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The Boston Celtics tipped off their first West Coast trip of the season on Christmas Day in Los Angeles, riding a franchise-record 19-game winning streak, having played just two December games decided by fewer than nine points, a serious threat to become just the second team to eclipse 70 regular season wins. A week later, after dropping three of four games on the trip, and in eerily similar fashion, not only is their marathon winning streak a thing of the past, but early-season question marks are looking like legitimate concerns. Though the Celtics did provide an appropriate, championship-quality response to the consecutive losses to the Lakers and the Golden State Warriors, annihilating the Sacramento Kings by 45 points at Arco Arena, they failed to capitalize on the dominant performance to begin a new streak and recapture their awesome form. On December 30, Boston traveled to Portland to face the Trailblazers, who were without All-Star and MVP-candidate Brandon Roy. The Celtics should have been back on track by New Year’s Eve, but were again stricken by a series of recurring issues, the play of Ray Allen as well as the second unit, that is threatening the C’s air of invincibility.

The Celtics have just four players receiving consistent minutes off the bench ( Tony Allen, Eddie House, Glen Davis, Leon Powe), with none scoring in double figures (Allen leads with 8 ppg), just one 20-point game (Allen, 23 in Detroit on November 9), and one double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds by Powe in Minnesota on November 21) among them this season. Granted, a starting lineup that’s good for almost 75 a night does ease the pressure on a team’s bench, but it’s certainly helpful to know that if called upon, in the case of injury, fatigue or ineffectiveness in the starting lineup, someone on the second unit can fill a star’s shoes on a given night. No one on the bench inspires that sort of confidence, and combined with Ray Allen’s inconsistent play of late, the Celtics are looking at some potentially crippling issues.

In the season’s most anticipated regular season game, Boston’s Finals rematch against the Lakers on Christmas Day, despite a solid defensive showing that held the Lakers to 92 points, fourteen below their season average, and 70 points from the C’s starters (matching the Lakers’ starters), poor shooting from Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo (combined 8-for-25), an anemic second half (38 points, just 16 in the 4 th quarter), and an extremely disappointing 6-for-20, 13-point performance from the bench, “led” by six points from Tony Allen, doomed the Celtics’ winning streak. The Lakers’ superior depth was obvious, as they were fresher than the Celtics down the stretch, dominating the fourth quarter to secure the 92-83 win.

The following night in Oakland, with Kendrick Perkins out with a shoulder injury, the Celtics set out to avenge the loss to the Lakers against the Golden State Warriors. Leon Powe started in Perk’s absence, and made a solid contribution, scoring twelve points and grabbing seven rebounds. Again the Celtics’ defense came to play, holding the NBA’s #2 scoring team six points below its season average and forcing 21 turnovers. The starting five carried the C’s once again, though they contributed a disappointing 65 points (disappointing considering it was 8 points below their average against a team that gives up 111 a night), with Ray Allen (29 minutes, 7 points, 4 turnovers, 6 fouls) and the second unit (Tony Allen, Eddie House and Glen Davis combined for 24 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 turnovers in 63 minutes) serving as the weak links again. Despite taking a twelve point lead into halftime, the Celtics produced yet another 38-point second half, with just 17 in the 4 th, as Stephen Jackon, Marco Belinelli, Ronny Turiaf and Kelena Azabuike combined for 74 points to help the Warriors to a 99-89 win.

After the impressive 108-63 blowout win in Sacramento, in which Ray Allen made seven of his eight shot attempts en route to 19 points, seven bench players combined for 44 points, and the Kings failed to score more 17 points in any quarter, the Celtics went to Portland and ran into the same stumbling blocks that they’d struggled with all week. In what’s becoming a trend, despite holding the shorthanded Blazers more than seven points below their season average, Boston ran into problems as Allen (12 points, 2-for11 shooting) and the bench (41 minutes, 9 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 3-for-11 shooting) failed to deliver, and Boston managed just 41 second half points (vs. Portland’s 51), as they fell to Blazers, 91-86. Also worth noting here is that not only did the Blazers take advantage of the Celtics’ usual shortcomings, but the Blazers starting big men, LaMarcus Aldridge (20 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks) and Greg Oden (13 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals) were clearly superior to Kevin Garnett (17 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists) and Kendrick Perkins (7 points, 6 rebounds), who sadly couldn’t look to the bench for any help, as Glen Davis and Leon Powe could only manage 2 points and 1 rebound in 23 combined minutes.

With the emergence of Rajon Rondo as an All-Star-caliber point guard and the continued development of Kendrick Perkins into arguably a top-ten center, the Celtics’ starting lineup is as loaded as any in the NBA. And fortunately for the Celtics, they’ve been dominant though the season’s first thirty games. However, this starting lineup is being asked to shoulder an ever-increasing share of the load each night. Though the C’s depend on a trio of veteran stars, KG (turns 33 in May), Paul Pierce (31) and Ray Allen (33), that are not getting any younger, the main concern here shouldn’t be about minutes. That each of the Celtics’ stars is averaging at least 32.8 minutes per game is irrelevant. It’s asinine to contend that professional athletes with the conditioning and durability of Allen, Garnett and Pierce will be adversely affected in May or June because of 3-4 additional minutes a night in December. Irrespective of age, if the Celtics’ starting five is fatigued come playoff time, a scenario that’s look more and more likely, inconsistent play from Ray Allen and the second unit’s lack of consistency and firepower will be to blame.