The players and coach Brad Stevens deserve credit for exceeding expectations when pundits assumed the worst. It's a stark contrast to the funeral dirge from Brooklyn to the so-called Mecca of basketball and a charming narrative: one of veteran leadership, youth being served, and Jordan Crawford winning over Tommy Heinsohn.
But as the calendar flips to 2014, the Celtics face a harsh reality.
The Eastern Conference malaise has accounted for 10 of Boston's 13 wins (the Celtics are .500 vs. the East and 3-8 against Western Conference teams). A friendly December schedule also helped, with nine of the Celtics' 12 games played on the parquet floor. They converted five of those home contests into victories and copped another on the road in a blowout of the Knicks.
But momentum thudded to a halt with losses in three of four to close out the year. A key factor throughout the season has been second-half performance. They've been unable to sustain big early leads and lately the opposition has cashed in on this trend with comeback victories.
It won't get any easier in January as the Celtics play 10 of 17 on the road, a meat grinder of a month any way you slice it. Most intimidating is a six-game stretch beginning Sunday in Oklahoma City. After facing the top team in the Western Conference, the C's are rewarded with four road games in five nights before a travel day and a home matchup with James Harden, Dwight Howard and the Rockets on Monday, January 13.
Oklahoma City will be without point guard Russell Westbrook through Valentine's Day and Kevin Durant has put the team on his back, averaging 39 points and 13 rebounds per game in Westbrook's absence. An engaged Jeff Green is a plus defender, but that's a tough assignment for anyone.
On Tuesday, the Celtics visit the Mile High City of Denver, a place they've dropped eight of their last nine contests. The Celtics' win over the Nuggets at home in December was another instance of the team starting fast and giving up the lead in the third quarter. They hit some big shots to win in the end, but that was at the Garden. It's particularly tough for road teams to maintain their edge in Denver's high altitude. The Nuggets were 38-3 at home last season.
Wednesday brings the bright lights of L.A. and the Staples Center. The Clippers' backcourt gave the Celtics fits in Doc Rivers' return to Boston last month as Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford combined for 43 points.
Golden State is a surefire playoff squad that will look to gun against Boston's 24th-ranked offense. Like the Clippers, the Warriors feature a dynamic backcourt that can pile up the points. On paper, the Warriors commit a lot of turnovers (16.9 per game, second most in the NBA), but that hasn't been a problem as they've cruised to six straight wins. The Celtics don't force a lot of turnovers (20th in the league) and will be challenged to stop Golden State's shooters and David Lee (18.4 PPG) in the key.
Portland is the surprise of the league. The Blazers defeated the Celtics handily on the parquet floor back in November and are 12-3 at the Rose Garden this year. Jared Sullinger gamely battled LaMarcus Aldridge in the previous matchup, but the Blazers' depth was overwhelming, as it has been throughout the season. A weary Boston roster won't be of much help in that department.
And then, there's the Rockets at home. Not a picnic.
The Celtics have surprised thus far, but the plucky nature of this squad might not be enough to survive the January grind. With a variety of subplots, Rajon Rondo's return and Danny Ainge's trade aspirations among them, it will be interesting to see if the playoff talk continues into February.
Sean Sylver is a Boston-based writer, radio personality and avid gardener. His work has appeared on Babble's Disney Dads and other pro sports blogs. Follow him on Twitter @sylverfox25.
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