- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- Bring on the Lakers.
Reeling after dropping back-to-back games to Eastern Conference rivals Orlando and Atlanta to start a grueling stretch (four games in four cities over five nights), the Boston Celtics stumble home, as close to rock bottom as they've been since the Big Three united two years ago.
On a day the Celtics could desperately use a visit from the likes of the four-win New Jersey Nets (that won't come until later in the week), they get the 36-win Lakers on Sunday afternoon (3:30 ET, on ABC). Typically, defending NBA champions are the last team you want to face in a game tagged with a must-win stamp.
A loss Sunday would match the Celtics' longest losing streak of the season (three). Boston has already endured two three-game skids while dropping 10 of their past 16 overall.
What would sting most about a loss Sunday is that it would come against yet another elite team, the type the Celtics will have to hurdle if they are to accomplish their ultimate goal of winning another NBA title.
"We gotta do a better job," said captain Paul Pierce. "The Lakers are coming in Sunday and it feels like a must-win. These are teams we'll see in the playoffs and we're giving them a psychological edge."
Meanwhile, Boston's psyche is clearly in disarray. The eloquent Ray Allen spoke in short sentences after the Atlanta loss, using "I don't know" as a refrain when asked about the team's recent struggles. The Celtics were left clinging to the power of positive thinking as Kevin Garnett insisted the team had no choice but to turn things around.
Which is why Sunday's game might be exactly what Boston needs. No individual win -- save for maybe against Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland or a fictional fifth meeting with the Hawks -- will do as much for the Celtics' confidence and the sanity of their fans than a triumph over their storied rivals.
It doesn't even have to be pretty. Beggars can't be choosers. When Garnett returned last week, the Celtics put together back-to-back ugly wins over the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers. It didn't matter how they looked, they were wins.
Trouble is, Boston figures it's going to take some of its best basketball to prevail. As Garnett opined after the Atlanta loss, "If we come up anything less than great [against the Lakers], we're going to get our asses kicked."
When the Lakers won in Philadelphia on Friday for their third straight victory, guard Kobe Bryant was keeping one eye on the Celtics. Noting their struggles against Orlando and Atlanta, he predicted that they will have things turned around by the time Sunday comes.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how they answer that challenge," Bryant said. "Every time we go back to Boston, it's special, because that's where we lost the  championship. All those memories come back."
The Celtics are already three games into the second half of the 82-game season, but the All-Star break is still barely in sight. Even after the Lakers game, the already road-weary Green must fly to the nation's capital for a Monday night joust with the Washington Wizards.
It screams of a letdown, regardless of Sunday's outcome.
Boston follows with a three-game homestead, but that includes visits from playoff contenders like Miami and Orlando (the Nets, thankfully, are tucked in between).
But the Celtics know they must get things turned around. And it's better to start now than later.
"It's definitely a big game [Sunday] because we need a win," said Rajon Rondo. "This is a tough week for us, four games in five nights. We need every game we can get."
So bring on the Lakers. Maybe it's just what this team needs.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
7dEthan Sherwood Strauss