The Celtics' first foray into the Golden State this season features games against the two best teams in the state -- neither one of them named the Lakers.
That situation might not last much longer, but for now the white-hot Clippers and the much-better-than-expected Golden State Warriors rank 1 and 2 in California. (That's what the standings say.) They also happen to be the Celtics' next two opponents on this three-game swing through the state, capped by a Sunday night game against Sacramento. The Celtics are likely to be without Avery Bradley, who remained home to complete his rehabilitation from this past spring's double shoulder surgery. Chris Wilcox (thumb) also is hors de combat.
The Christmas Week road trip got off to a mah-vel-us start (as noted Clippers fan Billy Crystal might say) with a 93-76 thrashing of the Nets on Tuesday. The Celtics looked like the Celtics of Christmases Past, playing stifling defense and getting balanced scoring in the victory. They even -- stop the presses! -- outrebounded the same team that had crushed them on the glass in their two previous meetings this season.
All of that made for an enjoyable flight out West, but reality is about to come crashing down. The Clippers own the best record in the NBA. They are riding a 14-game winning streak. The law of averages says they're going to lose one of these days, and if the Celtics play like they did against the Nets, the winning streak could end at the Staples Center, where the L.A. is a cushy 13-3. But if they turn board-phobic at the sight of Blake Griffin et al, it could get ugly.
The Warriors dropped a heartbreaker to the Lakers on Sunday but still were 18-10 through Christmas, a quantum leap from years past. They, too, like to attack the glass, with David Lee leading the way. They also can score. The Kings round out the trip -- yes, this trip even makes geographical sense -- and they are, again, pretty wretched. If the Celtics haven't forgotten last year's stink bomb in Whatever They Call That Arena In Sacramento These Days, you can be sure Doc Rivers will probably remember to mention it. The 120-95 defeat was one of the more loathsome efforts of the season -- and marked the first time Kevin Garnett had ever lost to the Kings since joining the Celtics.
A look at the rest of the trip:
Thursday at the L.A. Clippers
There was a time not too long ago when 22 wins constituted a season's haul for the Clippers. They already have that many -- and it's not even the new year. They haven't lost since Nov. 26, when they dropped a home decision to the New Orleans Hornets. That was the Clippers' fourth straight loss and they were a ho-hum 8-6 after that game. Now they are rolling. Blake Griffin is averaging 18.1 points and 8.8 rebounds a game, while Chris Paul trails only Rajon Rondo in assists, and Jamal Crawford is the Microwave off a deep and productive bench that also features ex-Lakers Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes. The Clippers own the league's best differential, in part because they are playing championship-caliber defense. They allow 91.9 points a game, third fewest in the league, and hold opponents to 42.7 percent shooting, second in the league. Those used to be Celtics-like numbers. The Celtics have won their past two games against the Clippers in the Staples Center, which should be hopping for this one. The over-under on Kardashians is two.
Saturday at Golden State
The Warriors would qualify for the best story in California were it not for the Clippers' play of late. They are off to their best start in more than two decades -- or since the halcyon days of mad scientist Don Nelson mixing sideline potions for Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin. (Mitch Richmond had been traded before the start of the 1991-92 season.) They put points on the board, being one of nine teams averaging 100 or more per game. But you can also score on them; they are one of eight teams that allow 100 or more points per game. Second-year coach Mark Jackson is getting by with two rookies in the starting lineup -- lottery pick Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli, the last pick in the first round, who has taken over for the injured Andrew Bogut. Steph Curry leads the team in scoring, assists and steals, and Lee is a renowned glass-eater, averaging 11.3 per game, fifth in the league. The Celtics beat the Warriors in Oakland last season and have an overall three-game winning streak against Golden State. But things have changed in Baghdad by the Bay.
Sunday at Sacramento
The Kings are again a mess, so the initial impulse is to thank the Schedule-Maker for this one. But the Kings were horrible last season, too, and absolutely bludgeoned the Celtics as Boston was making a five-games-in-seven-days trip through California and Colorado (which then extended on to Atlanta, Milwaukee and Philadelphia). The Celtics have pretty much owned Sacramento over the past several years; last season's defeat ended an eight-game Boston winning streak against the Kings. Were it not for the beleaguered Hornets, the Kings would be holding down the bottom of the Western Conference. The big news surrounding the Kings concerns man-child DeMarcus Cousins, the team's leading scorer, rebounder and enfant terrible. He was indefinitely suspended last Sunday after getting into a shouting match with coach Keith Smart. Indefinite in this case meant one game. He was back on the roster for the team's game against the Trail Blazers on Wednesday night. Cousins is toxic on a young team like the Kings. You'd love to see a team like the Celtics deal with this kid. He has great talent and, after a week or two with Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers, might even get his head on straight. Just a thought. Sacramento is one of the eight teams to allow opponents to average more than 100 points a game. This is one the Celtics really should win, especially after last season.