Growth without adversity is rare.
What the Boston Celtics have done over the past month or so, in light of all their injuries, has been very impressive, and it is even more impressive when considering the grueling schedule they have played.
Since a win over the Orlando Magic on Feb. 1 put them at an even 23-23 on the season, the Celtics have been on a tear against some very good teams.
They've played 16 games since then, with 13 of those coming against either playoff teams or teams in the hunt. The only reprieve has come with losses against the Charlotte Bobcats, Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. The rest of the opponents that the Celtics have faced during this time have all been battling for postseason positioning.
Their recent five-game win-streak, snapped by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, came against four playoff teams and Philadelphia. Boston has battled through all that adversity to a 34-28 record, with 20 games left to go this season.
This tough schedule has taught us a lot about what the Celtics are made of, but it has also opened the door for many more questions about the near future.
The biggest one is whether Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce can hold up and keep producing throughout the rest of the season. The second biggest question involves Jeff Green, who has upped his consistency lately but still goes flat in certain games, which is a big risk in a seven-game series. As Green goes, the Celtics' bench will go, and Boston needs that bench to be productive. At the very least, they cannot be a detriment to the team like they were in Sunday's loss to the Thunder.
The 20 games that are left will also offer up more data with which to make up our minds regarding how we feel about Avery Bradley as a primary ball-handler as well as the potential of Jordan Crawford in the postseason. We'll also see just how much rest Doc Rivers can afford to give Pierce and Garnett.
Something to keep an eye on for the rest of the season are the five back-to-backs that Boston will engage in. There are two of them to end the season—with the Orlando Magic and Raptors on the back-end of those pairings—and those would be key games to give the Celtics' stars some rest. Other back-to-backs end with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers, Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto again. Rivers should keep in mind that any of those will work as off-days for his veterans because none of those are incredibly meaningful games.
Other than that, the road is fairly even the rest of the way. They play a very Eastern Conference-heavy slate, with 16 of the 20 remaining games scheduled to be against their own half of the league. The split is 50/50 home and away, though they will finish with 3-of-4 outside the TD Garden.
Only nine of the 20 remaining contests come against teams with realistic playoff chances. Of those, only seven are Eastern Conference teams, either tied or ahead of Boston in the standings. They are on the road for games against the Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks.
The Celtics continue to be one of the league's best draws, airing a quarter of their final 20 games on national television. Though that now has less significance without Rajon Rondo in the lineup.
Boston should be extra focused in four particular games. They get four more opportunities to make noise against big rivals in the Miami Heat and New York Knicks, as they'll face each team twice more before the postseason. There will also be one more game a piece against the Indiana Pacers and the Brooklyn Nets. Any of those four teams could still be a potential first-round matchup in April.
What is the biggest remaining game this season?
In terms of winning the Atlantic Division for the sixth-straight year, they remain five games behind the Knicks and 2.5 games behind the Nets, so that streak is certainly in jeopardy. A sweep of these two teams would go a long way toward locking up one the top-four seeds, but that remains a long-shot.
Boston has a few goals that they need to accomplish over this final stretch. Obviously, avoiding Miami in the opening round is big, so they’ll keep a watchful eye on the Milwaukee Bucks in the No. 8 spot.
If that can be avoided, the Celtics will hope to continue climbing the standings. Only 2.5 games separate seeds four through seven, with the Nets currently holding the final home-court advantage spot in the East. Brooklyn must realize that their spot is still very much up for grabs.
This schedule has been difficult for Boston, but at the same time, it has been good for them as a team. In this case, the adversity they’ve faced has bred an identity. The struggles and tough opponents are largely to thank for the Celtics’ recent surge.
The team will use the rest of the season to polish off their individual identities and figure out how each player will act in the postseason.
Boston still has to figure out how Jordan Crawford can be best utilized, as he has played only eight games with the team. They’ll also continue searching for the key to Jeff Green’s consistency, and make sure that Chris Wilcox can remain on the floor.
Can Brandon Bass win a playoff game for you, like he did last season? Is Jason Terry going to be able to hit big shots consistently? There is a lot still to be learned in 20 games.
What you may not realize is that only three players on the active roster were battling Miami a year ago in Eastern Conference Finals. Only Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce where there for games one through seven of that fantastic series.
That amount of turnover for a team is simply not normal.
But, for this team it is just another piece of adversity in the puzzle of the 2012-13 Boston Celtics.