Currently in the midst of a five-day break between games, the Boston Celtics have a chance to regroup after a three-game losing streak, including Sunday’s devastating 106-79 loss to the Indiana Pacers. While the NBA looks ahead to its marquee matchups on Christmas Day, the Celtics coaching staff will be working with the players around the clock trying to finish off the year in a positive manner, playing the Cleveland Cavaliers at the TD Garden on Saturday before also hosting the Atlanta Hawks on New Year’s Eve. The opportunity for coach Brad Stevens and his staff to have this many days to work with his team and play Eastern Conference teams at home is one that the Celtics cannot squander. With just one look at the January schedule, we see that the team could be in for a turbulent stretch and that the team who was once leading the Atlantic Division could quickly become a distant memory if they don’t find a way to turn around their recent form.
The first blow came after the loss to the Pacers when All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo spoke to the media and said that he will not return until late January or early February at the earliest. While the team is accustomed to playing without Rondo, many thought that after his recent participation in a scrimmage he was closer to a return than waiting another month or more. The team will now endure the toughest month on the season’s schedule without their All-Star point guard, making an already difficult challenge that much tougher. The Celtics are currently 12-17, good for second place in a weak Atlantic Division and placing them eighth in a lackluster Eastern Conference, teams are bunched and the next month will be the turning point for the Celtics’ season as to whether they are a playoff contender or if they will be among the lottery hopefuls when it comes to the 2014 NBA Draft.
The Celtics will play a total of 17 games in a space of 28 days; accounting for travel this leaves very little time for practice, which is essential for the improvement of such a young team. Nine of those games come against Western Conference opponents and as we know, the West is stacked with talent compared to the anemic East and the young Boston team will be facing a number of teams they are unfamiliar with. Eight of the games will come against teams with a record better than .500 and they will have to deal with five back-to-backs. Late in January the Celtics will also face the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, who are currently third and fourth in the Atlantic and will be looking to improve significantly in the New Year after extremely disappointing starts.
Starting Jan. 5, the Celtics will face the toughest road trip of their entire season when they head west for a five-game tilt that would make even the best teams in the league nervous. Without returning home, the young C’s will face the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in a back-to-back, then follow that up with another back-to-back against the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers. Without shocking one, or a number of those teams with a surprise victory, the Celtics’ record could look drastically different within the space of just a week, which could derail much of the positive momentum the team had in the early going of the season.
January will also include one of the more emotional homecomings in recent memory when the aforementioned Nets come to town on Jan. 26. When franchise legends Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett return to the Garden for the first time, the emotion in the building will no doubt be sky-high. This was the first game that Celtics’ fans had circled on their schedules since it was released and regardless of how the team performs throughout the rest of January, with the emotional crowd, the video tributes and the history that will surround this game, the team will have an opportunity, even just for one night for an overwhelmingly positive victory and to bring hope for the rest of the season.
The Celtics may surprise us all once again and overachieve despite the tough schedule. Brad Stevens has his young team playing the right way and they will embrace each of these challenges as they present themselves. However, without Rondo in the lineup and in a stretch where they consistently face the top teams in the NBA, we could see a dramatic turn in the fortunes of the 2013-14 Celtics over the course of January.