As the Celtics trek home from a successful four-game road trip, a three-game cushion atop the Eastern Conference standings in their checked baggage, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Not only is the team playing inspired ball, particularly against the league's top competition, but it's nearing full health, with both Delonte West and Jermaine O'Neal pegged at (tentative) late-February returns.
But there's also plenty of work ahead for the Celtics even before the All-Star break arrives. That includes a daunting home slate to start the month, featuring visits from the Mavericks and Magic -- two teams with victories over the Celtics this season. The following week, the Lakers and Heat visit, and after the All-Star festivities, Boston goes back out west for another four-game road trip.
You can expect a few bumps in February, but optimism reigns at the moment. Let's dive into this week's Celtics Mailbag, where letter senders are surprisingly upbeat (well, except the visiting Spurs fans) and simply starting to gauge the competition around the league.
Q: Tougher schedule for the Celtics: Pre- or post-All Star Break? -- Adam (Burlington, Vt.)
A: Considering the Celtics get a visit from four of the league's top eight teams over a 10-day span (with a not-so-friendly trip to Charlotte for a back-to-back in the middle), I'd have to say pre-All-Star appears more daunting. Yes, the Celtics trek back out west after the break, but the slate is decidedly more relaxed than the just-concluded trip (no back-to-backs, one offday between each game). What's more, the first nine games of March currently project as non-playoff opponents. With only 28 games after the break, it's downhill sledding to the regular-season finish line.
Q: Judging by the Celtics' performance this season, who would you consider to be Boston's biggest obstacle toward another championship run? -- C.Boeshaar (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
A: Let's face it, the postseason is going to be no picnic. You have a team like Milwaukee that's actually on the outside looking in on the playoffs right now, but is likely to shimmy up to a No. 7 or 8 seed. So that means one of the East's top seeds could have to deal with a very good team in the first round (let's just say, Charlotte would be a much easier draw). From there, the East is so top-heavy that you'll probably see the likes of Orlando, Chicago and Miami in the latter rounds. The good news: Boston has proven it can beat those teams. The bad news: Those teams have a combined 98 wins this season for a reason, and nothing will come easy.
Q: So I agree that the C's look like the NBA's best team, but don't you still have to be concerned about the injury factor? Boston is one wrong move by Kevin Garnett away from being a possible second-round loser in the playoffs. -- Rick (Hartford, Conn.)
A: Thanks for checking in, Mr. Optimism. OK, your point is valid, but you can say that about any team in the league. Health, as the Celtics showed last season, is truly paramount to all. Your team needs to be as healthy as possible going into the playoffs, and must maintain that health throughout. Boston did a good job enduring its lumps over the final four months of the regular season last year just so guys like Garnett and Paul Pierce would be fit for the postseason, but we obviously saw what the loss of Kendrick Perkins did in the Finals. The one silver lining: The Celtics have added some nice depth this year, so they've protected themselves somewhat if -- and this is a big if -- they can get and stay healthy (which hasn't happened yet this season).
Q: Given that it's only halfway through the season, how likely are the C's to re-sign Glen Davis once the season is done? Championship or bust? -- Noorpaul (Covina, Calif.)
A: Given the level of play he's maintained for much of this year, I think the Celtics would love to bring back Davis, regardless of how this season plays out. The trouble they're going to run into is this: Can they compete with other teams in terms of 1) available cash and 2) future role? Yes, Davis has thrived as a sixth man this season and is likely to draw consideration for that award at season's end. But he's playing starter-like minutes and it's clear he wants to be a starter in this league sooner than later. The other moving piece here is whether the Celtics can re-sign Perkins, the incumbent starting center and a free agent-to-be.
Q: This season the Celtics' entire starting five is shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. Even Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are doing it for the first time in their careers. What do you think is the major reason for that? -- Paul (Boston)
A: As ESPNBoston.com student intern Greg Payne keenly pointed out last month, Boston's sizzling offense is being fueled by Rajon Rondo, whose play-making abilities are creating open shots for everybody on the court. Celtics coach Doc Rivers said it best: "Well they're open. I know that sounds simple, but I just think our guys take open shots, and they pass contested shots, and they trust each other. Shaq said it earlier in the year -- this team, if you're open, they pass it to you. If you're not open, they pass it to someone else, and if you're not open, you should pass it, and I think that's the way we play."
Q: Rondo's lack of a consistent jump shot -- same old story -- still worries me, especially come playoff time. Your thoughts? -- Chad (Leominster, Mass.)
A: It's funny to hear so much consternation about a guard who ranks in the top five in the league in field goal percentage. Rondo's jumper, while certainly has room for improvement, has actually been quite effective this year. As we've pointed out before, he's taking more shots in the mid-range (16-to-23 feet) and his percentage is up more than 13 percent from last season, to a more-than-respectable 46 percent clip. In fact, the more troubling aspect of Rondo's game this season had been his seeming lack of desire to attack the basket. He let us all know he still has that potential Tuesday night against Sacramento, and we'd like to see that more often. Rondo can't let his free-throw struggles affect his desire to get to the rim. He's so much more effective when he fearlessly wanders into the trees.
