Charting the Celtics’ season to date is like looking at a mountain range from afar. There were three straight losses, all without Paul Pierce, to begin the season. Then came four straight wins, all with Pierce, to briefly get the team over .500 at 4-3.
That was followed by five straight defeats, the most in the era of the Big Three — Pierce, and Ray Allen. But soon came the latest uptick, a stretch of six wins in seven games. It would have been seven straight wins had the team not blown an 11-point lead to Cleveland in the final four minutes last Sunday night.
After Wednesday night’s 100-64 dismantling of the Toronto Raptors, the Celtics again climbed above .500 at 11-10, prompting Coach to say: “It’s about time. We’ve been through a lot.”
The recent Celtics run has been triggered by the return of two previously missing components of the game plan: a healthy Pierce and a stingy defense. Those were two givens for the Celtics over the last several years. But only recently have they re-emerged.
Pierce clearly struggled after missing most of training camp and the first three games with a bruised right heel. One of the missed games was the season opener against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Even when he did return, he was very un-Pierce-like, averaging just 14.6 points and 38 percent shooting in his first 11 games. But in his last seven games, Pierce is averaging 22.9 points, shooting 49.5 percent, while also collecting 7.7 assists and 6.4 rebounds a game.
“Things are starting to come around,” Pierce said after scoring a game-high 17 points in only 26 minutes against Toronto. “We really gained some confidence over the last few weeks. Hopefully, that continues.”
Even more important has been the Celtics’ trademark defense. Early in the season, with seven new players to integrate, the Celtics ranked among the league’s worst defensive teams. They allowed 100 or more points in their first two games and 95 or more three additional times.
Things took a turn against Orlando on Jan. 23. With three starters out, the Celtics suffocated the Magic, holding Orlando to franchise lows in points (56), field goals (16) and shooting percentage (24.6). Much of the credit went to the second-year guard Avery Bradley, substituting for the injured Rajon Rondo. Bradley was instrumental in setting the defensive tempo for the night, harassing Jameer Nelson full-court.
Starting with that game and continuing through Wednesday night’s rout of the Raptors, the Celtics’ defense allowed an average of 78 points a game while holding opponents to 36.7 percent shooting. The Celtics, through Wednesday’s games, ranked No. 2 in the N.B.A. in points allowed (86.9) and No. 4 in defensive field-goal percentage (41.9). They also ranked second in defensive 3-point field-goal percentage at 29.9. Those are numbers Rivers can live with.
This recent run has come without Rondo, an All-Star and one of the team’s most valuable players. He injured his right wrist against Toronto on Jan. 18 and has not played since. The Celtics are 6-2 in the games he has missed. Rivers said Rondo might return against the Knicks.
Bradley has supplied the defense in Rondo’s absence, while Pierce has become the de facto playmaker. The bench is also starting to come around, led by Brandon Bass and Mickael Pietrus.
Knicks fans saw Bass play one of his best games in his Celtics debut on Christmas, when he scored 20 points and collected 11 rebounds in a Boston loss. They did not see Pietrus, who had been signed as a free agent the night before. Pietrus made his Celtics debut on Jan. 11 and has averaged 8.3 points while playing nearly 23 minutes a game over 12 games. Rivers loves Pietrus’s 3-point shooting, but he is even more enamored with his defense.
“Just his defensive presence on our team has been phenomenal,” Rivers said. “It’s amazing. He’s like Kevin is for our starters. He’s becoming that for our second unit. He holds everybody accountable.”
The Celtics, like every team, have had their share of injuries. Garnett is the only Celtics starter and Bass the only reserve to have appeared in all 21 games.
When these two teams met to inaugurate the season, the widespread belief at the time was that they would be the top two teams in the Atlantic Division, with the Knicks posing a real threat to end the Celtics’ four-year reign as division champions.
Almost six weeks later, both teams are well behind Philadelphia, with the Celtics trying to close the gap and the Knicks much closer to the division’s basement than the lead.