Celtics brace for tough home stretch

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Home sweet home? Hardly.

Fresh off an ultra-successful, four-game road trip -- a trek extended an extra day thanks to winter weather woes back home -- the Celtics returned to Boston on Wednesday to not only find the latest mixture of snow and ice dumped on top of the region, but also an upcoming schedule that's so daunting, it makes their just-concluded West Coast venture look like a vacation.

Over the course of the next 10 days, the Celtics will host the Mavericks (Feb. 4), Magic (Feb. 6), Lakers (Feb. 10) and Heat (Feb. 13) -- four of the top 10 teams in the NBA -- with a tail end of a back-to-back mixed in on the road against the Bobcats (Feb. 7).

"We don't have a game that we can rest upon until after the All-Star break," sighed Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing for a Boston squad that has saved its best basketball for top competition this season. Rarely, though, have these sorts of challenges come in such rapid-fire succession, and the next week and a half will have a bit of a playoff feel in Boston.

"We just have to take it one game at a time," said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. "We can't look ahead on the schedule, just the next opponent: Dallas. The last time we played [the Mavericks], we lost."

The Celtics host Dallas (8 p.m., ESPN) on Friday night to kick off a six-game stretch leading up to the All-Star break. After winning six of their first seven games to open the 2010-11 season, the Celtics stumbled in the first meeting in Dallas, generating a measly seven free throw attempts while allowing the hosts to shoot 50 percent from the floor in an 89-87 defeat.

Dallas hit a rough patch in the new calendar year, losing seven of eight games. That didn't stop Rivers from raving about the Mavericks, who have since won six straight, including a 16-point drubbing of the Knicks on Wednesday.

Rivers raved about Dirk Nowitzki's MVP-caliber play, Tyson Chandler's defense-first mentality that's spiced up the Mavericks on that side of the ball and Jason Kidd's timeless abilities.

"[The Mavericks are] playing great," Rivers said. "They were in a slump because Nowitzki was out. It's as simple as that. When he's healthy, they play well."

Just as soon as the 33-win Mavericks shuttle out, the 31-win Magic shuttle in for an afternoon Super Bowl Sunday appetizer (2:30 p.m., ABC). In a regular season that features only three matchups between the two teams, this is the 2010-11 rubber match and it comes on another holiday-like stage (Orlando won a Christmas Day battle at its new Amway Center, while Boston atoned at the Garden last month).

"Is the Super Bowl a holiday in America?" Ray Allen asked at Thursday's practice. "It should be. Everybody's at home watching, the commercials [and the game]. We play on every holiday. I've come to that conclusion. Nobody will be watching us."

Quite the opposite, with four upcoming games on national TV it's likely a lot of eyes will find the Green.

"We've got a tough stretch coming up," Allen said. "We have some teams that are coming in here and they're gonna really test our home court. It's going to require all of us to play well, starting [Friday] with Dallas."

The previously dominating Celtics dropped a 99-90 decision to the Mavericks last January, part of a three-game Boston losing streak that soon extended to six losses in eight games. The ailing Celtics ultimately lost eight of 14 games in January last year, starting their stumble and crawl to the finish line.

This time around, Boston is actually getting healthier as players like Perkins work their way back from offseason surgery and Delonte West (fractured right wrist) engages in non-contact drills in the latest step of his recovery.

The bigger problem for Boston will simply be maintaining an energy level against all opponents with an aging batch of starters.

"You worry about [energy], sometimes, because [the players] can't manufacture it," Rivers said. "I don't think players, for the most part, come into a game not wanting to play hard. Sometimes, you literally can't find that [energy]."

The Celtics have proven how difficult it is to get up for a road game at times this season. Boston is a mere 2-6 when the tail end of a back-to-back is played on the road.

Fortunately for the Celtics, they've got a 22-3 record overall at the Garden. One of their goals entering the season was to protect home court and they've done that thus far. Their biggest test, though, comes over the next 10 days.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.