Posted Feb 16 2010 11:23AM
There's a ticking, maybe even a thumping, getting louder by the day and, starting right now, by the hour.
The Celtics not only begin a critical four-game Western swing tonight, but also play through the every-game trade rumors that threaten to break up this championship gang of theirs. It's the first week of the rest of their lives, is all.
No move will be franchise-altering because Boston is staying in win-now mode with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But what happens between tonight in Sacramento and Sunday in Denver may determine the direction for at least 2009-10. Three of the four games are against likely Western Conference playoff teams -- the Lakers on Thursday, the Trail Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back and finally the Nuggets -- and the trade deadline is Thursday.
And then there's the other calendar aspect. It is mid-February, about 60 percent of the way through the regular season, just beyond the mile marker of the All-Star break, and the Celtics are struggling to capture a championship-level consistency and dependability. Garnett is dragging an injured leg around as opponents turn the corner on him with alarming ease. Pierce recently missed time because of a strained foot. Ray Allen, the name mentioned most often in trade reports, is 34 and averaging 36.7 minutes a game.
"I'm not a story-teller nor am I a fortune teller," Garnett said. "But I do know consistency makes up for a lot. And the sooner the better."
Tick, tick, tick, tick ...
"We definitely have to start finding it right away," Pierce said. "Especially after the All-Star break. We have a big road trip coming up. I think this is going to be key for us. We finally got our whole roster back in practice. It's the first time we had that all season long, which happened a week ago, once we got Marquis [Daniels] back. The sense of urgency is definitely going to be there. We talked about it this last week. We've got to start turning it up, start finding some consistency, because you just don't turn it on once the playoffs start.
"We're going to use that [Western swing] as a barometer. Hopefully, we could do well on this trip so it can carry over to the rest of the season."
The Celtics are 32-18, which hardly seems like time to start mapping the quickest route to the lifeboats. That's pace for 52 wins and home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. They're all of two games behind Orlando for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. This is not a panic moment.
They can start to see it from here, though. The Celtics are easily the oldest among the lead pack in the East, a group headed by the Cavaliers, the Magic and Hawks. So signs of breaking down and lack of dependability get magnified. Boston has been losing games in the second half, another problem. Boston has been losing games, period, going into the break with five defeats in 10 games.
Yes, the injuries are to blame. And double yes, the extensive experience can come back to help the Celtics in late April (if not mid-February). But it means something that of all the people saying this is the critical moment, that this is the time to find fourth gear, no one is saying it with more certainty than the guys stomping down on the clutch.
"I don't think you can just turn it on, turn it off," said Rajon Rondo, their All-Star point guard. "We've got to start now, start finding ways to win and close out games."
There is encouragement in a 17-9 road record. All involved know that this is a week when so much could change.
"We got a sense of urgency," Garnett said. "We know that we got to be more consistent with who we are. I think we're a defensive team first that can score the basketball and with the emergence of our young guys and everybody getting better it's been some type of adjustment there, but none of that should ever knock off our rhythm and stuff. But we have had some injuries and different things of that such and that plays all into chemistry and such.
"No excuses given, none made here. We just got to play better and be consistent. We've got to definitely have better third quarters and better second halves, and that's what we plan on doing. So the second half, we have goals."
Mostly, stopping the clock from running out on them.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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