The arc on Paul Pierce‘s jump shot flattened out and the bounce in Kevin Garnett‘s legs on second efforts disappeared as the second half wore on. By the end, when the two proud Celtics combined to shoot 1-for-7 from the field in the fourth quarter of an arduous loss to the Nuggets, almost nobody in a green jersey had anything left to give.
The fact that every Celtic save Garnett had a five-day break thanks to last weekend’s All-Star festivities was meaningless. The thin air of the Rocky Mountains tests the lungs of even the fittest athletes if they are not accustomed to the altitude. When the Celtics were unable to pull away early despite clearly coming out of the gate as the sharper team, it became inherently obvious that they were headed for something resembling the eventual 97-90 outcome.
This is how it will be for the Celtics the rest of the season. Prior to the All-Star break, Celtics coach Doc Rivers referenced this five-day western road trip that opens the unofficial second half of the season, but that may only have been a distraction from the bigger challenge that lies ahead. The Celtics play 18 of their final 30 games on the road. That road-heavy schedule might be the Celtics’ biggest obstacle in continuing their run of success in the wake of season-ending injuries to Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa.
Playing on the road presents its natural problems, not all of which are obvious to the general public. The travel in itself can be grueling, especially when there are quick turnarounds like matchups in Denver and Los Angeles on consecutive nights or a string of five games in five cities in just a seven-day span. The itinerant existence leads to further fallout with an impact that can be more subtle, but just as critical.
Between red-eye flights and early-morning check-ins at hotels, there is little time if any for practice, meaning the execution gets duller. The environmental shifts cannot be discounted, either. After leaving Denver on Tuesday, the Celtics spend five days getting accustomed to the air at sea level or below before heading back into the mountains with a trip to Salt Lake City. If you think shuffling between altitudes should not be hard on a person’s cardiovascular system, we invite you to try it some time. Just play it safe and bring a defibrillator.
Most teams prefer to play at home, but some teams are equipped to have the same level of success anywhere. The Celtics are not one of those teams. They have not been so far, anyway, going 8-16 on the road this season. That mark puts them dead in the center of the Eastern Conference in terms of road record, but among presumptive playoff teams it is dead last.
The explanation for those road woes seem to be psychological more than anything. These Celtics thrive on the passion of “The Jungle,” as Garnett affectionately refers to TD Garden, and some of their most inexplicable losses — Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Charlotte — have come in arenas not known for their energy. Generating excitement should be no problem at the Staples Center on Wednesday or in trips to Portland or Utah early next week, but not every setting comes with built-in oomph.
To continue the run of success they have had since Rondo’s injury, the Celtics will have to find a way to manufacture energy even in buildings without any buzz. If they cannot be in the atmosphere of the Garden, they will have to carry the atmosphere of the Garden in them.
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