Commentary

Schedule has challenges for Celtics

Updated: December 7, 2011, 12:49 AM ET
By Peter May | ESPNBoston.com

OK, it's a compressed schedule. Get over it. There's the good with the bad for Boston Celtics fans. If you're a Blake Griffin groupie, it's wait till next season. If you're itchy to see Jimmer Fredette, sorry. If you've got a Ricky Rubio poster on your wall, my condolences.

But if you're a general fan, you're in luck.

The Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Orlando Magic are in Boston for two games. Six of the eight playoff teams from the Western Conference will come to town -- and do you really mind not seeing New Orleans or Denver, Chris Paul notwithstanding? (Assuming he isn't a member of the Celtics by then.)

With 66 games, the NBA did its best to make sure the marquee teams played each other in the regular season. Thus, the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers will meet twice. The Celtics will also play the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks twice. Those are the only three teams in the Western Conference that Boston will play home and away. Think that's a coincidence?

Among Eastern Conference foes, the Celtics will play four games against the Knicks, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, Heat, Indiana Pacers and Bulls, and three against everyone else. The Cleveland Cavaliers will make only one visit to Boston. Same goes for the Charlotte Bobcats, Atlanta Hawks and, somewhat surprisingly, the Philadelphia Sixers, whom the Celtics don't see until March 7.

The schedule consists of 19 back-to-backs and one back-to-back-to-back, in April. After opening on the road with three straight games, the Celtics will come home to play nine of their next 11 at home. Eighteen of their last 27 games will be on the road.

With all that in mind, here's a quick assessment of some of the most seminal events of the truncated season.

Five most anticipated games

Can we go out on a limb here and say Lakers, Lakers, Heat, Heat, Heat? OK, that wouldn't be fair to the others, so let's limit one team per anticipated game and go from there.

I think we can start with the season opener against the Knicks on Christmas Day. The Knicks stand to be the Celtics' strongest threat to another Atlantic Division title and they will have Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups from Day 1. Plus, it's the first game of the season -- for everyone.

The second would be Game No. 2, the Celtics' first matchup with Miami since the playoffs last spring. Each team will have played on Christmas, the Heat having to watch the Mavericks raise the 2011 championship banner. It's hard to remember a tougher stretch out of the box for the Celtics, as they continue with a roadie in New Orleans after Miami in the first of their back-to-backs.

After the Knicks and Heat, we move to a visit from the NBA champion Mavericks on Dec. 11. Gotta put them on the list.

For the fourth game, let's include the Thunder on their Jan. 16 visit. It not only marks the return of Kendrick Perkins, but a chance to see a team that has the NBA's leading scorer and is a legitimate threat to win it all.

We'll close out the top five with the visit of the Lakers -- duh -- on Feb. 9. We're leaving the Bulls off of this list, but it you want a 5A, then it's Jan. 13. Orlando is on Jan. 23.

Toughest stretch of games

With a 66-game schedule, there are going to be some jaw-dropping stretches. The Celtics have two brutal ones, so pick your poison.

[+] EnlargeDoc Rivers
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireDoc Rivers will have to do some juggling to get the most out of the aging Celtics in the compressed 2011-12 season.

The first is from March 11-23, when they play eight straight road games, including their only Western Conference swing of the season. It starts with back-to-back games in L.A. against the Lakers and Clippers and continues to Golden State, Sacramento and Denver before going east to finish up with Atlanta, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, with a back-to-backer to close the trip. That is the third back-to-back in the trip, but the first one doesn't really count because the team will stay in Los Angeles for games against the Lakers and Clippers.

Another really tough stretch comes in April. From April 4-18, the Celtics play 11 games, including their only back-to-back-to-back of the season, all three on the road (Toronto, New Jersey, Charlotte). Seven of the 11 are on the road and the four home games are against the Spurs, Hawks, Sixers and Magic.

Easiest stretch of games

The Celtics have always gotten off to great starts in the new Big Three era and they will have the chance to do so again this season, thanks to the schedule. Yes, the first three on the road are not good. But after that? Twelve of the next 16 games are at home and -- amazingly -- there is a four-day stretch between games on Jan. 6 and Jan. 11. How did that happen?

The stretch includes the lone visits of the Mavericks and Thunder as well as visits by the Bulls and Magic. But also in the stretch of 12 homers: the Pistons, Wizards, Nets, Pacers (twice), Raptors, Suns and Cavaliers. Only one of those teams, the Pacers, made the playoffs last season. The Celtics and Pacers meet three times in the 16 games. They have a back-to-back against Washington (Jan. 1-2) and consecutive games against Orlando (Jan. 23-26).

Who's missing?

We touched on this above, but Celtics fans won't be seeing six of the Western Conference teams. They will see all but one team from the Southwest Division, New Orleans being the exception. (One benefit: Kevin McHale will come into town with the Houston Rockets on March 6.)

They won't see the Nuggets or Timberwolves from the Northwest Division. And they won't see the Kings, Clippers or Warriors from the Pacific Division. They play all of those teams on the road, however.

Road weary?

Every team is going to have its own nightmares with the schedule, but there are two areas where Doc Rivers is going to have to be a master manager of time and situations. First, there are 19 back-to-backs. That's the same number of back-to-backs as the Celtics had last season. They went 15-4 on the first night and 8-11 on the second, including, um, 3-11 on the road. This time around, 11 of the games on the back end are on the road and five of the back-to-backs feature both games on the road, including the difficult first one out of the box (Miami, New Orleans).

The one back-to-back-to-back could be worse. It comes in mid-April, at which point the season will be almost 88 percent complete. And the three opponents are neither daunting nor a geographical migraine (Toronto, New York, Charlotte).

The back-to-back closing that horrific road trip in March (Milwaukee and Philadelphia) looks more imposing than the three games in three days.

There you have it. It's almost upon us. To paraphrase Bette Davis from "All About Eve," Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy season.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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