Signs to watch the rest of the way

You could argue that the Boston Celtics' three-game trip was already a success before the game at EnergySolutions Arena tipped off. There were two big wins in Texas, with the Celtics showing the kind of play and urgency that defined them two years ago.

Then came Utah. A 110-97 beatdown with all systems breaking down after halftime. Oh well.

It still was a good trip for the Celtics, if for no other reason than we saw glimpses, or flashes, of what they can do and what they still need to do to be viable championship contenders. We didn't see much of it in Utah beyond a superb first quarter. But we saw it in Houston and we saw it in Dallas against what was a hot (but cooling quickly) Mavericks team.

Defense will determine how long the Celtics keep playing. That does not constitute a news bulletin. They know it. We know it. Everyone knows it. They played defense in Houston, holding the Rockets to 87 points and 39.5 percent shooting. They held the Mavericks to 93 points and 46 percent shooting.

In both games, defensive anchor Kevin Garnett appeared to be much closer to the KG of a couple of years ago than we've seen in a while. Then he went Billy Paultz on us against Utah. Paul Pierce was a point machine against the Rockets and Mavs, earning conference player of the week honors in part for those games. Then he came up shooting blanks against the Jazz.

The Celtics looked tired against the Jazz. It was their third game in four days, and they had no response to the Jazz in the second half. The season-long bugaboos -- turnovers, rebounding -- surfaced again. The C's lost to a very good team on the road. It happens. Only one Eastern Conference team -- Atlanta -- has won in Salt Lake City.

So what does it all mean going forward? The mission statement continues to be "We just want to get better." Doc Rivers admits it sounds corny and that most people probably don't believe him. Rivers still hopes that the team he had in November and December, the one before the injuries hit, can re-emerge.

There is no time to rest, with the Denver Nuggets coming into town Wednesday. That will mean the Celtics will have played three of the top four teams in the West in the space of five days. The one bonus: Denver will be on the second night of a back-to-back. But the first game is against the New York Knicks. So, never mind.

Here are some things to look forward to in the 12 games that remain. Five of the next six, capped by an Easter Sunday visit by the Cleveland Cavaliers, are against teams with winning records.

Defense: Until the second half of the Utah game, the Celtics' defense looked to be rounding into shape at the right time. They entered the game ranked No. 2 in points allowed, No. 6 in defensive field goal percentage and No. 2 in defensive 3-point percentage. Those numbers may change a bit after the Utah onslaught, but they still will be solid going forward.

So much of this depends on the health and agility of Garnett. He was as active and mobile as we've seen him in a while in Houston and Dallas. And the Celtics' defense stepped up as it did two seasons ago, stifling both teams down the stretch. That's no small feat against a team like the Mavericks.

Denver and Oklahoma City will be excellent tests for the Celtics' defense. The Nuggets can score in bunches, and the Thunder are the kind of team (young, quick, athletic) that has given the older Celtics trouble this season. The Spurs and the Cavs are both solid and efficient. There's no better opportunity to show you can defend than what confronts the Celtics over the next six games.

Bench: Rivers seems to have settled on a 10-man rotation for now, with Tony Allen and Shelden Williams being the odd men out. This may shrink come playoff time, but for now the bench seems to be finding an identity.

The bench played well against the Rockets, not so well against the Mavs, and then contributed a large chunk of the scoring against the Jazz. Watching Michael Finley knock down 3s is promising; he needs to get more touches. Could he be this season's P.J. Brown? Nate Robinson is streaky, but he is fiery and can score. Glen Davis has been the energy guy off the bench, basically the one Celtic who will actually chase down an offensive rebound. Marquis Daniels has his moments. Rasheed Wallace had better come up big in the playoffs to salvage an otherwise utterly underwhelming season.

Two seasons ago, Rivers almost never played the reserves as a unit. He almost always had Pierce, Ray Allen or Garnett with the subs. He doesn't need to do that now. In one interesting stretch against Utah, the coach had the starters ready to go back in, but kept them on the bench for a while longer because the reserves were playing well. That's a good sign.

Seeding: The Celtics failed to gain any ground against Atlanta. (They're tied, and Boston will hold the tiebreaker by virtue of being a division winnner if the Celtics win the Atlantic Division and the Hawks do not win the Southeast.) Forget Orlando. The Magic are 4½ games up on the Celtics and hold the tiebreaker. Rivers says he's not interested in what seed his team gets, but it would behoove the Celtics to avoid Cleveland and/or Atlanta as long as possible given their play against them this season (0-6 since Opening Night). And the No. 4 seed is likely going to get Milwaukee in the first round. The Bucks are playing as well as anyone right now.

There isn't a lot of time left, and the sights Rivers wants to see don't necessarily translate to W's and L's on the scoreboard. He wants to see a free-and-easy Garnett and Pierce, if that's still possible. He wants to see Ray Allen continue to shoot well. He wants to see the team play defense not just when the spirit moves them, but for 48 minutes.

He saw a lot of that in Texas. He didn't see much of it in Utah. He'll keep looking over the final 12 games -- and then we're all going to find out if his wishing and hoping ever had a chance in the first place.

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