantling them. Ten of those 14 wins have come by double figures.
Boston has the kind of talent and experience to disrupt the Clippers' stretch. This interconference battle kicks off the two-game season series for these clubs, with the Clippers traveling to the TD Bank Garden on February 3, 2013.
Time: Thursday, December 27, 10:30 p.m. EST
Records: Boston Celtics (14-13), Los Angeles Clippers (22-6)
Betting Line: Clippers -8.5 (according to Vegas Insider Consensus)
Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
Avery Bradley (shoulder), out
Chris Wilcox (thumb), out
Chauncey Billups (foot), out
Grant Hill (knee), out
Trey Thompkins (knee), out
Rajon Rondo vs. Chris Paul
In terms of individual matchups, this is nearly as good as it gets in the NBA.
There may be more explosive point guards in the league, but these are unquestionably the two most complete floor generals the game has to offer.
Whatever struggles the Celtics have encountered this season have come at no fault of Rondo's. He leads the NBA with 11.9 assists per game, despite sharing the floor with just one player who averages more than 15 points per game (Pierce, 20.5).
Rondo understands the strengths and limitations of all of his teammates, and he knows how to put those players in position for offensive success. His court vision allows him that rare quality of not just finding open teammates, but using his passes to open them up.
Defensively, he's the benchmark for the position. With lateral quickness and a freakish wingspan, he harasses his man and clogs up passing lanes. He closes out well on shooters, understanding angles and the quickest approach to the shooter.
And he maximizes that strong defensive play with an uncanny ability to find rebounds. With 5.1 rebounds per game, Rondo ranks fourth on the Celtics and is tied with Russell Westbrook for the most of any point guard.
But Paul's no slouch on defense either. After just seven-plus seasons in the league, he's already cracked the top-75 career leaders in steals.
He's never averaged fewer than 1.8 steals per game (a number that would be good enough for the top 10 this season). Of course, his average is higher than that. His 2.7 steals per game are the NBA's best, which puts him on pace to lead the league in the category for the fifth time of his young career.
And he makes those plays, despite not being blessed with the kind of athleticism enjoyed by many of his peers. Instead, he simply outthinks his opponent, making his reads before his matchup does.
This matchup won't come down to defense, though. And it won't be decided by the distributing abilities of the top two creators in today's game.
What gives the Clippers the edge here is Paul's superior scoring ability. Their numbers this season don't highlight just how wide this gap really is. Paul has averaged 16 points per game, while Rondo has poured in 13.7.
But those numbers are more indicative of the strength of their supporting casts. When expanded to their career averages, Paul enjoys nearly an eight-point advantage (18.7 to 11.0).
Paul Pierce, Celtics
With the wealth of offensive weapons at Del Negro's disposal, Rivers will need all hands on deck to keep pace.
And the Boston coach has had no more reliable offensive weapon than his 14-year veteran small forward.
If age is catching up with the 35-year-old, he's got a funny way of showing it. He's only 1.5 points short of his career scoring average of 22 points per game. His 44.0 field-goal percentage is within a percentage point of his career mark, while his three-point (38.8) and free-throw (81.7) percentages are both ahead of his career numbers.
And he's stuffing his stat sheet in typical Pierce fashion. He's second on the team in both rebounds (5.7) and assists (3.9).
He'll have his hands full in this matchup, though. Between Caron Butler and Matt Barnes, Del Negro can keep a fresh defender on him at all times.
The Celtics have the veteran contingency to threaten the Clippers' winning streak.
Unfortunately, they're severely trailing in the talent department.
L.A.'s best players are either in the prime of their careers or still climbing toward that peak. As well as Pierce and Kevin Garnett have played, they're still not quite the players that they once were.
The Clippers' edge in youth and athleticism is one thing, but it takes on a new life with this club holding a clear size advantage. Coach Doc Rivers has criticized his team for playing soft, and the rebounding and defensive intensity have done nothing to shred that criticism.
All winning streaks eventually come to an end, but L.A.'s should be safe on this night.
Clippers 101, Celtics 93
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