The Celtics have been making incremental defensive progress since the start of the season. They're no longer in the bottom third of all the relevant defensive statistics. In fact, they're edging -- or trending -- toward the top third. ESPN has them at No. 10 in defensive efficiency.
That's a good thing because they are going to need to really, really defend on their two-day, two-game swing through Texas. There's a Friday night matchup with the Houston Rockets, No. 3 in the NBA in points per game, and a Saturday night game against the San Antonio Spurs, who led the NBA in points per game through Wednesday's games.
There then is a two-day respite before the team meets the Bulls in Chicago for the second time in five weeks. The first visit was successful, a 101-95 victory. The Bulls are not the offensive juggernaut the Celtics will see in Texas, especially with Derrick Rose still idle. They are, however, along with the Pacers, one of the top two defensive teams in the league.
So the Celtics will see it from both sides on this trip. They will have their first encounter with James Harden as a Rocket. He is fifth in the NBA in scoring at 25 points a game. They will have their first encounter with Jeremy Lin as a Rocket. He's not putting up Linsanity numbers, but he did go for 38 last Monday against San Antonio in an overtime loss.
The Spurs, who already beat the Celtics in Boston the night before Thanksgiving, have two of the top 21 scorers in Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental also is in the top 10 in rebounding (he had 21 on Wednesday night against Utah along with 22 points and six blocked shots).
Having beaten the Mavericks on Wednesday, the Celtics will be seeing all three Texas teams in succession for the first time since 2008, when they played all three of them on the road and won all three. (They do not visit Dallas until March 22.) They are three games over .500 for the first time this season. They forced 28 turnovers on Wednesday night with a trapping defense (read: double-team) that Doc Rivers always has forsworn. Not anymore.
''I've been talking about it a lot, and over the past seven games it's been paying dividends for us. It's been terrific,'' Rivers said.
More tests await.
Friday at Houston
Kevin McHale is back on the Rockets bench following the devastating news of his daughter's death. He is facing his old team as an opposing coach for the fourth time, having gone 1-1 with the Timberwolves and 0-1 with the Rockets, a 97-92 OT defeat last season most memorable for McHale benching his leading scorer (Kevin Martin) while the Celtics erased a fourth-quarter deficit.
As noted above, Houston can put points on the board and McHale has channeled his inner Doug Moe, as the Rockets average an NBA-high 99.38 possessions per 48 minutes. Alas, the Rockets also allow a lot of points, nearly 105 a game. That's dead last in the NBA. So if the Celtics can avoid getting into a shootout, they have a pretty good chance of leaving the Toyota Center with a victory for the fifth time in their past six visits.
Harden and Lin aren't the only Houston newcomers making noise. Center Omer Asik is averaging 11.6 rebounds a game; no Rocket has averaged more than 11 since Charles Barkley in 1998-99. And Asik, along with Harden, ranks in the top four in largest scoring average increases from last season. Harden has gone from 16.8 ppg to 25 ppg, but he also is averaging 17.3 shots per game. Asik has seen his average rise from 3.1 in Chicago last season to 10.6.
Saturday in San Antonio
This will be the third game in four nights, but Rivers has given no indication he will rest Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Jason Terry to save them for the Tuesday night, key conference matchup with Chicago. Au contraire. The Celtics would like to even the score with the Spurs, having lost 112-100 on Nov. 21.
In that game, the Spurs shot 58.4 percent and outrebounded Boston 41-25. (The Celtics got their one and only offensive rebound in the final two minutes of the game.) Parker had a then-season-best 26 points, which he has since topped four times. Tiago Splitter erupted for a season-best 23; he hasn't come close to matching that since. Duncan is averaging nearly 18 points and 11 rebounds a game.
San Antonio won its four titles with suffocating (or, as the NBA would say, B-O-R-I-N-G) defense, but it has moved the needle in the other direction over the past few seasons. The Spurs' average of 105.48 points a game through Wednesday was a shade more than Oklahoma City's 105.41. San Antonio also is shooting better than 48 percent from the field.
A game against San Antonio -- anywhere -- used to be an automatic L for the Celtics; they lost 18 straight to the Spurs from 1997 to 2007. Rick Pitino never beat the Spurs while in Boston. Jim O'Brien never beat the Spurs while in Boston.
But the AT&T Center has been a most hospitable venue of late for Doc Rivers and the lads. The Celtics own a five-game winning streak in the building. Rajon Rondo has never lost there. Kevin Garnett has never lost there as a Celtic. And it's been almost seven years since the Spurs swept the season series from Boston.
Tuesday at Chicago
The Bulls have been a lot like the Celtics, up and down, but when Rose does come back, he will join a team that continues to play as if it's coached by Tom Thibodeau. Oh, wait, it is coached by Tom Thibodeau.
That means the Bulls defend. As this was being written on Thursday, they ranked second in points allowed, third in defensive field goal percentage, and second in defensive 3-point percentage. (The Celtics, who pride themselves as a defensive team, were 12th, 12th and 11th in those same three categories.)
The Celtics caught a break in Chicago during their last visit. Not only was Rose out, but so was Kirk Hinrich, the more-than-serviceable backup. It was the only game he has missed this season and he should be available this time around. Richard Hamilton (torn plantar fascia in left foot) has been out since Dec. 4 and is listed as day-to-day.
The Bulls also are one of the league's better rebounding teams (another area in which they differ from the Celtics) but, without Rose, struggle to score. Only a handful of teams average fewer points than Chicago, and the Bulls' shooting percentages from both 2-point and 3-point territory are in the bottom half.
But if the game gets defensive, the Bulls like their chances. They're one of the few teams to beat the Knicks, defeating the conference leaders 93-85 at the United Center on Dec. 8. However in the first 12 home games, the Bulls won just six, losing to the Hornets, Bucks and Pacers.
The Celtics will have two days between games (they will take Sunday off) to prepare for this one. Chicago, meanwhile, will have had a (presumably) tough game in Memphis the night before. Such are the scheduling quirks in the NBA. Life's not fair. Just ask Gregg Popovich.