At 31-27, the Boston Celtics enter the home stretch of the 2012-13 season with a difficult week of basketball. Over a four-game, six-day stretch, the C's face three playoff-bound opponents and encounter three away games.
They can only hope to escape with a 2-2 split, as the odds will not be in Boston's favor.
The Celtics have lost 18 of their 28 games on the road, and sit at only 16-18 against teams with records above .500. Coach Doc Rivers' squad will log 3,600 combined miles of air travel by Sunday, and will meet opponents with a combined win-loss record of 137-98.
Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers - Tuesday March 5
The easiest game of the week, a Tuesday face-off with the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center, will not be as effortless as fans would hope. Philly always plays Boston tough, especially at home.
The 76ers have taken two of three versus the Celtics this season, and five of eight since 2011. The Green has failed to win in Philadelphia since 2010.
Evan Turner's Sixers may be a lowly 23-35, 6.5 games out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, but they continue to battle. A run at the eighth seed (currently held by the reeling Milwaukee Bucks) certainly seems improbable with 24 games left, but not impossible. Philly will likely set the tone with an up-tempo, fast-paced offense.
Before their last meeting at the Garden, 76ers coach Doug Collins emphasized the importance of running against the elder Celtics. Philly's starting lineup has an average age of 24 years, five years younger than the median of Boston's main squad.
But the Celtics make up for tired legs with execution and defense. Kevin Garnett led the way in December, forcing bad shots which contributed to the Sixers' pitiful 39 percent team field goal rate. KG, meanwhile, hit 9-of-11 from the field, for a total of 22 points.
While the Big Ticket probably won't match 82% shooting, he and the Green can certainly hold the 76ers to poor numbers offensively. Ranking in the bottom quarter of the league in both field goal and three-point percentages, Philly will be in trouble if they let hard-nosed pressure affect their looks.
Two big match-ups to watch for will be Avery Bradley and Jrue Holiday in a point guard duel, and Jeff Green squaring off against a similarly-sized (and similarly-athletic) Thaddeus Young. It could be a tough go for Boston, especially without Rajon Rondo pressuring the flourishing Holliday and Jared Sullinger limiting Spencer Hawes on the boards.
But the struggling Philly squad misses players of their own, including center Andrew Bynum and guard Jason Richardson. Expect team execution to serve as the prevailing factor Tuesday, as the well-rested Celtics kick off their long week in stride.
Prediction: Celtics 96 – Sixers 90
Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers - Wednesday March 6
Stride can be difficult to maintain, however, especially on the tail-end of back-to-back road games. Boston heads to Indianapolis Wednesday to face the Indiana Pacers, the second-best team in the East.
Indiana has played some of the best overall basketball in the league the majority of this year, steadily becoming a dark horse to win the title. The addition of David West has alleviated much of the defensive pressure for Danny Granger, and top big man Roy Hibbert continues to make opposing centers' lives difficult.
But Indiana's real bright spot has been on defense. The Pacers rank first in both opposing field goal and three-point percentages, and stand a close second in opponent points per game. They slide their feet on defense, hustle to help teammates and collapse on penetration, swat shots at a downright-dirty rate and block out for quality rebound ratios.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel has his squad playing championship-caliber basketball on the defensive end. They limit half-court offenses, yet also rank best in the league in opponent fast-break efficiency. This young, talented team can cause a lot of problems for Boston, especially considering the continued emergence of guard George Hill.
Hill, a quick combo-guard with inside-outside capabilities, has shined as the floor general for the Pacers in his fourth year. He slashes to the hoop, spots up for threes, dishes the rock in traffic and even grabs rebounds. He seems to have Rondo-like promise, and could eclipse the Boston guard's value if he continues to shoot well with confidence, and refines his decision-making on drives to the hoop.
Bradley will have one of his toughest assignments of the year Wednesday, as Hill can really control the flow of a game. AB will have to swarm the ball all game, denying Hill from open shots and forcing him to create off the dribble.
Pierce and Green will also have their hands full with Granger, a respected scorer with toughness and a nice jumper. But possibly the biggest disparity will be down low.
The Celtics might get out-rebounded by 15 Wednesday, especially if Brandon Bass shrinks under pressure yet again. This Indiana front court plays tough blue-collar basketball, and their depth may be too much for an injury-plagued Boston team.
