Celtics face stiff Western test

Where did this come from?

Actually, it's been here since the 2009-2010 schedule was released last summer, but now that it has finally arrived, it looks positively portentous. The Boston Celtics face eight straight games against Western Conference teams -- all but one of them over .500 -- then have an Easter Sunday visit from LeBron and the boys to cap a nine-game you-know-what from you-know-where.

Think Doc Rivers will have a pretty good handle on his team by the time he sits down to carve the ham Sunday night after the Cavs game? Then again, maybe by that point he'll need an official carver.

In what normally would be seen as a positive, only three of the nine games are on the road -- the first three, starting Friday night in Houston and continuing with a game Saturday against the hottest team in the league, Dallas. Then there's the annual visit to Salt Lake City on Monday. But these Celtics have defied logic by having a marginally superior road record (22-12) than home record (21-12), almost unheard of for a division leader and purported title aspirant at this point of the season.

"Houston to Dallas to Utah, I don't think I've ever done that," said Rivers, who called the road trip "inconvenient," which puts it mildly. "Not since I've been here. That's a strange one, but you have to play them somehow, somewhere, and they sneaked them in there. That's part of it. You've just got to do it."

After the Utah game, there follows a truly attractive (for us, anyway) set of home games: Denver, Sacramento, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston and Cleveland. How many probable wins are in that nine-game stretch? One -- the homer against the Kings on March 26. Every other game is a toss-up at best.

"There's nothing we can do about it," Rivers said. "We've just got to go out and play."

The Celtics begin this stretch tied with Atlanta for third place in the East, although the Hawks own the tiebreaker by virtue of their four-game season sweep. It's probably wishful thinking to believe the Celtics can overtake Orlando for the No. 2 spot; three losses separate the teams and the Magic, like the Hawks, own the tiebreaker.

So what can the Celtics hope to achieve over these tough 17 days? Aside from the obvious, playing well, getting back to health, etc., they might well focus on nailing down the No. 3 spot in the conference. That would allow them to (A) likely avoid Cleveland or Atlanta until the conference final, should they get that far, (B) set up a potential second-round series with Orlando (against whom they play reasonably well, despite being 1-3) and (C) avoid Milwaukee in the first round in favor of, in all probability, either Miami or Charlotte, against whom they are 6-0 this season.

It's tough to make too much out of the Celtics pre-trip victories over the Pistons and Knicks, other than to note they won both games easily. If they are who they say they are, the Celtics should win those games easily, especially at home. They're hoping those wins will provide a lift for the three-game roadie.

"When you're getting ready to go on a road trip, you definitely have to take care of the games at home just to get that momentum on the road," Kevin Garnett said. "We're coming up on a very tough road trip. Doc said after the Cleveland game [a loss last Sunday] that these games at home are very important. I don't think he could've stressed it more. I thought we did a good job of just taking care of what we're supposed to. Now we've just got to go on the road, play the same way we've been playing, sharing the ball, playing defense with a lot of energy and playing through for 48 minutes."

How the Celtics fare against Dallas, for instance, will provide a much better gauge for where they stand. The Mavericks have won 14 of 15 games and will have two days to prepare for Boston's only visit of the season to American Airlines Center. The Celtics will be coming off a game in Houston. Dallas snapped a four-game losing streak to the Celtics with a win in Boston in January, but the Celtics were without Garnett.

The Jazz, meanwhile, were bludgeoned by the Celtics 105-86 when they passed through in November. But that was the pre-Christmas Celtics, who were very, very good, and the pre-Christmas Jazz, who were not very good. Utah has been on a tear in the new year, going 26-8 since Jan. 4, and is threatening to overtake Denver for the division lead and maybe even the Mavericks for the No. 2 seed. They are two games behind both teams.

The home games will be certifiable biggies. The Celtics have one fewer loss than the mighty Thunder, who have an MVP candidate in Kevin Durant. The Spurs are playing better despite not having Tony Parker. Denver is trying to get the No. 2 spot out west all the while believing it can actually dethrone the Lakers. All good stuff.

So when your NCAA brackets start looking like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie, it might be worth checking back in on the local NBA assemblage. Their chances to make a run deep into the playoffs, something they say is still a realistic possibility, may well be determined by the time the kings of college basketball are crowned the night after Easter.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.