BOSTON — The New Year brought a new challenge for the Celtics, who kicked off a grueling January with two straight losses to the Bulls and Pelicans to dig themselves deeper in the standings.
Now, they embark on a virtually impossible five-game road trip in a daunting first month of 2014, just as darkness threatens to descend upon their season. Through it all, Avery Bradley has an oddly upbeat attitude toward the whole situation.
“I’m excited,” Bradley said. “This is why we — this is why I — play this game, to play against those great teams. It’s fun to get the chance to go out there and prove ourselves.”
The Celtics play 17 games this month, 10 of them on the road. Seven of the first nine opponents are in the playoff hunt, and next week’s trip represents the cream of the crop in the Western Conference. The Celtics visit the Thunder, Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors and Blazers, with only Denver not harboring realistic conference title hopes.
“This could pretty much send us in the right direction of where we want to go in our season or kind of destroy our whole season,” Gerald Wallace said. “Guys are going to have to pull together. We’re going to have to become as one on the road.”
Aside from Tuesday’s game against the Nuggets, who are coming off an eight-game losing streak, the first game this month that can reasonably be called “winnable” isn’t until Jan. 17 against the Lakers, who have been scrappy with Kobe Bryant sidelined. Even the Celtics’ matchups with the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks at the end of the month don’t look like the walkovers they did a couple of weeks ago.
If the Celtics fall flat in January, however, it won’t be because they are coming back down to earth after beginning the season in surprisingly not-awful fashion. Simply put, the competition was not as stiff early on and the schedule was not as unforgiving in December as it will be now. The Celtics are merely getting a dose of NBA reality now, which may be why coach Brad Stevens has gone out of his way the last few games to deflect the focus from whether his team has won or lost.
“The biggest key is to play well, to add to what we did [in a loss to Chicago] and, hopefully, make a few more shots to feel better about ourselves,” Stevens said. “As I’m evaluating it subjectively, it’s about playing well more so than the result. Obviously, the result is to win and we’ve got to try everything we can to scrounge up as many of those as we can, but at the end of the day I want to get back to playing as well as we possibly can.”