Odds are no one spent time in early December looking ahead to the first game of the season between the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets. But anyone gazing a month into the future would not have foreseen a battle between two playoff contenders.
Yet two teams firmly ensconced in the Eastern Conference's top eight will take the court Monday night, when the Celtics host the Nets.
Both teams head into the game on winning streaks. The Celtics last played Friday, when they won their second straight by beating the visiting Dallas Mavericks 114-93. The Nets earned their third consecutive victory Sunday by cruising past the host Chicago Bulls 117-100.
The Celtics (23-15), who are in fifth place in the East and third in the Atlantic Division, are 5-5 in their last 10 games while dealing with a spate of injuries.
Kyrie Irving, who has been sidelined the last two games with a left eye injury, is expected to return against the Nets. Power forward Marcus Morris, who missed Friday's game with a sore neck, could be back Monday. Center Aron Baynes, who suffered a broken left hand on Dec. 19, is expected to return to action this month as well.
"It seems like we'll never be fully loaded, or if we are, it's only like one or two games," Morris said following practice Sunday. "That's why we're so talented all around, because you know when guys go down, we have guys that are more than capable of coming in and stepping in and playing starter's minutes and basically being a starter. We preach that all year, and even when guys are out, we still have no doubt that the other guys are going to get it done."
No one's been getting it done in more impressive -- or surprising -- fashion than the Nets (20-21), who have surged into the seventh spot in the East by winning 12 of their last 15 games dating back to Dec. 7. It matches the franchise's best 15-game stretch since its relocation from New Jersey prior to the 2012-13 season. Brooklyn also went 12-3 from Dec. 28, 2012, through Jan. 25, 2013.
The current surge began immediately after an eight-game losing streak that dropped the Nets into 12th place in the East and last in the Atlantic. As Brooklyn woke up Dec. 6, the morning after the final loss in the skid, it was closer to last in the conference (2 1/2 games ahead of the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls) than the eighth and final playoff spot (four games behind the Charlotte Hornets)
Now, though, the fun might only be beginning for the Nets, who believe their long rebuilding phase is nearly complete. Brooklyn entered this season 108 games under .500 the previous three seasons.
"I think we've reached -- not the apex -- but we're getting close to reaching the principles and the ideal of the type of basketball we want to play," third-year Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said following Sunday's win. "We've been at it a long time, myself almost three seasons. I sat back in my seat today because it was running by itself and they knew what to do and they were talking. That's the ideal scenario for a coach."