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Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Road to recovery begins out West

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

The NBA All-Star break wasn't quite a reset button for the Boston Celtics, as a five-day respite simply can't undo the damage incurred late in the first half of the 2009-10 season.

Rivers
Celtics coach Doc Rivers thinks opening the post-All-Star break schedule on the road could be a good thing for his team.

But it's a little bit like a cheat code that might have restored the Celtics' energy level -- dangerously low before the break -- to full strength for the second half of the season. So the question becomes, does Boston have enough in the tank to beat the game?

During their recent struggles, the Celtics always had a built-in excuse for failure, most notably that they didn't have their entire roster healthy. Then Marquis Daniels, the so-called final piece of the puzzle, returned last week from left thumb surgery that sidelined him for 28 games, and Boston still dropped its final two games of the first half.

So players suggested they simply needed the All-Star break to refresh for the stretch run. Five days away from basketball would heal some of the physical wounds, and allow them to refocus mentally.

All of which makes Tuesday night's visit to Sacramento the first of what should be a string of "big games" over the next 32 contests to close out the regular season.

Will the Celtics truly emerge refreshed from the break, or was it just more hollow promises?

"This is a very big road trip coming up, very substantial for us," Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said of a stretch that features four games in six days, including a trio of national TV games in four days against the Los Angeles Lakers (Thursday night, TNT), Portland Trail Blazers (Friday night, ESPN) and Denver Nuggets (Sunday afternoon, ABC).

"It's imperative that we get back to the way we know we can play -- be more consistent and be a better team starting off the second half of the season," he said. "It's very important we start strong."

Maybe more than players even know, particularly as the Feb. 18 trade deadline approaches. The Celtics and Danny Ainge, the team's president of basketball operations, will have just Tuesday's game against the Sacramento Kings (18-34) to make one final judgment on whether a move needs to be made. The deadline will pass before Thursday's tip-off against the Lakers.

If the Celtics, true to their word, come out strong against Sacramento and display the brand of basketball that kept them near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for much of the first half, then maybe they did just need a break.

But if Boston displays the same uninspired, sloppy basketball that decorated the past six weeks -- a stretch that saw Celtics lose 13 of 22 games -- then it would seem Ainge would be even more pressed to make a move that provides a shakeup.

In a way, the future of the Boston Celtics -- the remainder of the 2009-10 season and possibly beyond -- hinges on Game No. 51, a random Tuesday night visit to River City.

"It's important we go out there and play better, play more consistent," Celtics captain Paul Pierce said after Sunday's All-Star Game. "Maybe this is a chance for us to get on the road, get ourselves together."

They're going to have to, or this team might not be together much longer. Though, as daunting as this four-game stretch is to open the second half, the Celtics do embrace the idea of a challenging road trip to start the second half.

"You're forced together on the road," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "You're on the bus, you're on the plane, you're out to dinner together. Road trips, in a lot of ways, are good. Except that the games are tough to win, especially at a time when you're not playing well."

The Celtics emerged from an early-season funk and put together an 11-game winning streak based largely on the success of a four-game road trip that started Nov. 29 in Miami.

Can the Celtics do it again?

"It's a great opportunity to play some good teams, some great tests out there on the road," Pierce said. "Sacramento is playing well, then the Lakers, Portland and Denver. What a better way to get back on track than against good teams.

"We don't like the position we're in. We want to be at the top [of the conference standings]. We want a shot at homecourt advantage. We've got a lot of work to do."

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.