Prediction: Pacers 93 – Celtics 85
Atlanta Hawks at Boston Celtics - Friday, March 8
Yet another team that continually scraps with the Celtics, the Atlanta Hawks will provide Boston with a bittersweet home game on Friday night. Sitting three games above the C's at the sixth seed, Atlanta looks to bounce back from their current three-game slide and get back on track.
One of the biggest obstacles for Boston will be the Hawk's new-found team-leading scorer, Al Horford, who has absolutely caught fire as of late. The versatile big man racked up 24 points against the Los Angeles Lakers, his ninth-consecutive game with 20 or more points.
Jeff Teague, the Hawks' floor leader and usually-reliable playmaker, began 2013 on a positive note but has since fizzled out. He seems to be forcing shots, logging a mere 26 percent from the field over Atlanta's past two games. Without his offensive balance, the Hawks rely mostly on isolation plays and inconsistent low-post moves.
The Celtics will look to exploit such inconsistencies Friday, forcing the ball into veteran Josh Smith's hands for off-range jumpers or tough, contested shots on the low-block. Smith has dynamic scoring potential, but he will be seriously constrained as long as Bradley can limit Teague.
Devin Harris and Kyle Korver have served as huge x-factors for Atlanta off the bench, as exemplified by their stellar performances in Los Angeles. The elder sharp-shooters posted 16 points a piece, including 5-of-12 combined from three. They also contributed 10 assists collectively, thanks to intelligent play-making.
Down low, the Celtics' Garnett, Bass and Chris Wilcox will have trouble boxing out the likes of Smith, Horford and center Johan Petro. Coming off a nice role-playing night against the mighty Dwight Howard, Petro posted six points and eight rebounds, while providing Atlanta with a plus-12 points differential.
He and Zaza Pachulia also held Howard to 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting. These two gritty low-post defenders will give Garnett some serious problems, especially considering Pachulia's penchant for getting in the heads of his opponents.
But Paul Pierce loves playing against the Hawks almost as much as Zaza likes pissing off the Celtics. And Garnett will never back down to rough-nosed basketball. Also, Jason Terry thrives in games where opponents hit big shots from long distance, so expect all three of Boston's elder statesmen to step up on this particular Friday night.
Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee will lead the way in a fine backcourt performance down the stretch, as Boston forces Atlanta into a half-court (and primarily low-post) offensive scheme. Look for Boston to take this one within the last few minutes of the fourth.
Prediction: Celtics 97 – Hawks 92
Boston Celtics at Oklahoma City Thunder - Sunday March 10
The biggest game of this current stretch for the Celtics involves a tough road contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC has matured almost exponentially since their championship run last year, scaring the rest of the league more and more as this season progresses.
Leading the way for the Thunder's continually-evolving offense is All-Star Russell Westbrook. Sure, three-time scoring champion and All-NBA selection Kevin Durant continues to kill opponents with his multifaceted scoring abilities. But Westbrook's evolution into the elite of the league has put Oklahoma City in a great position to take the 2013 title.
In the Thunder's 108-104 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday, Westbrook posted 29 points and 10 assists. He scored his last 10 points at the final stretch of the game, completely out-dueling his counterpart, superstar Chris Paul. Westbrook's ability to thrive under pressure has only improved with age, undoubtedly making NBA coaches like Doc Rivers apprehensive.
Combating such worries, the Celtics no longer have Rondo to drive into the lane and draw fouls from Westbrook. In essence, the young, energized point guard can freely unleash his stamina upon the aged Celtics squad, unless Bradley morphs into a superhuman on both sides of the court.
And then there's Durant. With such a natural ability to score, he almost appears to be playing one-on-one, despite double or triple-coverage. Durant put up 35 points and nine rebounds against the Clippers, in what once again looked like a seamless effort.
Only making matters worse, Serge Ibaka continues to harass opponents on the block. He maintains his position as one of the best defenders in the league, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds at a furious pace. He could make it difficult for the Celtics' big men to draw quality post positions on offense, and will likely eliminate the majority of second-chance opportunities.
Boston remains a work in progress, even though they stand at the last juncture of the season. They still have hope for a championship run, so it seems unfair to base their chances on a match-up with a well-poised Thunder team blessed with chemistry.
The Celtics' new additions, including Jordan Crawford, Terrance Williams and D.J. White, still need some time to adapt, and the team must work together to learn from wins as well as losses.
The game against the Thunder will assuredly be a loss. But hopefully for Rivers and his squad, it will contain more hopeful positives than dejecting negatives.
Prediction: Thunder 103 – Celtics 90