Like the rest of the NBA, the Boston Celtics will face a shortened, albeit daunting, schedule for the 2011-12 campaign, with 16 fewer games but more back-to-back games than is typical (18), and with 23 of those 36 back-to-backs to be played on the road, including a back-to-back-to-back series late in the season.
But for which games specifically do the Celtics really need to focus on and prepare?
Here, we'll take a look at the games the Celtics need to worry about this season, and what they need to do to win.
The Heat are coming off an NBA Finals appearance that saw them lose in six games to the Dallas Mavericks, while LeBron James demonstrated his remarkable ability to disappear in the fourth quarter of close games.
This year, the Heat are back, and they want redemption. After they failed to win a title and appeared to validate doubters, they'll look to reload and win it all in 2012.
Before they do, however, they'll need to go through Boston first. Although the Celtics won the regular season series three games to one, the Heat bested the Celtics in five games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last May.
The Heat showed that they can go toe-to-toe with the aging Celtics, especially in the paint, in which it seemed that Chris Bosh had his way with Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal.
The Celtics' defense needs to find away to slow down LeBron and D-Wade, while KG and whatever help he gets in the front-court must stop Chris Bosh like they were able to in the regular season.
No doubt the Heat have more youth and talent than Boston, but the Celtics still maintain that old edge in experience, and they can still wear teams down. Still, they'll need to be on their A-game very quickly, which is a tall order considering age and the workout-inhibiting lockout.
The Bulls, led by 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, look to once again secure the East's best regular season record and make another deep Playoff Run, but will once again have to face off against the Celtics in order to do so.
By mid-January, players should largely be close to being fully in shape, meaning this will be a matchup to be followed closely with the lockout cobwebs finally shaken off.
The Bulls and Celtics split the regular season series 2-2, with the Celtics winning both games at the Garden and the Bulls both games in Chicago. Derrick Rose will once again be a force to be reckoned with out of the back-court; whoever ends up as the Celtics' starting point guard this year (According to CBS Sports, Rajon Rondo trade rumors are apparently not dead yet) will need to defend Rose and prevent him from getting his shots off, especially beyond the arc.
The front-court, so far, has few problems dealing with the likes of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, while Ray Allen and Paul Pierce can easily outscore Kyle Korver and whoever else the Bulls try to throw at the Celtics.
If the Celtics are in shape and the Big Three can still produce, then they should be able to lock down on Derrick Rose and prevent him from scoring; he's nowhere near the elite passer than Rondo (or Chris Paul, just saying) is, making it easier to slow down the Bulls' offense by clamping down on Rose.
Defense will be the key here, and for now, the Celtics hold sway.
The Celtics and the Knicks will play four critically important games this year in a battle for the Atlantic Division.
The Knicks, led by the dynamic duo of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, will look to avenge last year's loss in the first round of the [layoffs, while the Celtics will look to maintain supremacy in the Atlantic Division for at least one more year.
The Knicks are all about offense, so the focus for the Celtics will have to be shutting down Carmelo on the outside and Amar'e in the paint. Once these two get going, they're near-unstoppable. These guys can both do serious damage, especially to a Celtics squad weakened by age and possible injuries down the road.
However, considering that the Knicks play almost no defense, the Celtics need to rely on their shooters, especially Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, to capitalize on tough defense that hopefully can still slow down the potent New York offense.
Despite the shortened schedule, the NBA preserved the two annual contests between the Celtics and the Lakers, with the two teams playing their traditional home-and-home regular season series.
These are rivalry games in the purest sense of the word. There'll be a ton of emotion and plenty of national interest and excitement from fans and players alike, meaning these will be some of the best games all season.
For another year, at least, there will be no Dwight Howard in either city, leaving this generation of Celtics and Lakers players to do basketball battle for another year. Los Angeles will feature all of the personalities that Celtics fans love to hate, including Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Kardashian (sorry, Odom), Andrew Bynum and Derek Fisher.
A win against the Lakers is always a great thing, and two wins means an extra leg up in the Playoff race, especially when seeding can mean the difference between an easy first round or a difficult one.
No doubt the Lakers will be a tough challenge as they always are. Once again, it will need to be the Celtics defense that steps up, especially against Bynum and Gasol in the paint and against Kobe.
The March 11th game in Los Angeles kicks off an eight-game road trip, the longest of the season, including three separate back-to-backs.