Not since Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals has a visit to Cleveland meant this much to the Boston Celtics.
Fresh off a much-needed All-Star break, the staggering Shamrocks reconvened in the Forest City on Monday hoping to find their way out of the woods. Boston has lost a Big Three-era-worst five straight and is merely 1.5 games ahead of the Cavaliers for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference entering the second half of the season.
Boston will officially hit the midpoint of the 2011-12 campaign (Game 33 of 66) during Tuesday's joust with a Cavaliers squad that continues to show encouraging signs despite losing energetic big man Anderson Varejao to a broken wrist earlier this month.
With an incredibly daunting eight-game road trip looming in March (Boston plays 11 of its 17 games that month on the road), the next seven games could be vital in determining the direction of the franchise. Sitting two games below .500 (15-17) coming out of the break, the Celtics and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge must decide soon how they will approach the rapidly approaching March 15 trade deadline.
Will Boston be a buyer looking to give itself a small jolt for a late-season push? Will the Celtics be a seller turning its attention to the future and acknowledging little chance of being a true contender this year? Will the Green simply stay the course and see what happens?
In the 12 days before Boston heads out West, we should find out those answers. Coach Doc Rivers has preached patience with his club, noting that injuries played a big role in its first-half woes and the team has a chance to emerge from the break in about as good shape as it's going to be in (particularly if top reserve Brandon Bass is ready to return to the floor after missing the past six games because of right knee inflammation).
With a softer schedule to start the second half (the first four opponents -- Cleveland, Milwaukee, New Jersey and New York -- are all sub.-500 with a combined record of 53-81), the Celtics need to capitalize. Things ramp up a bit, including a back-to-back with surging Houston (20-14) and Atlantic-leading Philadelphia (20-14), then the Celtics host Portland (18-16) before heading to the Left Coast.
A few key questions to ponder in the second half of the season:
* Can the Celtics stay healthy? Boston players combined to miss a total of 58 games in the first half of the year, and much of the team's inconsistencies can be traced to health (whether it was the absence of Paul Pierce early in the year or that of Bass late in the first half). Can the aging Big Three hold up as the schedule goes into overdrive, and will younger players like Bass and Chris Wilcox be able to stay upright?
* How will the schedule affect Boston's play? The second half of the season is downright brutal -- 34 games in 59 days, 19 of which are on the road. Not only does that eight-game road trip in March start with four games out West -- passing the trade deadline during that stretch -- but Boston hopscotches back across the country with stops in Denver, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The Celtics also have 10 back-to-backs (and one back-to-back-to-back) on tap, with 16 of those 23 games coming on the road, including six tail ends of back-to-backs (and all three nights of the lone back-to-back-to-back). For a Boston team that is 8-10 in nine back-to-backs so far this season, including 0-5 on second nights ending on the road, that's a bit daunting if it craves more consistency.
* Can Pierce find his shot? The Celtics played their best basketball this season when their captain played his. That's hardly a coincidence. Although Boston clearly needs contributions from its entire roster, Pierce's play will dictate in large part how successful the rest of the season will be for the Green. If his shot continues to be erratic, he'll have to be an even better facilitator to keep Boston afloat. If his shot gets going, that will help eliminate some of the woes around the offense.
Decisions loom for Boston, and the schedule is going to make it difficult to get a true read on the team. It's just another obstacle to navigate in this crazy season. At the very least, we'll soon have answers to these lingering questions, and Boston will know exactly what its future holds.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.