BOSTON - The trip, Willie Green, what about the trip?
" 'The Trip,' " the 76ers guard said, offering an official designation to the six straight games away from home that begin tonight against the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics.
And then Green laughed and said, " 'The Trip,' " that's a good name for it. I like that name."
It's an annual holiday rite for the Sixers. The dates and opponents vary, but it's generally from five to seven games, mostly out West, in recent seasons including a game on New Year's Eve. This time, it's six games, taking them from Boston to Denver, Utah, Los Angeles (the Clippers on Dec. 31), Dallas and San Antonio.
It's always daunting, but this time perhaps even a little more so. Consider: Going into last night's schedule, the six opponents held a combined record of 99-64. Take the 8-19 Clippers out of the equation, and the other five were 91-45. Take the streaking Celtics (26-2, 18 straight victories) and the Clippers out, and the remaining four were still a solid 65-43.
Also consider: The Celtics need one victory to establish the best start in NBA history, ahead of the 1966-67 Sixers and '69-70 New York Knicks, who both opened at 26-2 and who both won championships.
Now consider: The Sixers are 12-15, have had coach Tony DiLeo in place for only four games since the firing of Maurice Cheeks and are without Elton Brand (dislocated right shoulder), who had been their leading scorer and rebounder. If you want to say they seem to run better without Brand, you're not alone, but it doesn't necessarily follow that they're a better team.
In any case, Brand, injured Dec. 17 against Milwaukee, has been declared out for about a month. Now, Green, who has been the starting shooting guard for five games, is a game-time decision for tonight's game because of a sprained left ankle he suffered against the Bucks and aggravated in Friday night's loss in Washington.
If Green can't go, that would seemingly open the door for Kareem Rush, who started the second half in Saturday night's 95-94 loss to the Indiana Pacers. But in DiLeo's longer-range plan, the door is open to everyone on the roster.
"It is a challenge, it is a challenge," DiLeo said, lumping together tonight's game and the trip that continues Friday night against the Nuggets. "We have to raise our level of intensity, raise the level of our focus and concentration. We want to continue to build; no matter how we come out of this trip, we should be a better team because we are playing high-level competition on the road. The main thing is, that after this trip we are a better team than we were before."
Complicating all of that, the Sixers have to avoid getting their spirits wounded before they even head West. The Celtics, who have tied their franchise record for consecutive victories with 18, have inflicted that on better opponents than this one.
How good are the Celtics? Let DiLeo, who has been in the Sixers organization for 19 years and has seen his share of top teams, say it for them.
"They can make teams look bad," he said. "Our goal is to continue to build and try to play the way we want to play, and that's starting on the defensive end. [Against the Celtics], our transition defense will be extremely important, trying to stop [point guard Rajon] Rondo, trying to play good defense so we can get out in the open court. Do we have a game plan for Boston? Yes. But our main emphasis is on our team and how we want to play."
Notice, DiLeo singled out Rondo, not Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen or even Kendrick Perkins.
"I think Rondo's made a huge jump," DiLeo said. "He improved the whole [last] season, and now starting out this season, he's been great. They've played together for a year, they have confidence, they have the swagger. They feel they're going to win every game."
Here, DiLeo paused and laughed a little, too, saying "I think they've almost won every game." Then, more seriously: "I think they're a stronger team than last year, just because of the experience of playing together."
Then, laughing just a little again: "The percentages may be that they have to lose one."
This, they all knew, was no time to depend on percentages.
"If it takes you that long to do something, you want to continue it," Donyell Marshall said, agreeing that the Celtics are indeed improved and still hungry to win. "It took me 13 years to get to the Finals [with Cleveland in 2006-07], [and] I'm hungry to get back there and hopefully win it. Those guys, they've been hungry before they won it. You get a taste of success, you always want that same taste.
"It's no different than going to get a steak. You don't want that weak steak anymore. You want that same good steak. That's how those guys are. They've tasted success, and want to continue to do it."
At the start of "The Trip," that's something for the Sixers to chew on. *
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