Stage is set for Celtics, Clippers

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Stage is set for Celtics, Clippers

As you read this, Im on a flight out west to witness the most significant game in CelticsClippers history. And while that might sound like hyperbole, and might also say more about this "rivalry" than it does the actual, long-term significance of tonights game, the original statement is absolutely true. Tonight is the night.

Theres never been more on the line between these two teams.

For the Clippers, its a 14-game winning streak the longest in franchise history, and the longest the NBA has seen since the Celtics ripped off 19 straight in the fallwinter of 2008. For the Cs, its momentum. A chance to build on their Christmas victory and make a statement against the undisputed hottest team in the league; a bona fide contender in the stacked Western Conference.

Of course, the Celtics are no strangers to big games in LA. Since the Staples Center opened its doors in 1999, some of Boston's most significant victories

and crushing defeats have unfolded on the same floor that they'll grace tonight. So many times before this, they've arrived in LA for an enormous contest, and gone through the same song and dance that they will today. But this time, once they arrive at the arena, everything will be different. The colors, the celebrities, the history, the rivalry. It will be simultaneously familiar and altogether foreign. It's prime time. TNT. EVERYTHING TO PROVE IN LA.

Just against the Clippers.

And as weird as that feels, what are you going to do? This is what happens. Time goes on. Things change. We now live in an NBA world where the Clippers and Knicks are atop the standings in their respective conferences. Where the Grizzlies and Warriors are in contention out West, the Nets are doing the same in the East, and the Timberwolves are an up-and-coming threat. While the Clips were the one franchise that you might expect to never experience this kind of prolonged resurgence, every dog has his day. Especially when that dog is fortunate enough to land a superstar with the No. 1 pick, trade for the best point guard in the league, steal a potential franchise center in the second round and use that foundation to install a winning culture and persuade an unbelievable supporting cast to come join the fun.

Truth be told, for all the talk this summer about how the Celtics might be the deepest team in the NBA, through two months it's the Clippers who can justifiably make that claim. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler and (ahem!) Willie Green give them a starting five that can hang with anyone, and one that's complimented by a bench that's led by Jamal Crawford (the former Sixth Man of the Year, who's averaging 16.5 points a night and likely headed to his first All-Star game), Eric Bledsoe (a strong and quick, instant energy PG, who will be a starter in this league before long), Matt Barnes (the quintessential bench guy on a great NBA team) and Lamar Odom (who showed up for camp looking like a manatee, but who is getting in shape and finally earning his keep).

Make no mistake. These guys are good. Real good. As a result, while I somewhat jokingly refer to tonight as the most important game in ClippersCeltics history, the Cs are the team with much more on the line. Even though it's early, the Clippers have already proved their worth this season, with two wins over the Spurs, as well as victories against Miami, Memphis, Atlanta and on the road against the Lakers. Meanwhile, Bostons Christmas Day win over Brooklyn was only their second real significant win of the year and came against a Nets team in their biggest slump of the season. Afterwards, Doc Rivers told reporters that the Celtics are close to becoming a good team again and while, in a perfect world, they'd have both Avery Bradley and Chris Wilcox in the the line-up, tonight offers Boston an immediate chance to back up their coach's encouraging words.

In an arena with which they're all too familiar, against an opponent that's riding high after so many years in the gutter.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine