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Celtics West Coast Road Trip: Preview the Opponents

Celtics take on Clippers (CBS LA)

With their Christmas Day beat down of the Brooklyn Nets behind them, a Boston Celtics team in need of some serious momentum heads west to begin a three game West Coast swing. They will face the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers, an up-and-coming Golden State Warriors squad, and the perennial underdogs of California, the Sacramento Kings. Here’s a quick look at what to watch for over the next four days:

Current State of the Celtics

A team still searching for an identity, The Celtics will need to continue to build some kind of momentum as the season moves into it’s second quarter if they hope to seriously contend in the Eastern Conference. Currently standing at 14-13, and second in the Atlantic Division, they finally saw some positives in their win over the Nets. Having lost 4 out of their last 5 games going into the Christmas Day showdown in Jay-Z’s new castle in Brooklyn, the Celtics got big games from Jared Sullinger, Rajon Rondo, and others, proving they can beat a good team without Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett having huge scoring games.

Despite this recent success, the roster and rotations continue to be somewhat in a state of flux. With Chris WIlcox done for a month with an injured thumb, the Celtics picked up Jarvis Varnado from the D-League to provide another big body off the bench. The early returns appear to show that Sullinger will be the biggest beneficiary of the extra minutes available without Wilcox, as he played a season-high 33 minutes in the victory. After matching a career high with 16 points and hauling down 7 boards, the rookie will hope to receive a greater share of the big-man minutes going forward, along with Brandon Bass and Jason Collins.

Avery Bradley had hoped to return during this road trip, but after not traveling with the team, it appears he will make his return on January 2nd, when the Celtics host the Grizzlies. Many have been counting on Bradley to bring a much-needed defensive presence to the backcourt rotation, but it appears this will have to wait until the calendar turns to 2013.

The Opponents

LA Clippers

The best team in Los Angeles will play host to the Celtics when they visit the Staples Center tonight: and it isn’t the Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers currently boast the best record in the NBA, and after a win over Denver on Christmas, have won 14 straight games. Their last loss came on November 26th, to the lowly New Orleans Hornets.

With a stifling defense allowing only 91.9 points per game (3rd best in the league), a dynamic offense led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and a deep rotation featuring DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler, Eric Bledsoe, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, and Jamal Crawford, these Clips are no joke. Rondo will have his hands full with CP3, who appears to have permanently settled the debate about who is better between he and Deron Williams. The Celtics better bring their A-game when they enter Lob City, or they may get run out of the building.

Golden State Warriors

Once again, these are not your older brother’s Warriors. The balance of power seems to have shifted in California, and (for now at least) the strong play of this young Golden State team is another reason for this. Featuring an offense that managed to improve after dumping Monta Ellis for the walking IR slot that is Andrew Bogut, the Warriors average over 100 points a game, ranking in the top 10 in that category. However, their youth and style of play also have the expected effect on the defensive end, as this is a team that struggles to stop opponents from scoring on them as well.

Their starting lineup features two first round draft picks, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli. Both rookies have been pressed into full-time duty earlier than most expected them to, but have performed more than ably in their roles. The offense is led by sharp shooter Steph Curry, rebounder David Lee, Klay Thompson, and sixth-man, Jarrett Jack.

Boston will have to try to keep this team in more of a half-court game, as anyone can put up points on the Warriors, but slowing them down is the key to getting them to play the Celtics’ pace. Rondo may continue to push the pace and find himself all alone, as has often been the case this year, but in this situation it may not be a bad thing. The fewer possessions they have, the lower scoring the game remains.

Sacramento Kings

Although the Kings are a weak team again this year, it would not do for the Celtics to come in unready to play, because as we saw with the Patriots and Jaguars last weekend, even the best teams can lose to the worst if they don’t pay attention.

Sacramento is a team in some disarray right now, as trade rumors swirl around their two best young players. Tyreke Evans appears to have worn out his welcome as a shoot-first point guard, and his development has not progressed at the rate many had hoped. DeMarcus Cousins, a 7 foot tall tower of immaturity, was “indefinitely suspended” by the Kings after getting into an altercation with head coach Keith Smart. Although this only lasted one game, he has clearly become too much of a problem, and the Kings could be looking at a very nice return package from a veteran team willing to take a chance on a talented big. (Hmm… Sound like anyone we know?)

This week will be a major step to showing the true character of this Celtics team, something that even coach Doc Rivers says has been lacking so far. Hopefully the Celtics can continue to build on their Christmas Day momentum, and pull out at least two wins on the trip.

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