BOSTON (CBS) – With the NBA All-Star break behind them, and their quick refresher of a five-day weekend over, the Boston Celtics can now focus on the second half of their season.
With a five-game West Coast trip staring them down and all that comes with Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, that will be no easy task.
Boston’s annual post-All-Star break trip out West is never easy, and that holds true when the C’s kick things off with back-to-back games against the Nuggets and Lakers. Toss in Thursday’s deadline between another trio of West Coast games, and it’s easy to see how the Celtics are in a rough position as the unofficial second half of the season gets under way.
But with all the rumors swirling, the team needs to focus on one thing and one thing only: winning.
The first time the Celtics went out West this season, the results were nightmarish. They lost three straight to the Clippers, Warriors and Kings by a total of 69 points. It was the worst stretch of basketball the Celtics have played since Kevin Garnett came aboard five years ago, and fans and media alike were ready to push down on the detonator box and blow the team up.
Read: Celtics-Nuggets Preview
But plenty has changed since that end-of-December stumble. Avery Bradley has returned to stabilize the defense. Rajon Rondo’s injury has forced them to play a team-style of basketball to great success. Jeff Green and Jason Terry have both picked up their play, and the Celtics have proved they can play with anyone (at least in the regular season).
And despite starting things off with a tough Denver team, the time change may be the most difficult part of this current trip. The Nuggets have lost three straight – a streak that began with their triple overtime loss in Boston last Sunday. The Lakers currently find themselves just 25-29 for the season, and have more drama (both trade drama and the kind you normally see on daytime television) surrounding them than the rest of the NBA — combined. Once the deadline passes on Thursday, the Celtics head to Phoenix (17-36 on the season), Portland (fighting for a playoff spot at 25-28) and Utah (30-24).
Trips out West are tough, but all five games are very winnable for the Celtics. Already winners of eight of their last 10, a win streak to start the second half will build loads of confidence heading forward for Boston – the same confidence that has made them so dangerous since Rondo went down. The recent success has them a game-and-a-half ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks for the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference, and they only trail Atlanta by that same margin for the sixth seed. A strong showing out West – even just taking three of five –will play a big role in that final playoff seeding with just over two months of basketball remaining.
View: NBA Power Rankings
All of this would be shaken up if Danny Ainge pulls the trigger on a blockbuster deal, but it currently looks like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will be making the return flight to Boston come next Tuesday (then again, it’s the quiet deadlines where Danny has been most dangerous). Should Ainge make a deal, it will likely be a minor one, and it’s even more likely he scrapes the bottom of the barrel of the free-agent market for a warm body to round out the roster. It doesn’t make sense for Boston to deal potential future chips for a rental, not for a team that won’t have a star player come playoff time. Ainge has shown he likes this group, and even though he has the reputation for pulling off mid-season blockbusters, will likely stay put unless he gets blown away by an offer.
But all the rumors, future travel plans and phase two of their tough stretch to start the second half (after this trip, Boston will play four of six away from the TD Garden) should be far in the back of their minds when they return to action Tuesday night.
The focus should squarely be on winning, one game at a time. As the second half of this roller coaster season gets underway, it’s all the Celtics can do to prove themselves.
Follow Matthew Geagan on Twitter @MattyGWBZ