|KEVIN DURANT Rookie sensation|
It's finally here - an honest-to-goodness Road Trip. Most of the teams in the Eastern Conference have ventured into the Mountain and Pacific time zones this season. Every team but the Celtics and Bobcats has had at least one road game against a Western Conference foe.
After 25 games, or nearly one-third of the NBA season, the Celtics finally will hit the road for their annual post-Christmas trip, playing four games in five nights in two time zones, starting and ending the trip in California. It's not exactly bruising from a competition standpoint; only one of the teams, the Lakers, is among the top eight in the Western Conference - and they are currently ranked seventh in the West. In other words, this is hardly a venture through the conference's iron belt.
But it is a trip of more than two games, which the Celtics haven't had so far in what has been the schedule from heaven. (They've had only one road trip of two games - and that one had two days between games). Stan Van Gundy, the Orlando Magic coach, undoubtedly spoke for a lot of NBA observers when he said, "I think the challenge for them will come on the road. We've played 10 Western Conference road games, which, I believe, is 10 more than they have played. They're for real. But I think their challenge is coming."
Whether it comes this week remains to be seen. Two of the three opponents are below .500 and a third has lost 9 of 11. Looking at his first four-in-five scenario of the season, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "Our bench is going to have to play well. Otherwise, it could be a long trip." Paul Pierce said, "It's a big test for us." And Rajon Rondo must know something we don't, saying, "We've got to get our rest, stay mentally ready, and it's going to take all 14 guys." At last check, the Celtics had only 13 guys.
At any rate, a preview of the week:
Tomorrow at Sacramento: In yet another scheduling break, the Celtics will finish the season against Sacramento without ever seeing Mike Bibby or Kevin Martin, two of its best players. The Kings aren't bad at home (8-5) and the Celtics haven't won at Arco Arena since 1996, a streak of 11 losses. But most of those losses came because the Kings were among the best teams in the league and the Celtics weren't. Now it's the other way around. From the For What It's Worth Dept.: Sacramento does have the distinction of being the only team this season to lead the Celtics at halftime in Boston.
Thursday at Seattle: The first reunion with ex-Celtics from last year's 24-win train wreck, as they meet up with Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West, the latter of whom may not be able to go (plantar fasciitis). This won't be a back-to-backer for Seattle as the Sonics play tonight against Portland. Seattle has righted the ship after a disastrous start (0-9) and has been playing around .500 with bruiser Kurt Thomas in the mix. But three other story lines dominate this game: the return of Ray Allen, the Celtics' first look at Kevin Durant, and what may well be the Celtics' final game in Seattle. A lot of memories here, from Cedric Maxwell saying he gobbled up Tom Chambers "like Pacman" to Vin Baker making a (brief) return from alcohol suspension to Kevin McHale blowing out an ankle.
Saturday at Utah: What looked earlier to be a tough game might still be one - but the Jazz are in a tailspin in which they have gone 2-9 in their last 11. But they also have played 18 of their 29 games on the road and are a pretty tough 9-2 at Whatever Their Building Is Called These Days. What's bugging coach Jerry Sloan, aside from having to look at Gordan Giricek, is that his team isn't stopping anyone. The Jazz are giving up 100 points a game - a scandalous, unthinkable number for a Sloan-coached team. Utah hopes to have Mehmet Okur back for the game; he has missed seven straight with a strained shoulder. And Deron Williams will give Rondo all he can handle. A bonus for Boston: Utah will have played the night before, in Los Angeles against the Lakers.
Sunday at Lakers: What better way to end the trip than with a battle against the Kobester and friends? Derek Fisher sort of set the tone for this one after the Lakers got drilled in Boston when he said, "We'll see them at our place." This might well be the best LA team since the Shaq-Kobe shotgun marriage was rent asunder. Andrew Bynum (an MIA in Boston) is playing well, Lamar Odom is healthy, and Bryant, apparently, is pleased for now with what he sees. How long that lasts is anyone's guess. While the Celtics will be finishing on a back-to-back, the Lakers will have had the night before to themselves. You can rest assured that these guys don't want to be the first Lakers team in six years to get swept by the dreaded Celtics.
Peter May can be reached at email@example.com