Avoiding slow starts, managing bumps and bruises, and displaying mental toughness will be key to avoiding first losing streak of the season for the Celtics

Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis fight for the ball over Sacramento Kings players | Photo: Ed Szczepanski/USA Today Sports

Heading into their first “real” road trip of the season we knew the Boston Celtics would be tested. Throughout a long season, teams will have checkpoints and measuring-stick games/trips.

If the Cs come back from the West Coast with 4-1 record, then we can easily justify the early season excitement. If it ends at 3-2, I think we’re still in wait-and-see mode while remaining optimistic. It wouldn’t tell us as much. At 2-3, I know that I could certainly justify things depending how the games go. We’d need to wait to see if they pass their next test after the trip if that happened. And if they end the trip by going 1-4, then it may be time to reassess and wonder if the 10-game winning streak was fool’s gold.

At the beginning of the trip, it felt like the Celtics needed to take the first two games to have a successful trip, especially since the Phoenix Suns are the third game and they are playing well and it’s on the second night of a back-to-back. Tonight is a big game with Finals contenders, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets, waiting to close out the trip.

Last season, the Celtics played the most back-to-back games in the NBA. In their seven such games, they won three of them. That winning percentage put them in the middle of the pack. On the other hand, they played the least amount of three-games-in-four-nights with the third game being a back-to-back (i.e.: game, off day, game, game). In their six games in this scenario, they won just two. It’s been well documented that this team is a lot different than last year’s squad, so tonight will be a good sign towards the team’s mental toughness.

For a team dealing with some wear-and-tear early on, the team needs to dig deeper to get through this stretch. Mental toughness was something that Jaylen Brown preached after the game last night. Check out some of these quotes. Not only is Brown playing well on the court, he is establishing himself as a leader and I’m here for it.

“Obviously I wish I could have that one back," he said after the game. “Definitely some plays and some reads that I made mistakes on and stuff like that, and be more mentally sound even when your body is tired.” - John Karalis, MassLive.com

“We gotta be more mentally sound. I know it can be tough. Injuries and things like that. We just can’t make excuses," Brown said. "We just gotta be more mentally sound, starting with me. I gotta be more locked in and engaged, and more ready even though physically, you’re not all the way 100 percent, mentally you gotta be there every single night, so it’s a learning process for sure. As we continue with the season, we learn how to adjust, and we’ll be fine.” - John Karalis, MassLive.com

We’re not even through a quarter of the season. Am I concerned that we’re already talking about fatigue? Maybe a little, but I use a cross-sport reference to justify this. During baseball’s spring training, you’ll often see pitchers get shut down for a period due to “dead arm.” The pitchers are ramping it up and they get fatigued. It’s not an injury per se, they just need their body to adjust. The same may be happening here with the Celtics. NBA veteran, Kemba Walker, says that “it’s just that time for everybody.”

“I think it’s just that time for everybody, you know?" Kemba Walker said. "Everybody’s going to start to get a little tired. Of course, for us, we’re on the West Coast. It happens. Legs are going to be tired, and that’s just the name of the game. That’s just how it goes.” - John Karalis, MassLive.com

The Celtics are obviously dealing with Gordon Hayward being out for the next month-or-so. They’ve also had to figure out their big man rotation since all three of the biggest contributors have missed games due to injury. And after last night, we find out that Marcus Smart is dealing with a sore hip. That may explain his poor shooting night (2/16), but he isn’t mentioning it.

The Celtics need to use the humbling effort to avoid falling into holes early in games. On Sunday evening, the Celtics were down by 12 points after the first quarter. By halftime, the Cs cut the lead to four and it felt like they would come back to win the game. Last year, the team would’ve folded and been shoving each other mid-way through the game, so at least that’s a step in the right direction.

We’ve seen the team fall behind in games this season and pull out impressive victories - most notably the impressive win over the Milwaukee Bucks. But they’re playing with fire. They’ve fallen behind by 10-or-more points in five games so far this season. This resilient bunch has found a way to win three of those games, but a .600 winning percentage in games they find themselves down double-digits is not sustainable.

Tonight’s game against the Suns should be a good one. Although a hot start hasn’t proven to be the key to victory yet, it would be ideal if the Celtics avoid digging themselves into a hole. With the team managing bumps and bruises on the road, mental toughness will be tested in their effort to play a full 48 minutes.

You can follow me on Twitter @Mike_Auc.