The Boston Celtics Are Red-Hot: Is It For Real?

On January 20, the Boston Celtics hit their low point. They lost at home to a bad Phoenix team and fell to 5-9 on the season. General manager Danny Ainge was talking openly about trading any of the team’s Big Three—Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen—who’d won one championship together in 2008 and been to the Finals together in 2010. It seemed as though the only question left was whether the Celtics could even make the playoffs, as they were in a four-team joust with Cleveland, Milwaukee and New York for the final two spots in the eight-team Eastern Conference bracket. Then things changed. Since January 20, Boston has won nine of their last ten. The SportsNotebook takes a look at how they’ve done it and what the odds are of sustainability.

Before we go into the specifics of this ten-game run, let’s first briefly summarize how the team overall is put together. The backcourt is considered one of the team’s big strengths with Rajon Rondo, the cornerstone of the future at point guard, and Allen considered the most viable of any of the Big Three in trade talks, for his continued ability to hit the trey. Pierce is at small forward at the #1 option offensively. Garnett is at power forward, still able to rebound and hit the 15-20 foot jumper, even though his age does slow him down.

Center has been a problem, with Jermaine O’Neal really not stepping up to fill the bill, and averaging just 5 points/5 rebounds per night. Brandon Bass, a 6’8” power forward was added to strengthen the bench and he’s done a nice job with an 11/6 nightly average. A pleasant surprise has been the addition of small forward Mickael Pietrus from France, who’s chipped in 8 ppg off the bench and has a respectable shot, both inside and outside the arc. The Celts need help at center both in the starting lineup and off the bench, and are hoping rookie JaJuan Johnson can step up, while depth in the backcourt is a concern, with Avery Bradley, Marquise Daniels and E’Twaun Moore all hoping to fill the playing time available behind Rondo and Allen.

The win streak started quietly on January 22 in Washington D.C. With most of the Boston area thinking about the AFC Championship Game that would kick off three hours later, the Celtics beat the Wizards 100-94 because Pierce essentially put the team on his back and carried them, with 34 points/8 rebounds and 10 assists. Rondo was injured and hit the bench, while Allen was held to seven points. Garnett stepped it up with 17.  When Allen sprained his ankle and joined Rondo on the bench though, it hardly seemed as though a trend was beginning.

But the formula of Pierce carrying the load and Garnett playing well took hold and in back-to-back games against Orlando it looks like the Celtics might have swung two seasons in different directions. On January 23, Pietrus joined Rondo and Allen on the bench, but the Celts played ferocious team defense in the Garden and held the Magic to 25 percent shooting in a blowout win. Three nights later in the rematch on the road, the Celts won the fourth quarter 27-8 in a stunning come-from-behind win. In the two games, Pierce combined for a 43/11/17 line, with those 17 assists marking real leadership as he shared the basketball even with two starters out of the lineup. Garnett delivered a 26/20 effort in both games combined. Orlando, who had been playing good basketball coming in, even amidst the Dwight Howard trade talks, has come back to the pack and has Boston right on its heels in the race for playoff seeding.

The C’s flew back home to face a good Indiana team, that team president Larry Bird—a man with some credibility in Beantown—says is a group he likes as much as any he’s had there (and Bird did coach a Pacers team to the 2000 NBA Finals). Pierce had a monster game at 28/10/8, Garnett was solid in support, and the defense held Indiana to 35 percent shooting. It set up another back-to-back, with two games against the Cavs in three days. The first one in Boston was the one loss of this string, as Cleveland closed the game with twelve straight points and stole an 88-87 win. On a positive note, it marked Allen’s return to the lineup and he scored 22 points. Ultimately, the defense got a little soft, as the Cavs shot 52 percent from the floor. Back in Cleveland though, Pierce answered with another refuse-to-lose effort, scoring 20 and helping the Celts answer with a 93-90 win.

As the calendar turned to February, Boston took full advantage of a date with lowly Toronto and hung a 100-64 thrashing on the Raptors, with another strong defensive outing. Then last Friday, in a great game before an ESPN audience, the Celtics nipped the Knicks at home 91-89, thanks to a heroic effort from Pierce, who hung 30 points on a New York team playing uncharacteristically well, and looking like the club a lot of us expected to see when the season began. In the big picture, what’s really important is that Rondo returned to the lineup and handed out seven assists.

On Sunday, hours before the Super Bowl kickoff, the Celtics helped New Englanders feel as though this might be their day, with a 98-80 pummeling of a talented Memphis team that’s trying to get its own chemistry going. It was Pierce, Garnett and good team defense delivering the goods. If the sports day could have ended right there, all of Boston would have gone to bed Sunday night happy. Then yesterday, a lousy Charlotte team was beaten 94-84 with good lineup balance, as the Core Four (Rondo plus the Big Three) combined for 64 points.

So is this sustainable or are the Celtics just the flavor of the month right now? Obviously they won’t win 90 percent of their games, but they’ve shifted the conversation away from whether they can make the playoffs, to whether they can succeed in the playoffs.

The fact they’re playing better team defense is consistent with the team’s past success. The fact they did it without Rondo for almost the entire stretch and without Allen for at least half of it and had to rely on a backcourt bench that’s the team’s biggest weaknesses, suggests this wasn’t a case of everything just clicking at the right time. It’s realistic to expect Pierce to continue to lead the way, and even if Garnett goes through stretches where he needs rest or struggles, the team has Allen back to pick up the slack in scoring and Rondo to create better shots for everyone.

On the flip side, you will notice that none of the opponents in that stretch were all that remarkable. Orlando and Cleveland were the best two teams, and I’m literally starting to smirk as I type the word “Cleveland.” Sorry, I lived in Pittsburgh for nine years of my life and can’t help but laugh at the rival city to the west. Now back to our topic—this schedule’s going to get a lot tougher.

Boston hosts the LA Lakers on Thursday night. On Sunday they’ve got the Bulls. Next Thursday (Feb 16), they make a return trip to Chicago. On Monday, February 20 they’re at Dallas. Two nights later they’re in Oklahoma City. Pierce and one supporting player aren’t going to be enough to win these games. They need the Core Four hitting on all cylinders and probably one role player kicking in some quality help, be it with scoring, defense or some rebounds.

There are three levels of success for Boston right now—the first is to make the playoffs. The second is to have success, which can be defined as getting into the top six, avoiding Chicago/Miami in the first round and winning a playoff series. The third level is having a real shot at beating the Bulls & Heat, which in turn means they can win the NBA Finals again.

To keep themselves on the first level of success, Boston really needs to worry more about the games in this stretch against Toronto, Detroit (twice) and Cleveland, and just take care of business. If they can steal a win in the tough five-game stretch in addition to that, they’re still in nice position for second-level success. But if they’re really going to make a push at the leaders, they need to win at least two, and probably three of those big games, in addition to sweeping the easier four.

I’m not ready to say the Celts are ready to reach the highest level, but what they’ve done in the last ten games is sustainable enough for me to say they are again second-level—top six in the East with winning a playoff series as a realistic goal.  I know this franchise expects more, but it’s a long way from way they were on January 20.