The Celtics have made a habit out of quick starts during the "Big Three" era. With the NBA announcing its condensed 66-game schedule on Tuesday, it's incredibly clear that they'll need another one of those quick starts more than ever this season.
First, a little bit of history. In the four seasons since Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came together in Celtic Green, they have been almost unbeatable in the season's first couple of months. In fact, the C's are an insane 70-10 when it comes to their first 20 games over the last four seasons. That's an absurd .875 winning percentage.
And they don't always limit it to just the first 20 games of the season, either. For example, in 2008, Boston started 27-2.
They'll desperately need that this year, as the schedule-makers did not do Boston any sort of favors when it comes to the schedule, at least once the calendar hits March.
Before getting to that March schedule, it's important to note that this season's schedule — a 66-game gauntlet condensed into just over four months — is chock-full of back-to-backs. In the NBA, back-to-backs are incredibly brutal, as teams usually just don't have the legs one night after playing. If we're operating under the assumption that the aging legs of Pierce, Allen and Garnett will all be in Boston when the season tips off on Christmas, this is something that requires even more focus.
The Celtics have already struggled with back-to-backs. Last season, the Celtics were 6-10 in the second game when playing on back-to-back nights. That's not going to get it done. Surprisingly, however, the Celtics play on back-to-back nights "only" 18 times after doing so 16 times last year. However, that doesn't include a back-to-back-to-back stretch in April in which all three games will come on the road. When a lockout shortened the season to just 50 games in 1998-99, teams won only 43 percent of those third games.
Making matters worse, the Celtics play 10 of those back-to-backs following the All-Star Game, which will be played on Feb. 26. Four of those back-to-backs will come in April, and again, that's not counting the back-to-back-to-back road stretch.
For more perspective on that, the Celtics were 2-4 in back-to-backs last season from Feb. 7 on.
The back-loaded schedule is only made more difficult by the timing of the annual trip out West. The C's will head into Los Angeles on Mar. 11 for a matchup with the rival Lakers. That game starts an eight-game road trip that spans 13 days. Then, when the C's finally come home, they'll have Washington waiting for them on the 25th to start a four-game stretch (with two road trips) over the course of six games.
It all comes back to the first third of the season for the Celtics. Of course, with such a treacherous schedule in the season's second half, Boston does get something of a break early on. If we're going by our first 20 games barometer, we'll see that 12 of the Celtics' first 20 games are at TD Garden. In fact, after opening on the road (against New York, Miami and Oklahoma City no less), Boston returns home to open a stretch in which they'll play 12 of 17 at home. That actually becomes 17 of 22 if you include games 21-25, marked by a five-game homestand to open February.
Teams in the Eastern Conference continue to improve, and the Celtics no doubt will be jockeying for postseason positioning all season long. Add in the fact that Doc Rivers will almost certainly be taking every opportunity to give his team a rest down that jam-packed stretch, and you start to realize stretches of wins will likely be at a premium come spring.
If the Celtics are going to be among the East's top teams this season, they're going to need another signature hot start. If not, they may be in for a long, short season.