The Celtics really needed a win in Phoenix on Wednesday night, not just to snap out of their current losing funk, and not just to prove they could win without Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett. They also needed this one just to prove they could hold their own against a true Western Conference titan.
The Celtics entered this week's road swing with an 8-1 record against Western Conference opponents; now, after losing three straight against a trio of Pacific Division squads, they've sunk to 8-4. They entered this week hoping to make a statement, but now, they'll go home having made the statement that they didn't want to make.
It's a matter of East versus West. The Celtics were one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference when they boarded their flight for California on Saturday morning; they had just come off a big statement win over the Magic, the defending conference champions. The Suns, likewise, had just blown out the defending champions of the NBA — the Lakers rode into Phoenix on Monday night and got walloped, 118-103, behind a double-double by Steve Nash.
Both teams were looking to prove that they could beat the best that the opposing conference had to offer. And only one could get that statement victory. The Celtics weren't ready to be that team.
Sure, you can blame it on injuries. Being without Pierce and Garnett — not to mention Marquis Daniels and Glen Davis — hurt a lot. There's no doubt about that. But the numbers are still alarming — the Celtics have already lost their season series, two games to none, to Phoenix. They haven't beaten the Suns since Feb. 22, and they haven't beaten the Lakers, another big dog in the West, since the NBA Finals in 2008.
If the Celtics want to even think about competing for an NBA championship this season, they have to prove they're worthy with a win over a Finals-caliber West team. They haven't done that yet.
The tests will come in the next month. The Celtics face the Mavericks at home on Jan. 18, they get the Blazers on Jan. 22, and the Lakers come to town on Jan. 31. These are big games. And if they want the rest of the league to know they're for real, they have to start winning these big games.
The loss in Phoenix was ugly. The C's collapsed defensively without Garnett, they let Amare Stoudemire shoot 11-for-14 and Channing Frye go 9-for-15, combining for 52 points and making a mockery of the Celtics in the paint. Boston was thoroughly outshot, outrebounded, outhustled and outplayed. They made a statement, all right — they stated that they just didn't have it. The fact that this loss comes on the heels of two upsets from lesser Pacific teams? That's not helping anything.
The C's have to go home and regroup. They need to regain their confidence, their composure, and their dignity. And most of all, they need their health.
Things will look up from here. Frankly, there's nowhere to go but up.
Once they're back East, the Celtics can focus on putting some notches in the win column again. The A-game isn't there now, but they have plenty of time to get it back before they're really tested in January.
The Celtics are capable of beating up on the West. When they're healthy, when they're confident, when they're feeling it, they're better than anyone.
It's still only December. It's far too early to write the Celtics off.
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