Q: Given Nate Robinson's recent struggles, will Doc Rivers bench him once Delonte West returns from injury? -- Mike (Boston)
A: Depends on when you ask me this question. After the first half Tuesday night against Sacramento, I would have said he would be benched even before West's return. But every time he makes a boneheaded play, he seems to atone with a scrappy one. For every ill-advised, off-balanced 20-foot jumper with 17 seconds on the shot clock, he comes back and drills a pair of key 3-pointers. I think some consistency would go a long way toward ensuring Robinson maintains quality minutes moving forward, but I think the Celtics' hope is that West's return actually brings out the best in Robinson by not forcing him to be a ball-handler as much.
Q: How long do you think it will be before Perk gets his starting spot back? -- Mariya (Atlanta, Ga.)
A: Let's put it this way: Perkins averaged 27.6 minutes per game during the 2009-10 season and on Sunday logged 27:43 in a reserve role against the Lakers. Once the team sees him shake enough rust, I think it's a perfunctory move -- one that might be expedited by...
Q: Is Shaq okay? He just does not look the same since the hip injury. -- Mary (Nashville, Tenn.)
A: Foul trouble hasn't helped his cause, but I agree, O'Neal hasn't been quite right in the last three games. I don't think it's any cause for major concern -- at the end of the day, we have to remember he's 38 years old and will endure these types of ups and downs -- but it's a good chance for Doc to politely slide him into that reserve role. And I do believe he's going to thrive on the second unit, especially once West is back. The Celtics haven't had a legitimate post threat on the second unit in recent years (at least not one willing to go there every trip down -- cough, cough, Rasheed Wallace).
Q: I believe you were a little off-base in saying the Celts are far and away the best team. You referenced the Celts-Spurs game in January, [won] 105-103 by the C's. Well, the Spurs were coming off a back-to-back and they did close the gap in the final minutes of the game. The Celts were [the] most rested team that game. And good teams will win their home games during the regular season. Again, I can accept the C's may be the best team in the NBA right now. But not way out in front of every other team. And to overlook the Spurs and the fact they have the best record weakens your argument. Remember, the C's come to San Antonio on March 31 and if the Spurs win, what [will] you write then? -- Marion (San Antonio, Texas)
A: I'll admit, I might have unintentionally tweaked Spurs fans a little bit with the "far and away" line. Clearly there's not a huge gap between the Spurs and Celtics (in fact, I would argue, the gap actually exists between those two teams and the rest of the league). Yes, the Spurs had a chance to win that game on the final possession, and, regardless of the reason, good teams find a way of at least giving themselves chances to do that. I'm not trying to diminish what the Spurs have done, but, to me, the Celtics -- save for some head-slapping hiccups against poor competition -- played the most inspired ball against top competition in January, separating themselves a bit at the top of the heap.
Q: A few items you neglect to mention on the head-to-head San Antonio-Boston matchup.1) Game was the second half of a back-to-back for the Spurs (Boston had a night off before) -- that is HUGE. 2) While Boston should have won by more with sloppy play in the final minutes, it was also sloppy play by the Spurs (15 TOs) that led to that verdict as well. As it was, Boston shot 61 percent (they made nearly every jump shot) and still only managed a two-point win. 3) The game was in the Garden. In a matchup of two top teams, the C's held serve like they were supposed to. Extrapolating that they are vastly superior overall would be a fallacy. 4) While you give San Antonio credit for feasting on sub-.500 teams, you also neglect to mention that they are 18-6 against teams over .500 (12 games over, just like Boston). Overall, the Spurs have played a much tougher schedule being in the West (opponents' winning percentage is 30 points higher than Boston's). Both teams are very good and capable of winning the title, but neither is "far and away" better than the other. And these points were important regarding the game you used as evidence, except that I guess they didn't back the point you were trying to make. -- EW (San Antonio, Texas)
A: All terrific and valid points. Again, I think the "far and away" line is what got everyone in Spursville in a lather. But you have to admit, after those back-to-back losses to New York and Boston, San Antonio didn't exactly feast on an elite slate. The Dallas win is nice, but there's no other victory against a team higher than 6th in the East (New York) and 7th in the West (Denver).
Q: I live on the North Shore and my buddies and I had our place robbed the other night. The best thing to do after something like that is a night of hard drinking, right? Well, we are all die-hard Celtics fans, so of course when I asked my buddy, several drinks in, what would lighten the mood, he said, "A [expletive] W in L.A. this Sunday." -- Kevin (Norton)
A: It might not bring your PlayStation back, but I hope you enjoyed Sunday's win. Yes, it certainly seems that beating the Lakers cures all ails in Boston. Heck, we haven't gotten one letter of panic in the Celtics Mailbag since then.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.