Celtics bring Christmas to Orlando
Despite logistical challenges, Christmas Day game a privilege for players
Ever tried bringing a Christmas tree on a plane?
That's the sort of conundrum many Celtics players faced as they trekked to Orlando Wednesday morning in advance of a Christmas Day showdown against the Magic.
As Boston prepared for one of its biggest regular-season matchups of the season, one to be played in front of a national TV audience against a rival that knocked it out of the playoffs last May, the Celtics must also deal with the headaches involved with relocating Christmas 1,200 miles from home.
How do you haul all the presents accumulated over the past month of shopping? Amidst all the palm trees, where do you find a Fraser fir? How do you pass a forwarding address along to Santa Claus?
And, through it all, how do you remain focused on work and a battle of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference?
"The holidays are a tough time to play, obviously, because of the distractions," admitted Celtics coach Doc Rivers after Tuesday's win over the Indiana Pacers at the TD Garden. "[Wednesday] we're bringing everyone's family [on the team plane] -- wives and kids -- and so I actually told them before [Tuesday's] game: 'I know how it works and I know you've been home all day, and your wives and kids have been talking about going to see Mickey Mouse and all that. We have a game [Tuesday].'"
The Celtics opened their week of distractions by pulling themselves together in time to rally from a 15-point deficit to top the Pacers. Even without forward Kevin Garnett (right thigh bruise), that might have been the easiest part of the week, particularly after the team revealed captain Paul Pierce would miss two weeks after undergoing arthroscopic irrigation on his right knee Wednesday.
After flying to Orlando, the Celtics must balance the process of preparing for Friday's game while squeezing in time to celebrate the holiday -- a particular challenge for those players with young children.
It's not easy, not even for Rivers, an Orlando native who's technically going "home" for the holidays. Even he admits the only way it would truly be a Christmas at home was if there were no game.
From October through June, basketball players are focused on their vocation. For the top teams in the league, there is no holiday vacation.
So despite the difficulties associated with this trip, the Celtics are rallying around the prestige of playing in one of the NBA's marquee matchups.
"As much as we're in a situation where we're away from our family, I always relate it to growing up and watching Thanksgiving football and the NFL," said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "It's our turn now; guys have grown up, and we've put ourselves in this situation on a good team, to have the ability to play at Christmastime. It's somewhat of a privilege. I cherish the opportunity because in a couple years we won't be on TV. We'll be retired and watching someone else play. Then we'll finally be able to huddle around the dinner table, look at each other, and cherish the day. Then go watch the NBA game."
With his mother residing in the Orlando area, Allen sent his wife and kids to Florida last week. His entire family -- brothers, sisters and his wife's family -- will all descend there this week, making it feel as much like a family Christmas as possible. Allen noted he won't be in his house, but he'll be home, since that's where his family will be. But it certainly won't be the typical holiday experience. Allen told his sons not to go to Disney World until Thursday, when he plans to take his entire family to the amusement parks.
"I want to see their expressions when they first walk through the gates," said Allen. "My boys are so excitable. Any time you put them in front of any cartoon they see on TV or a big Mickey Mouse costume, those are the moments you look forward to. The opportunity you have to spend time with your family when traveling, doing those things, that's the great thing about being in Orlando."
This isn't the first time Allen and his teammates have been away for Christmas. The Celtics spent last year in Los Angeles with a holiday battle against the Lakers. What's more, the team played the following night in Golden State, losing both games and stumbling through a 1-3 road trip.
Players relish the fact that there's at least a day of breathing room on both ends of Friday's game, even if the Celtics kick off a three-game West Coast swing Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Boston understands this is its own doing. If the Celtics weren't so good in recent seasons, the NBA probably wouldn't put them on the league's marquee broadcast.
"You'd like to be at home like everybody else, enjoying your family," Pierce said following Tuesday's win and before his right knee acted up, forcing him to skip the trip to Orlando. He will not play against the Magic and is expected to miss the team's entire four-game road trip. "But Christmas to me is all about giving, and we can give the fans a special treat on Christmas Day, playing a great game. Everybody is going to be watching. I'm happy with that."
Echoed Rivers: "Obviously, I'd rather be home with my family, I think everyone would. But we sign on for this ... It's a privilege to play on that day because it means your team is doing well. So we try to look at it that way."
Allen realized Christmas would never be the same when he was a freshman at the University of Connecticut and the Huskies traveled for a holiday hoops tournament.
"I was on a beach in Hawaii my freshman year in college, and I didn't know what I was doing. I was thinking, 'This isn't Christmas,'" said Allen. "Being around the tree, having it cold outside, snuggled by the fireplace -- that's what Christmas is about."
But Allen knows there should be plenty of those days in the years to come. So he packed a tube of SPF 30 next to his Santa cap and, like the rest of his Celtics teammates, is trying to make the best of this experience.
And a win over the Magic would certainly help brighten their holiday season.
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.