The Celtics kick off a busy month tonight against the Portland Trailblazers. The C’s have 14 games on the slate (7 home, 7 away), including the big Christmas Day matchup with the Orlando Magic and a New Year’s Eve date with the surprisingly alluring New Orleans Hornets.
December is going to be an excellent litmus test for the Celtics’ ongoing efforts to stay focused against mid and low-level teams. There are Sunday afternoon games against both New Jersey and Indiana and four back-to-backs this month, if you count tonight’s Blazer game. The other second-night games are against the Sixers, the Hawks, and the Pistons, all very winnable, but until we are comfortable with the Celtics’ focus, all also very losable.
Here’s a look at the full December schedule:
I thought we’d track where the Celtics sit on some key metrics, make some predictions for the month and then check back at the end and see how they (and we) did. The best place to do that is after the jump.
As of this morning, the Celtics (13-4, tied for first in the Eastern Conference) are:
I’m not going to get into any analysis of the figures above in this post (there is, of course, plenty of that on the horizon). Instead, let’s make a few predictions, all of which are probably a good way for me to look stupid a month from now.
Safe Prediction: As we all know, there can only be one. So, I proclaim that by the end of December, the Celtics will be the clear favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. The Magic and the Celtics have identical records right now, but the general feeling about the Magic seems to be they need an upgrade to seriously challenge the Celtics in the post-season (or a rash of Boston injuries). They lack a go-to off-the-dribble scorer (Vince Carter and the calcifying Rashard Lewis do not count) and in the ‘pluck-is-not-enough’ category, Jameer Nelson, for all his periodic excellence, seems ripe for an upgrade (Steve Nash would be interesting but does anyone think Robert Sarver and Co. will be smart enough to offload him while he still has value?).
Miami is not in the conversation at this point, at least not without a lot of assumptions about synergy and teamwork and ego-burying I’m not willing to make. Dark horse Chicago remains just that – at least until we see them play a rash of games with Carlos Boozer.
Bold Prediction: Shaquille O’Neal will seize the starting center role from Kendrick Perkins. The C’s improving offense has come in no small part as a result of Shaq’s effectiveness (3rd in the league in PER amongst centers at 21.87, only an 11.4 turnover ratio) and the way he maximizes the offensive talents of those around him in the starting lineup. None of the starting five can be left alone, unlike when the C’s are playing with Perk, who is both a turnover machine and eminently guardable. We’re going to debate this in greater detail in the near future.
Ridiculous Prediction: The real reason for Jermaine O’Neal’s extended absence from the lineup will be revealed when JO steps back onto the floor on Christmas Day with two new state-of-the-art bionic knees. O’Neal will promptly drop 22 points and 21 rebounds in the first quarter, block all of Dwight Howard’s shots, and sign a 6-year, $120M extension during a timeout.
Midway through the second quarter, O’Neal will head to the scorer’s table to check back in, only to have the hydraulics in his knees freeze up, leaving him face-down on the floor and immobile. Post-game, Doc Rivers will take it all in stride, commenting, “It’s experimental technology. Things happen. We’re gonna stick him back in the repair shop until the playoffs. The important thing is we have him around for another six years.”
Predicted December Record: 11-3.
(Note – it’s a busy day here at CelticsHub – Hayes is on deck with a Blazers game preview and we’ve already got a great piece from Brendan on Glen Davis’ big night against Cleveland and a link to Paul Flannery’s superb new essay on Bill Russell. Don’t miss ‘em).