Season is just getting interesting for C's

There were undoubtedly viewers that, jubilant from the local football team's triumph that punched its pass back to the conference title game, clicked over to Comcast SportsNet on Saturday night and were disappointed to find the Boston Celtics in action out west instead of postgame football analysis.

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Even as the team struggles to win games, players such as Avery Bradley are doing good things for the Celtics.To the casual sports fan, the Celtics are a bit of an afterthought. The Red Sox are champs, the Patriots are one win away from the Super Bowl and the Bruins are having another solid season. The Celtics, after Saturday's 112-104 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers punctuated a winless five-game road trip, have lost eight in a row and 11 of their last 12.

"I thought the Celtics were leading the division," your friend might say when apprised of the team's recent struggles. "They were leading the division," you'll sigh while trying to explain the dilapidated Eastern Conference and Boston's place in that hierarchy (more like lowerarchy, amiright?).

For those invested in every Celtics possession to those who are merely intrigued by how the season is playing out after the summer remodel, here's what you need to know about the state of the Boston basketball team at the moment: Things are just starting to get intriguing.

The Celtics return home from the West Coast battered and beaten after a daunting five-game trip that featured four of the top five teams in the Western Conference, but Boston competed well over the final three games and it will be interesting to see if the team is able to build off those positives (even as the schedule offers little let-up with Boston's first game back on Monday being a visit from another West contender in the Houston Rockets).

Out west, Kris Humphries emerged as Boston's most consistent big man and shuffled into the starting lineup given his infectious energy and effort. Jared Sullinger got himself back on track a bit, even while shuffling to a reserve role. Over the last two games, Sullinger is averaging 17.5 points and 10.5 rebounds over 29.5 minutes per contest. Avery Bradley continues to emerge offensively, averaging 17.4 points per game during the five-game trip and, over the past 10 games, he has been Boston's leading scorer at 15.7 points per contest. In a season where wins and losses shouldn't matter quite as much as they would for a title-driven team, seeing guys like Sullinger and Bradley develop is more important than where Boston ranks in the standings.

Speaking of the standings, the Celtics (13-25) will wake up Sunday morning with the fifth worst record in the NBA. Boston is only 2 ½ games ahead of the Orlando Magic (10-27), who own the second-worst record in basketball. For those drooling over the 2014 draft class, this eight-game losing streak has been magical. The Celtics have been playing competitive basketball, individual players are making strides, but each loss moves the team a little closer to adding a legitimate impact body in June's pick-a-palooza.

According to ESPN.com's computerized Hollinger Playoff Odds, Boston still has a 22.5 percent chance of making the postseason (despite the Celtics' recent struggles, the team is only 2 ½ games back of the final playoff berth in the lowly East). Regardless, Boston's chances at earning a top pick in the draft grow with every defeat and that excites those that know Boston has the potential to be a more legitimate contender next year if it plays its cards right this offseason.

And then there's Rajon Rondo. The All-Star point guard has been out of action for nearly a year after tearing his ACL in late January last season. Each day brings him a little closer to returning to game action. One report from Yahoo! Sports suggested that Rondo is eying a Jan. 17 visit from the Los Angeles Lakers as a potential return target (though Rondo denied having a firm date in mind).

Rondo has said that he will be back before the All-Star break, which means within the next 30 days or so, the Celtics will get back their quarterback. Many have wondered how the team will fare from there. Will Rondo's addition push the Celtics back into the playoff mix? Will Rondo need time to get reacclimated and will Boston struggle during that time?

It's all part of the intrigue surrounding the second half of the season, and we haven't even mentioned the Feb. 20 trade deadline, which could mean more in-season change for the Celtics as they look to best position themselves for a rapid race through this transition process.

Rondo's return ushers in an important stretch in terms of Boston evaluating its current personnel. Regardless of the team's record, the final three months of the season will be used by management to gauge which players will comprise the core of the team moving into a still-murky future. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has stressed that the team believes that Rondo can be the cornerstone of the franchise, but his contract is up after next season and the team must decide if it will pay Rondo enough to build around him.

The Celtics also must determine who best fits around Rondo. Bradley is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, one that could draw interest and offers around the league. Seeing him next to Rondo will help Boston better determine how much it is willing to spend to keep the guard combo together in future seasons. Boston also must see how others, such as Jeff Green and Sullinger, play alongside Rondo while determining what the core of this team will look like.

Oh sure, it's not as exciting as playoff football, but there are genuine reasons for excitement for Celtics fans.