BOSTON (CBS) – The Boston Celtics defense has played better in recent weeks, but will be tested mightily as they start a three-game road trip on Friday night.
The Celtics pay visits to the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls over the next five nights, with the two Texas teams atop the NBA when it comes to offense.
“It’s going to be tough,” Celtics captain Paul Pierce said of the trip. “We start off with an up-and-coming team in Houston, and it’s no fun when you go back-to-back in San Antonio. We definitely have our work cut out for us. The key to these three-game road trips is to try to get the first one and build from there.”
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That first one in Houston on Friday night will not be easy. While the Rockets are just 10-11 on the season, they boast the third-ranked offense in the NBA, scoring an average of 104.2 points per game. James Harden, acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Thunder prior to the season, has been hot, putting in 31, 39 and 29 points over his last three games, and is fourth in the NBA averaging 25 points per game. And while “Linsanity” has yet to really launch in Houston, Jeremy Lin scored 38 against the Spurs on Monday in Harden’s absence, giving them another player with big-night potential.
If one night in Texas isn’t enough, the Celtics have an even tougher matchup Saturday night with the Spurs. San Antonio is not the defensive force they used to be, beating the Celtics with offense 112-100 in Boston the night before Thanksgiving, but will be hungry to bounce back following two straight losses.
While stopping — or slowing down — the likes of Tony Parker (who scored 26 against the C’s in Boston) and Tim Duncan are never easy, the Celtics have had some recent success at the AT&T Center. Boston has won five straight in San Antonio, with Kevin Garnett yet to lose there as a member of the Celtics.
Once the C’s are done in Texas, they head to Chicago where the story line flips. The Bulls have struggled without Derrick Rose this season, averaging just 94 points per game — 24th in the league, but are among the best on defense. The Celtics took their first meeting in Chicago thanks to a near-triple double by Rajon Rondo, but had to hold off a late run by the Bulls to secure the victory.
While this is not the Texas road trip Boston swept back in 2008, it certainly won’t be any walk in the park. Defense will be the focus over these next three games, with Boston finding recent success with an aggressive trap defense.
“I’ve been talking about it a lot and over the past seven games,” Rivers said of the aggressive D that forced 28 Dallas turnovers on Wednesday. “It’s been paying dividends for us. It’s been terrific.”
The defense wasn’t perfect on Wednesday night though, with Dallas scoring several easy layups thanks to little presence down low. The Mavs scored 60 points in the paint, and the Celtics will have to fix that — especially with a meeting with Tim Duncan on Saturday.
Stats: NBA Standings
But the improved defense has Boston at 12-9 and in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack. Passing this next early-season test would go a long way in helping the Celtics get on a roll for the rest of the regular season, and a huge confidence boost on a team still trying to figure it all out.