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Forsberg: Celtics launch into possibly season-defining stretch

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The Boston Celtics launched into what could be a season-defining 18-game stretch with Wednesday night’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets. It does not feel like hyperbole to suggest that what happens over a 37-day span could dictate the direction of the season.

When the Celtics’ schedule first came out in August we dubbed this stretch: “Surviving the holidays.” It was clear the competition level was going up a couple notches started on Thanksgiving Eve, and it doesn’t really come throttle down until New Years Eve.

The state of the Celtics entering calendar year 2022 could dictate how president of basketball operations Brad Stevens makes decisions in advance of February’s trade deadline. A solid December could turn the Celtics into luxury-tax embracing buyers with dreams of a deep playoff run. Some bumps along the way might force the team to make less desirable choices with a focus on the future.

This weekend’s road trip to San Antonio and Toronto is supposed to be the “easy” portion of Boston’s schedules over the next month-plus, and yet the Celtics have rarely played well in either location. After that, there’s a pitstop home to play a Sixers team that could have Joel Embiid and some reinforcements back before then.

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A Celtics team that’s already road weary then heads out on a five-game west coast trip that bounces from Utah to Portland before a back to back in Los Angeles. It closes against red-hot Phoenix as part of five games in eight nights.

 

Boston finally settles into a home-heavy stretch in mid-December but that starts with visits from defending champion Milwaukee and and a Golden State team with the best record in basketball. The Knicks come to town, the 76ers return, and then it’s off to Milwaukee for Christmas day showdown. A visit from the Suns highlight three games over the final week of the calendar year with a New Year’s Eve matinee at the Garden.

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The Celtics will wake up on the first day of 2022 with nearly half the season (36 games) in the rearview and decisions to be made.

If Boston goes toe-to-toe with some of the NBA’s elite in December then maybe that emboldens Stevens to hunt for roster upgrades (shooting please!) that might help the team make a push for premium playoff seeding.

Tough road ahead in December

Games vs. teams above .500
12

But if health and consistency woes continue to gnaw at this team, and they emerge from December still hovering around .500, the decisions about how to proceed get a whole bunch murkier.

If the Celtics don’t feel like a contender, there could be motivation to move veteran pieces like Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson for draft assets that could aid Boston’s upcoming pursuit of top-end talent to slot alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. With virtually no path to retaining Schroder long term, it would be more beneficial for Boston to seek value now than cling to the possibility of storming the playoffs from the bottom half of the playoff bracket. 

Boston is also hovering about one Juancho Hernangomez over the luxury tax line and, with the team likely to be spending big in future seasons, could ease tax burdens by avoiding the tax this season. That’s not something that fans necessarily care about other than to know that it could make ownership willing to spend more in the near-term future having stiff-armed repeater penalties for another year.

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This is all admittedly a bit premature to be pondering but the reality is the Celtics sit in 10th place in the East entering a challenging stretch and we are going to learn an awful lot about this team the next five weeks.

The Celtics didn’t show themselves particularly well to start this stretch with Wednesday’s loss to the Nets. They fell to an injury-depleted Bucks team before that. Even as the Celtics have shown encouraging strides since the players-only meeting following a 2-5 start, there haven’t been a lot of signature wins in the aftermath.

The thumping of the Heat on the second night of a back-to-back in Miami was probably the best of the bunch. The Lakers win last week was surely satisfying but the Lakers’ defensive indifference makes it hard to pluck too much from that triumph.

The good news for Boston is that the East standings are still a cluttered mess. The 11 teams in spots 2-12 are separated by 3 games. But some stumbles out of the gates have only increased the importance of the upcoming stretch. 

 

Will the Celtics assert themselves as a contender over the next month? Playing 11 of 13 at home starting in mid-December could help this team if it gets healthy and plays with more consistency.

By the time the ball drops on December 31, we should have a better grasp of where this team stands — and what path it might take moving forward.