Celtics calm before schedule storm

It's probably the first thing every Celtics fan looked for when the NBA's 2011-12 condensed schedule was released in December: How many series of back-to-back-to-back games would Boston's veteran legs be forced to endure?

The answer was (a magnanimous) one, but that doesn't make the stretch any easier as it finally arrives. With eight games remaining in the regular season, the Celtics open a four-game road trip Friday with consecutive-day stops in Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte.

In total, the Celtics will play five games in five cities over the next six days, all while trying to stay healthy and hang on to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

As for what to expect, coach Doc Rivers continues to greet the question with shrugs. This is uncharted territory for the team.

"This is our stretch, the three in a row; I wish I could tell you what to expect, but I don't know," he said. "We'll see."

Here's what we do know: The Celtics embark on this dizzying stretch with a three-game lead atop the Atlantic Division, the winner of which is guaranteed no worse than the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Boston currently owns matching records with Atlanta and Orlando -- currently the Nos. 5 and 6 seeds in the East and Boston's most likely playoff opponents -- but overall record will determine who emerges with home-court advantage for the opening round.

Which is to say there's plenty to play for during this stretch, even as Rivers continues to stress that health is more important than victories. That means he has to find a way to balance not running his team into the ground while trying to still climb in the standings.

It's a less-than-desirable situation.

"If we had this amount of games with [typical] rest, I would love our chances, as far as where we finish," Rivers said. "I'd actually say I think we could get all the way to the 3 [seed]. Having said that, with the amount of games in so little time, it may not come down to the best teams winning these games -- it's the teams that can survive."

Make no mistake, Rivers knows everyone in the league is in this same boat. Heck, the Celtics were fortunate to emerge with only one back-to-back-to-back, and the competition level isn't particularly daunting: The Raptors, Nets and Bobcats are a combined 48-126, a gruesome .276 winning percentage.

But Rivers certainly doesn't enjoy the tough spot he's in. Getting up to the No. 3 seed would be ideal for Boston, but Indiana has a favorable slate that includes six of its final eight games at home (and only two back-to-backs). Rivers might want to avoid pushing his team too hard, but rest could come at the expense of home-court considerations in the first round, or worse, the Celtics could slip to the back end of the seedings if New York or Philadelphia surges.

"I don't like the way they did that with the season," Rivers said. "I don't think it's right. I don't think that's how you should end the season, based on who can survive going through 100 games in 101 days. That's what it is."

As they've done for much of the season, the Celtics are keeping the focus on themselves. Rivers has rarely brought up the schedule to his players this season, and he's stressed to his staff to simply take each game one at a time this season. The Celtics have gone without making game plans for opponents for much of the season in favor of working out their own kinks when time allows.

Asked what he expects from the upcoming stretch, Kevin Garnett followed Rivers' lead and shrugged, then declared, "Ask me in about seven days."

Ultimately, it comes down to health for the Celtics. They have long stressed that being injury-free when the postseason arrives matters far more than seeding, regardless of whom they might have to encounter to have a full complement of players.

All of which leaves you wondering whether Rivers would be willing to wave a white flag on, say, Saturday night in the middle game of the three-day stretch and roll with a junior varsity lineup to rest veterans between the bookend games. With two quality wins already this week over Miami and Atlanta, the Celtics have afforded themselves a bit of a mulligan.

It simply will be easier to take if, say, Atlanta or Orlando stumbles along the way and can't capitalize in the race for best overall record. Boston will play each of those teams again before the season's end, and those games ultimately will be more important than this weekend's arena hop.

If this trip is focused on health, it got off on the wrong foot -- or ankle -- when Ray Allen didn't make the trek to Toronto with his teammates because of renewed soreness in his right ankle, which kept him out of Wednesday's game against the Hawks.

Rivers initially said he expected Allen on the trip despite the ailment, but maybe the coach realized there's little sense pushing the issue. The Celtics are 10-1 without Allen this season, and rest is likely the only way to get his ankle right before the postseason, so why not give him the weekend off? He can join the trip if he improves.

After this weekend blitz, the Celtics' playoff picture should be in better focus, and the team can adjust its strategy for the final five games of the season. Three are at home; the schedule is largely forgiving after a visit from Orlando on Wednesday.

Yet, these sorts of obstacles are nothing new for the Celtics this season. They've found a way to grind through them all. Everyone knew this stretch was coming, and the Celtics will just have to trudge through it.