Celtics ready to officially hit the road
Get a preview of Boston's upcoming four-game road swing
If you define a road trip as (A) any stretch of three or more consecutive games away from home and (B) at least two of which must be games against nonconference teams, then this upcoming week easily qualifies as the Celtics' first official road trip of the 2010-11 season.
And it's a doozy.
Three of the four opponents are likely playoff teams. One of the opponents is a presumptive NBA finalist and/or champion (at least in the eyes of many so-called experts). There will be two possible 2010-11 MVP sightings. And, for the icing on the cake, there is a reunion with old friend Tony Allen, eight days after the reunion with another old friend, Brian Scalabrine.
Actually, all four teams have Celtics ties either on their bench or in the front office. Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks was traded to the Celtics in 1997, but was waived five days later and never played for them. One of his assistants is Mark Bryant, who played two games for the 2002-03 Celtics. Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle spent three seasons with the Celtics and has a championship ring as a member of the 1985-86 team. Miami Heat assistant Bob McAdoo had a forgettable 20-game run with the 1978-79 Celtics. And Memphis Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace had a similar role in Boston under both Rick Pitino and Danny Ainge.
The trip opens Sunday night in Oklahoma City against this year's chic Western Conference "It" team, the Thunder. It continues the next night at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, a one-time charnel house for the Celtics. It moves next to the American Airlines Arena in Miami, for the second meeting of the season with the Heat and their talented threesome. And it concludes next Saturday night in Memphis against the Grizzlies.
"It's just a tough trip,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I saw it when the schedule came out. We'll be ready."
Four games in seven days is not exactly back-breaking stuff by NBA road-trip standards. (Four games in five days is the gold standard for total team exhaustion.) There is a two-day break before the rematch with the Heat. There is only one back-to-back (Oklahoma City and Dallas) and there are three days off following the Grizzlies game, more than enough time to prepare for the first TD Garden visit of John Wall and the Wizards. That also should be Delonte West's debut.
During their back-to-back, the Celtics will play as many road games in the space of 24 hours as they have in the first 12 days of the season. They leave New England carrying a 5-1 record, 4-0 at home, and with a four-game winning streak. There are injury concerns as Shaquille O'Neal (knee) has missed the past three games and Rajon Rondo is battling foot woes.
But the schedule doesn't wait. So here's a stop-by-stop preview of the Celtics' first extended trip of the season.
Sunday at Oklahoma City, 7 p.m. ET
The Celtics have a perfect record at the Ford Center against the Thunder, having beaten them in both previous visits to Oklahoma City. (The building was not as kind when the Hornets were playing there.) This will be the third home game of the season for the Thunder, who boast one of the truly dynamic stars in MVP candidate Kevin Durant and a more-than-serviceable supporting cast featuring All-Star-in-waiting Russell Westbrook. And keep an eye on veteran center Nenad Krstic. The Thunder were 27-3 last season in the games in which Krstic scored 10 or more points.
Oklahoma City is the third-youngest team in the NBA, evidence that Massachusetts native Sam Presti, the team's general manager, has done a masterful job assembling the group. The Thunder already have two wins over Eastern Conference teams (Chicago, Detroit) and were 22-8 against the East last year, including a victory over the Celtics in March (when Boston was into its Comfortably Numb phase awaiting the playoffs.)
The Celtics didn't have a lot of prep time for this one. Rivers called off practice on Saturday after Friday night's OT victory over the Bulls. Oklahoma City hasn't played since winning in Portland on Thursday night. This will be a big test right out of the box for the Celtics. The two teams meet again in Boston on Nov.19.
Monday at Dallas, 8:30 p.m. ET
Another game, another Western Conference power. And, once again, there won't be any time to practice. That's life in the NBA, folks. After hosting Denver on Saturday night, the Mavs will have a day to prepare for the Celtics' only visit of the season. American Airlines Center was a death trap for the Celtics until the new Big Three arrived. Boston has not lost in Dallas in the Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen/Paul Pierce era, taking the past three. Prior to that, Boston had dropped seven straight in Dallas.
The Mavericks won three out of their first four games, two of which were one-point games (a win at Denver and a loss at home to Memphis.) They once again have a strong, deep lineup, anchored by hearty perennial Dirk Nowitzki, who has averaged 27.5 points a game against Boston over his career. (He was second in the league in scoring through Friday's games.) Jason Kidd and Rondo present an intriguing clash of the titans at point guard -- they were 1-2 in assists heading into the weekend -- and the Celtics' big men will be tested by Carlisle's two-headed monster at center, Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood.
The Mavericks have been uncharacteristically stingy on defense, holding opponents to under 40 percent shooting in the first four games. They also have been an excellent first-quarter team this season, something to bear in mind as the Celtics will be on the second day of a back-to-back.
Thursday at Miami, 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
The Celtics know they didn't see the real Heat team in the overhyped season opener. Dwyane Wade, for instance, had not played for practically the entire exhibition season (and it showed). The second meeting, a TNT game, will find a little bit more representative Miami team, although the Heat still are without the injured Mike Miller. (And, to be fair, Boston has yet to have West, still suspended. But he'll be back before Miller.)
After losing the season opener, the Heat ripped off four straight wins to match the best five-game start in team history. They then lost a close one in New Orleans on Friday night before playing New Jersey on Saturday, their second game of the young season against the Nets. The Celtics game comes in the midst of a six-game homestand for Miami, matching their longest of the season. They will have had a day to prepare for the vaunted rematch, having met Utah on Tuesday.
LeBron James is once again filling up stat lines, averaging 20.3 points, 7.7 assists and 5 rebounds a game entering Saturday. Alas, through six games, he also was third in the league in turnovers at 5.2 a game. Wade recovered nicely from his Boston bust and was averaging 23.3 points through six games. But here's a potentially terrifying stat: The Heat have been at the top of the league's defensive statistics all season; through six games, they allowed only 86 points a game, fewest in the NBA. And teams were shooting only 40.3 percent against them. If they keep that up all season
Saturday at Memphis, 8 p.m. ET
The Celtics have had good luck at the FedEx Forum, which actually could have more people than empty seats for the visitor's sole appearance in Elvis Land this season. They've won their past four there, including a 110-105 verdict last December, when they were off to their 27-5 start. The Grizzlies then came to Boston and crushed the Celtics in March by 20 (see Oklahoma City entry for comparative purposes).
The Grizzlies are the second-youngest team in the NBA and have been your basic trick-and-treat team so far. When they win, they look pretty good. When they lose, they look pretty bad. Case in point: In their two wins, the Grizzlies held opponents to 89.5 points a game. In their four losses (they played in Sacramento on Saturday), they allowed an average of 120.3 points a game.
It will be interesting to watch the Rondo-Mike Conley matchup. The Grizz point guard entered the weekend as one of only two players (Chris Paul is the other) to have averaged 15 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds per game. Memphis went 8-0 in the preseason and then opened with wins in two of its first three games, including a 91-90 victory in Dallas. The Kings game Saturday was the fourth in a four-game Western swing that brought losses in Los Angeles (Lakers), Golden State and Phoenix. Tony Allen was averaging 13.2 minutes a game off the bench for Memphis and had produced a pair of 10-point games. He averaged 16.5 minutes a game for the Celtics last season.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.