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Late-Season West Coast Trip A Great Test For Celtics

BOSTON (CBS) -- It comes at an awkward time on the calendar, but the Celtics' five-game West Coast swing has arrived at just the right time for a team looking to bolster their postseason resume.

But while moral victories against some of the Western Conference's best teams may add a little bit of confidence, anything but actual wins could be severely costly in the standings.

Boston heads to the left coast to take on a trio of playoff teams -- two of which are title contenders, with one of them considered the greatest team to ever dribble a basketball -- and a pair of cellar dwellers hoping to add some more ping-pong balls to their lottery odds. That should ensure no worse than a 2-3 record on the road trip, but after seeing the Brooklyn Nets beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night, nothing is a given in this wild and wacky league. Not to mention, the Celtics did drop a home game to the Lakers back in December, followed up by a home loss to those same lowly Nets.

And a 2-3 trip may not be good enough when it's all said and done.

While the Celtics aren't looking passed their trip-opener Saturday night against the 20-win Phoenix Suns, holding steady with their "next game on the schedule" approach, their efforts against the Clippers, Blazers and 64-win Warriors will be the real focus of the swareah out West. Winning on the road is tough, and in one case on this trip, will probably be nearly impossible. And though they maintain that they're only focused on what they can control, the Celtics have to be aware of the three other teams nipping at their heels for the three-seed or four-seed in the East. The Hawks, Celtics, Heat and Hornets are separated by just half a game in the standings, and any misstep (a loss to either the Suns or Lakers) could see Boston fall as low as sixth in the conference.

Here are the schedules for the other three teams while Boston is away, showing just how little wiggle room the Celtics have:

Atlanta Hawks: vs. Bucks, @ Pistons*, @ Bulls, @ Raptors*, vs. Cavaliers*
Miami Heat: vs. Magic, vs. Nets, @ Lakers, @ Kings, @ Blazers*
Charlotte Hornets: @ Pistons*, @ Bucks, @ 76ers, vs. 76ers, @ Cavaliers*
* denote playoff teams

If the Celtics are lucky, their three main competitors will do no better than 3-2 over their next five games.

The good news is the Celtics themselves fared pretty well earlier in the season against the Western powers they'll face over the next two weeks. They got the better of both the Blazers and Clippers while taking the Warriors to overtime in one of the more dramatic games of the season. It's safe to say the Celtics are not going to beat the Warriors, who tout a 33-0 home record this season, but like they did back in December, will fight until the buzzer sounds. Though it took a herculean effort from them to beat the Clippers prior to the All-Star break, Boston played some of their best basketball in a 116-93 win over the Blazers, holding Damian Lillard and Co. to just 37 points in the second half. While it won't be easy, taking a game from either of those two on this trip could make all the difference for the Celtics with just 10 games remaining in the season.

Luckily for the Celtics, that duo hasn't played great basketball over the last few weeks. The Clippers have lost three of their last four and five of their last seven, while the Blazers have dropped four of their last six, including a loss to L.A. on Thursday night courtesy of a J.J. Redick buzzer beater. That makes a 3-2 road trip very possible -- just as long as the Celtics don't overlook their lesser opponents in the process.

It will certainly help if Jae Crowder can return to the lineup. Boston's MVP traveled with the team after missing the last six games with a bad ankle, and it sounds like a return in the second portion of the trip is likely. Add in the rejuvenated  confidence the Celtics are feeling after three straight wins, albeit against two teams they should never lose to (Philadelphia and Orlando) and a Toronto team that did not have their star point guard, and the blueprint is there for a success trip out West.

A 3-2 trip would be a huge success for Boston and should help them keep pace in a crowded middle pack in the East. Anything less, and their postseason picture becomes much murkier.

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