The schedule-makers went easy on the Celtics in the first half of the season. The Celtics may not feel that way, given the gauntlet every NBA team has had to run in this crazy season, but relative to most of the teams in the league, Boston's first-half schedule was a cakewalk.
Whatever ease may have been built into the early portion of the schedule was more than made up for after the All-Star break, when the Celtics' slate turned tough not only in the volume of games but the competition on the court. The most challenging stretch may begin Tuesday, when the Celtics travel to Miami for the first of five games in the next six nights.
The veteran Celtics like to take a "one game at a time" mantra, but not even captain Paul Pierce could deny that this stretch was one that caught his eye way back in December.
"Oh yeah, I've looked at this since the schedule came out," Pierce said. "I mean, it's tough. Every team in the league has to deal with it. Unfortunately, we've got to deal with it at the end of the season when teams seem to be winding down on tired legs. Maybe it's good for us, because it seems like we're playing our best basketball right now."
After leaving Miami, the Celtics jet back to Boston for a quick home game against potential first-round playoff opponent Atlanta on Wednesday. They then head north to Canada to open the three-game, three-night trek every team has on its schedule at least once this season.
Perhaps the next six days are penance for a December-February schedule that was fairly light for Boston, relative to the rest of the league.
The Celtics played 32 games prior to the All-Star break; only the Cavaliers, Clippers and Warriors played fewer. The C's only played five sets of back-to-backs in December and January, and even had an unheard of four-day break. Their final game before the All-Star break was on Wednesday, Feb. 22; eight teams, including four teams that could be part of the Celtics' playoff future (New York, Miami, Atlanta and Orlando) had to play Thursday, Feb. 23, less than 24 hours before All-Star weekend festivities kicked off in Orlando.
The Celtics only occasionally played well enough to capitalize on the agreeable schedule, though, going 15-17 before the break. But they grew stronger as the schedule grew tougher, and have moved within 2 1/2 games of the third seed in the East by way of a 17-7 post-All-Star record.
"We have a sense of urgency right now," Pierce said. "We understand what's at stake: the fourth seed, possibly the three seed, division title, playing well going into the playoffs. It's a number of factors when you come into this point of the year."
The way the Celtics have played, winning five of their last seven road games, and seven of their last nine overall, Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have expressed desires to stay on the court. Other veteran teams have been more conservative with their veterans, however. The Spurs went so far as to leave Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili at home for their trip to Utah on Monday for San Antonio's second game in as many nights.
The Celtics players may want to charge into this challenging stretch, but this may be where Celtics coach Doc Rivers pulls them back.
"We're just going to wait and see how guys react," Rivers said. "The way the Chicago game went, I wish I would've saw that before the game. I would've sat them all. It would've been terrific. We've just got to play it game by game. It's so hard to figure out who needs a rest, who doesn't. Our guys have been pretty good, though. I will say our guys have been very honest in our talks about how their body is feeling. We're going to really need that honesty over the next 10 games."
Pierce, who in five April games is averaging 20.2 points on a season-best .463 field goal percentage while hauling in a season-high 6.8 rebounds per game, might be the hardest to convince to take a seat. He seemed sluggish early in the season after he missed the first three games with a bone bruise in his right heel. Fresh off an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award last week, Pierce is playing the best all-around basketball he has played in five seasons.
"What better time than this time of year, when everybody's getting confidence, to beat some pretty good teams so we know we can play with anybody in the Eastern Conference?" Pierce asked rhetorically.
It is possible that we had this flipped around. Maybe nobody went easy on the Celtics early on — maybe the Celtics went easy on them. If so, the Celtics ceased with the pleasantries a while ago, and the schedule is about to return the favor.