By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics are the best team in basketball at the moment, winning games any way they’ve had to over the first three weeks of the season. But that title will be put to the test over the next seven days, as the Celtics and their nine-game win streak hit the road for their first big road trip of the season.
Boston heads out west for five games in eight days, and three of those tilts will come against some of the best teams the Western Conference has to offer. The Celtics are currently 4-1 away from TD Garden this season, with their lone loss on the season coming on opening night in Philadelphia. A lot has changed since that foul-filled defeat, but it remains Boston’s toughest road challenge of the year.
They’ll have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves as road warriors — and the best team in the NBA — over the next week. It’s a challenge the team is looking forward to, a much-needed test that will tell a lot about the 9-1 team.
“We’re going to learn a lot, man,” point guard Kemba Walker said of the upcoming trip. “When you go on road trips is when adversity starts to hit, fatigue starts to set in, guys want to get back home. Those trips are long. But we’re going to learn a lot about each other. Hopefully when adversity does hit, we’re going to see how we handle it. That’s what’s the most important thing.”
“I think we feel good and we’re excited. This will be a really good test for us,” added Jaylen Brown. “The first road trip was kind of like a teaser, and this is kinda like the real thing. A long road trip with tough games — we’ll see what we’re made of.”
The trip does start off with a few extremely winnable games. The Celtics tip off their west coast swing against the 2-10 Warriors, who thanks to a number of free agent departures, retirements and a slew of unfortunate injuries, sit at the bottom of the NBA standings. Believe it or not, Golden State has fewer wins than the New York Knicks. It’s been that bad in San Fran.
Next up are the disappointing Sacramento Kings, who are just 4-6 this year and are playing without star point guard De’Aaron Fox. No one would be too shocked if Boston’s current win streak is turned up to 11 by the end of the weekend, based solely on their opposition.
Things get a lot tougher after that, as the Celtics will begin their hardest stretch of the season. After their Sunday matinee against the Kings, Boston goes to Phoenix to face the surprising Suns on Monday night. Phoenix is 7-4 on the season, with quality wins over the Clippers and 76ers. Veterans Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric and Kelly Oubre have been solid complements to Devin Booker’s offensive mastery. Booker has averaged 31 points in his seven career games against Boston, his highest output against any opponent. Add in old friend Aron Baynes having a career year, averaging 15 points off 57 percent shooting (including 47 percent from downtown) to go with 5.5 boards per game, and this is going to be one tough matchup for the Celtics. Phoenix’s athleticism will give Boston problems, especially since it comes on just their second back-to-back on the season. It will be the first time the Celtics play three games in four nights since the first week of the season.
And that won’t even be their hardest matchup of the trip. After a night off, the Celtics then venture to the Staples Center to square off with Doc Rivers and his L.A. Clippers. Paul George is back to playing basketball, and since L.A. won’t be on a back-to-back, there should be no “load management” issues with Kawhi Leonard. Los Angeles may look vulnerable with their 7-5 record on the year, but they remain the title favorites with their Leonard and George duo. Seeing how the Celtics match up against these two stars and their supporting cast will be the best test of the year.
Then Boston will wrap up their left coast excursion with a Friday night visit to the Denver Nuggets, who are 8-3 on the year despite the struggles of Nikola Jokic. Denver’s do-everything big man torches the Celtics, and we all remember what Jamal Murray did to Boston the last time they were in Denver. We’ll see if he goes off and flirts with 50 points again, leading to a Celtics player punting the basketball come game’s end. One of those instances is much more likely to happen than the other.
At the moment, Boston’s best road win has come against the Spurs, when they spanked them 135-115. San Antonio owns the best record among all of Boston’s road conquests at 5-6. The C’s other road wins have come against the Knicks (3-9), Cavaliers (4-7) and Hornets (4-7). While the Celtics may be 4-1 on the road, they haven’t exactly faced the toughest of competition.
That will change over the next week. The Celtics have passed all but one their tests this season, and they deserve to be in the conversation for the best team in the league by winning every game they should have won (and a few they probably shouldn’t have). But now they face their toughest test of the year.
By the time the Celtics return home, we’ll have a much better picture of who they really are at this early point of the season.