Celtics prepare for daunting week of games

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Celtics prepare for daunting week of games

BOSTON There have been many descriptions of this upcoming schedule for the Boston Celtics which includes five games in six nights, in five different cities.

Brutal. Challenging. Grueling.

Here's another one fun!

Fun?

"I think it'll be fun," said Boston's Avery Bradley who says he's never played in a stretch of games like this. "We love the game of basketball. We're already getting ourselves mentally prepared for it."

The best way to do that is to simply win games in less-than-desirable scenarios, something the C's have been able to do during their current four game winning streak.

On Saturday, they went into Indiana and beat a Pacers team that's playing some of their best basketball now and are one of the teams Boston (34-24) is trying to catch up to and surpass in the Eastern Conference standings. The Celtics followed that victory with a blowout win at home the following night against a Philadelphia team that's right on their heels in the Atlantic Division.

As impressive as those two wins were, they pale in comparison to the Celtics' 115-107 win at Miami, a game in which the Heat delivered a slew of big blows to the Celtics all night, only for the Celtics to counter with a 1-2 punch of their own that was even more powerful. If the C's make the kind of deep playoff run they're hoping for, Tuesday's win over Miami might be viewed as the turning point in which Boston went from a team that was playing well, to one that has to be considered a legit contender to come out of the Eastern Conference.

With that kind of success, the C's appeared to be in good shape for a major letdown Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks. Boston was playing their fourth game in five nights, while the Hawks had not played in a game since Saturday.

There was no way to avoid mental fatigue becoming an issue for the Celtics. But to their credit, they managed to overcome it and for the most part, keep the game against the Hawks relatively close which afterward, Rivers said was the game plan coming in.

"We didn't play well," Rivers said. "I mean, we just kept hanging in there. You could see the fatigue."

Fatigue or not, Boston still managed to grind out an 88-86 overtime victory which was maybe the most impressive victory during this current winning streak when you consider the caliber of opponent, what was at stake (winning the head-to-head series) and the fact that Boston was coming off a hard-fought win at Miami just 24 hours earlier while the Hawks had not played since Saturday.

And now, the C's move on for road games at Toronto on Friday, New Jersey on Saturday and Charlotte on Sunday. After that, the C's face New York on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden and come home the following night to host the Orlando Magic.

Players are well aware that this upcoming stretch of games will go far in determining where they eventually wind up in terms of playoff seeding.

"Wish I could tell you what to expect, because I don't know," Rivers said. "I don't talk about it, don't mention it to our guys. We don't even talk about it with our staff."

With so many games congested together - not just this stretch, but this entire NBA season - it doesn't do much good to look too far down the road.

"We go one at a time," Rivers said. "That's the way you have to approach this season."

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

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Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.