The victory was Boston's fourth in a row and moved the C's over the .500 mark for the first time since Christmas Day. It also marked the fifth time in as many games that the Celtics held the opposition under 100 points. Prior to outlasting the Suns, the Celtics had topped three Eastern Conference playoff contenders, most recently (and most notably) the rival New York Knicks.
Sans the services of Rajon Rondo, no less.
In other words, the Celtics have been playing Celtics basketball and revitalized their title hopes in the process.
Defense has always been the difference for the C's under Doc Rivers. But up until this recent surge, stopping the opposition had been anything but Boston's specialty. Prior to the turn of the calendar to 2013, the Celtics ranked 14th in defensive efficiency (102.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) and 20th in opponent effective field-goal percentage (.499).
What's worse, they couldn't force turnovers (24th in opponents' turnover percentage), couldn't prevent scores in close (25th in field-goal defense in the restricted area, 26th in the non-restricted area portions of the paint) and couldn't shut down runs from long range (26th in three-point field-goal defense). They also placed in the bottom third of the league in points in the paint allowed.
Other than that, the Celtics were, well, patently mediocre. Their offense was 21st in the NBA in efficiency, and Rondo's continued inability/unwillingness to score placed an undue pressure on mid-30s stars like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to shoulder the burden on that end of the floor.
Since the New Year, the C's have been a decidedly different squad.
They've held opponents to 93 points per 100 possessions—the second-best mark in the league in January and one that would best the Indiana Pacers' season-long and league-leading mark by more than 2.5 points. The C's have limited their foes to an effective field-goal percentage of 44.8 since the New Year (the third-best mark).
No team is forcing more turnovers per possession than Boston. Only five teams are doing a better job of protecting the rim, and only eight more are contesting better in the rest of the lane.
The three-point defense hasn't been spectacular, though the C's have moved from bottom-of-the-barrel to middle-of-the-pack in that regard. They've also managed to cut down their opponents' scores in the paint.
The offense still stinks, but...hey, at least the defense is back on track.
Why the change, though? Did the C's resolve to be their old selves or something?
Not really. They just got Avery Bradley back in the lineup. The third-year guard out of Texas returned from double shoulder surgery on January 2, settling Boston's guard rotation by sealing spots for Jason Terry and Courtney Lee on the bench.
And the C's defense has clicked ever since. According to NBA.com, Boston is allowing 4.8 points fewer per 48 minutes with Bradley on the floor. He's unburdened the C's veterans from having to guard the other team's top perimeter player, and his effort and hustle has re-energized a once lifeless and lethargic bunch.
As Paul Pierce told the Boston Herald prior to the Celtics' latest victory:
We’re defending a whole lot better. We’re putting more pressure on teams. We’re rebounding the ball a lot better. We’re moving the ball. This is the type of ball we envisioned when we came together, so hopefully we can keep it going.
Indeed, Bradley—a player who averages a mere 7.3 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists—has made a massive difference for the Celtics. His steals and shot contests on defense are as timely as his cuts to the rim on offense. His tenacity on the perimeter is paralleled only by his overall importance as a perfectly crafted cog in a machine that barely functioned through the first 31 games of the season.
To be sure, an 18-17 record hardly screams "championship contender." But the Celtics owned the same mark at the same point in 2011-12, when they nearly snuck into the NBA Finals with a roster that was paper-thin at nearly every position.
Boston is hardly the deepest squad in the league nowadays. But Terry, Lee and Leandro Barbosa have proven useful as reserve guards in the past, and Jeff Green and rookie Jared Sullinger are coming around as reinforcements for the frontcourt.
And it's not as though the Eastern Conference is exactly teeming with top-flight contenders.
Since Bradley's return, the Celtics have made quick work of the surging Indiana Pacers, submarined the sinking Atlanta Hawks and outlasted the banged-up Knicks.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat, though still the clear favorites in the East, have lost four of their last seven games as concerns about their rebounding, defense and bench scoring have returned to the fore.
All of which is to say, if the C's could use a middling record as a launchpad to near-immortality last season, they can certainly do the same this time around.
Thanks in no small part to Avery Bradley.
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