The plan called for Christmas dinner at 9:30 p.m. in Los Angeles, not long after the Celtics plane touched down on Tuesday. Coach Doc Rivers acknowledged it wasn’t ideal timing for a team feast. But given the Celtics’ hectic holiday schedule, there was nothing he could do about it.
“It is what it is,” said Rivers with the slightest sigh of resignation. The Celtics might view their mini-West Coast swing in much the same way.
Not ideal timing. Nothing they can do about it.
Just as the Celtics (14-13) seemed to gain a better sense of how to play together and sustain production through four quarters, they face the Clippers. Make that the league-leading Clippers, owners of the best record in the NBA (22-6) and a 14-game winning streak.
Not to mention point guard Chris Paul hitting his stride and earning Western Conference Player of the Week honors Monday. The award recognized Paul’s role in wins over New Orleans (10 points, 12 assists, 5 rebounds), Sacramento (24 points, 13 assists, 5 rebounds, 5 steals), and Phoenix (17 points, 13 assists, 5 steals).
Perhaps a nationally televised game against the Clippers Thursday is not an ideal setup for the momentum-craving Celtics. Or maybe it is precisely the kind of test the Celtics need, one that will give them a good idea of where they stand and where they can go.
After all, this is the time of year when NBA teams typically either mesh or fall victim to missteps. Games against the Clippers, Warriors on Saturday, and Kings on Sunday could go a long way toward indicating what kind of team the Celtics will be.
“You’ve heard [Dwyane] Wade saying [the Heat] are not there yet,” said Rivers. “You’ve heard [Kevin] Durant saying that [about the Thunder]. And I’m thinking, ‘What else do they have to do?’
“Kobe [Bryant] said that [the Lakers] are not there yet. There’s a lot of teams saying the same thing. Somebody’s going to do what they say and take off. And I’m hoping that it’s us.”
When asked what the Celtics needed to do to take off, Rivers said, “We need to play like [we did against the Nets]. We need to move the ball, share the ball, rebound the ball. If we play like that, we’ll win a lot of games.”
For many reasons, Boston viewed its 93-76 Christmas Day win at Brooklyn as a blueprint for better, more consistent play. The Celtics were encouraged by contributions from several players, particularly the double-digit scoring of Jeff Green (15 points) and Jared Sullinger (16 points, 7 rebounds). Their points, along with Courtney Lee’s defensive efforts off the bench, keyed the victory. Rivers called the bench play, specifically from Green, Sullinger, and Lee, “sensational.”
“This year, we came into the season with nine new guys, and a bunch of those guys are not used to our culture and we’re trying to get them to buy in and give themselves to the team 100 percent, not just when it’s going well,” said Rivers. “And I think our guys are on the way to doing that.”
It was only a week ago that Rivers shuffled the lineup (Jason Terry starting in place of Lee, Jason Collins starting, and Brandon Bass going to the bench), looking for better combinations of starters and bench players. Contributions by the bench, and the ability of the Celtics to sustain their energy throughout a game, will be crucial during the remainder of their trip, especially since the matchup against the Kings will be the second of back-to-back games and third game in four days.
When asked if the Celtics took a leap forward against the Nets, Green said, “In some ways, yes. Our defense improved a lot and it needs to continue to improve.
“We’ve got to continue to win these games. We’ve got the Clippers up next and they’ve been playing tremendous. Their bench is just playing awesome. So we’ve got to make sure we do what we’ve got to do to stay in the game and win the game.”
And that likely means different kinds of contributions from different players. Against Brooklyn, Paul Pierce made his presence felt with more assists (10) than points (8). Pierce said he approaches every game simply looking to fill the team’s needs, whether it’s scoring or making the extra pass.
“It was good to finally play from start to finish, especially with the way we’ve been playing against Brooklyn,” said Pierce. “It was a well-balanced game. It’s good for us to sustain double-digit leads, continue to finish off games with a double-digit win. Hopefully, we can learn from this game, get better, and move on.”