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Christmas Countdown: Schedule concerns?

Can Kevin Garnett and the rest of the Celtics make it through a condensed schedule? AP Photo/Bob Leverone

Editor’s note: From Dec. 12-23, we’ll countdown to the Celtics’ Christmas matchup with the Knicks (Dec. 25 at 12 p.m. ET) by hitting on 12 big topics facing the Green this season.

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Make no mistake, the veteran members of the Boston Celtics wanted the NBA lockout to end. You just get the feeling that some might not have been too upset if it had lingered into the new calendar year.

Yes, the idea of, say, a 50-game regular season was mighty enticing to the elder statesmen on the Celtics’ roster. Instead, the NBA hit the accelerator on negotiations in early December, whipped together a 66-game slate that tips on Christmas Day, and now Boston faces a daunting schedule loaded with back-to-backs.

That’s less than ideal for a team that struggled playing consecutive games in a normally paced season last year. Boston was a mere 8-11 in the second games of back-to-backs last season and 23-15 overall in 19 back-to-back situations.

The Celtics will play 19 more back-to-backs during the 2011-12 season and the NBA tossed in one back-to-back-to back with stops in Toronto, New Jersey, and Charlotte for good measure.

On the surface it looks like a recipe for disaster, but Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge took a more diplomatic approach.

“It’s the same for everybody,” he shrugged. “Everybody has the same type of schedule. We have a lot of young guys, too. I think that we’re just gonna have to play more people in a condensed schedule. That may be a good thing.”

It could be, though it’s hardly been Celtics coach Doc Rivers’ philosophy to go deep with his rotations.

“I’d rather keep it at eight or nine, but I’ve done 10 before,” Rivers said of utilizing his bench depth. “I usually do it early in the year, anyway. This year you have to do it to win the games -- you have to win the games and [play more bodies].”

If history is a guide, older teams actually fared pretty well during the last lockout in 1999. That year, though, the season didn’t start until Feb. 5 and teams played a mere 50-game slate. The San Antonio Spurs defeated the New York Knicks in a battle of veteran squads in the NBA Finals.

How will it affect the Celtics this time around?

“I’m really not concerned by it,” said Rivers. “I’m just happy we’re playing basketball ... I don’t really think it’s an advantage either way.”

Rivers noted how younger teams might have fresher legs, but veteran teams will have chemistry out of the gates. For the Celtics, with 19 of 32 games at home before the All-Star break, that’s a chance to establish themselves early.

But can this team hold up to the rigors of March and April? There’s a daunting eight-game road trip that sees the team spend a week out West before working their way back across the country in mid-March. The final four weeks of the regular season feature five back-to-backs and that grueling back-to-back-back on the road.

“It’s going to be a season of mental toughness,” said Rivers. “That’s going to be a key factor, for every team, not just us ... Lots of games, lots of travel. This could be one of those year, and you have to be ready for it.”

Outside of a right leg injury that sidelined Kevin Garnett for nine games, Boston’s Big Three was incredibly healthy last season (in fact, it was injuries to Rondo and the center position that hurt the team most). One of those centers the team needs healthy is Jermaine O’Neal, who will likely be called upon to be a starter this season, despite missing 58 games last season and making a mere 10 starts during the regular season.

“I don’t know what this year will bring,” admitted O’Neal. “Obviously, it’s a very demanding schedule, for myself and also for this team. But, physically , I couldn’t feel any better than I feel right now.”

Given the limited resources to supplement this year’s roster, the Celtics absolutely need good health in order to compete with the other beasts of the Eastern Conference. A condensed schedule will make that slightly more daunting, but the Celtics are confident they can thrive despite the hurdles.

Heck, Pierce thinks the extra time off might have benefitted this team.

“[The time off] was good though, you know, especially for the older guys who logged so many minutes and played so many years,” said Pierce. “I think this time off was like a refresh button for us. That’s what we kind of talked about when we were in the locker room. A lot of people are saying that we’re older and [talking about] the schedule and the way it’s crunched in, but everybody is gonna have to deal with the season, with the same type of schedule and the back-to-backs coming up. But I think with the way that we keep ourselves in shape and our health, how it’s been the last couple years, I think we’re going to fare pretty good.”