The Celtics are heading out West. To which a seasoned observer might ask, "What took them so long?''
They go where the schedule sends them, and the schedule this season has them making their first real Western excursion in the final week of January. Usually they make their first trip between Christmas and New Year's. As a result, the Celtics will arrive in Portland for Thursday night's game at the Rose Garden having played the fewest road games against the Western Conference -- three -- of any Eastern Conference team.
The only other team whose situation is similar is Charlotte. The Bobcats are currently on a Western swing and have played only five road games against the other conference (they play their sixth Wednesday night). Miami has already played 12 roadies against the West. The Knicks have played 13 (as have the Nets, but they don't count). The Magic have played 10, the Bulls nine and the Hawks eight.
The Celtics' three games against the West came early in the season, in the second week of November. They won at Oklahoma City, lost at Dallas the next night (a certifiable giveaway) and then beat the Grizzlies in Memphis. That's it. The good news for the Celtics is that those are three of the top nine teams in the Western Conference. This trip will add Nos. 2, 8 and 10 along with a lottery candidate.
Unlike in recent years, however, there is a pretty discernible line between good and bad in the Western Conference -- with more teams in the "bad" category. This is the conference which, after all, saw a 50-victory team get the No. 8 seed last season. This is the conference where a 48-victory Golden State team didn't even make the playoffs in 2008 and a 46-win Suns team didn't make it in 2009.
The West has been the tougher conference for years; it had nine teams over .500 last season -- the East had seven -- and nine the year before, when the East had only five. Only five of the 15 teams in the East have winning records against the West this season. The Western Conference is still the superior conference if you go by head-to-head play, holding a plus-41 (150-109) over the East through Tuesday's games. And if you go strictly by home games, it is even worse, with the West holding a 94-44 advantage in home games against East teams. Three of the four teams the Celtics face this trip have winning records at home, although the Suns' 11-9 is barely that.
Here's a game-by-game look at the trip:
Thursday at Portland: The Blazers are currently No. 8 in the West and will be without Brandon Roy for the foreseeable future. He recently had surgery on both knees. Marcus Camby also is out with a knee injury (and, of course, there's Greg Oden). The Blazers have been getting by with players like LaMarcus Aldridge, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, and newcomer Wesley Matthews, who they signed to a jaw-dropping contract last summer. But Portland is only a couple of games ahead of Memphis and Phoenix in the loss column and last played on Monday, losing at home to the, ahem, Kings.
In a weird piece of scheduling, this game is the only one in eight days for the Blazers. The Celtics have won three straight and 10 of the past 11 meetings between the teams, including a 99-95 victory this season in Boston on Dec. 1. The Celtics also are the only NBA team with a winning record in Portland (26-23).
Friday at Phoenix: Since 2007-08, only two Western Conference teams have swept a season series from the Celtics: last season's Suns and the 2008-09 Lakers. Phoenix, a Western Conference finalist last season, is below .500 this season. But the Suns will be in the midst of a season-high five-game homestand, having started it off with a Wednesday night meeting with Charlotte. This will be the Celtics' first look at Vince Carter this season. He was traded to Phoenix in the big three-team deal on Dec. 18 that resulted in Orlando getting Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas. Carter is averaging 15.4 points a game.
Steve Nash leads the Suns with 17 a game (although Richardson averaged more before being traded). The Suns and Celtics are an even 3-3 in the new Big Three era.
Sunday at LA Lakers: Rematch! And Kendrick Perkins, based on his surprising debut Tuesday, should be able to return to the scene of the knee injury that may have cost the Celtics a championship. (Or, maybe not.) There is no need to build this one up. You have two historic rivals. You have the teams who have won the past three titles. The Lakers are also in the midst of a five-game homestand; this will be Game No. 3 with two biggies to follow, including a Feb. 3 date with the Spurs. The Celtics have won two of the past three in the Staples Center against the Lakers, but last season's victory came with the Lakers missing Kobe Bryant. That snapped a three-game losing streak to the Purple and Gold.
Tuesday at Sacramento: Can you say "trap game"? If this isn't one, then there is no such thing. It's the final game of this trip and against one of the worst teams in the league, two days after the emotional game in LA. These teams met Jan. 12 in Boston and the Celtics cruised 119-95. The Kings are a horrible 6-17 at home and, on the surface, are no match for the Celtics. Then again, neither are the Pistons, Wizards, Raptors or Cavs, all of whom have beaten the Celtics this season. Boston has won its past seven over the Kings, meaning Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Glen Davis have never lost to a Sacramento team while wearing Boston green and white.
The Celtics will then return home, and their next three games at TD Garden will be against Dallas, Orlando and the Lakers.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.