Garnett on fire during winning streak
In hindsight, all that talk about 72 wins and being the greatest defensive team in NBA history was clearly premature. Those were only two of the many lofty goals assigned to the Celtics after winning their first six games of the 2009-10 season and Boston quickly came crashing back to the pack.
Likewise, the panic that came when the Celtics dropped three of four, culminating with an 83-78 loss to the defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic at the TD Garden on Nov. 20, was also rash. No team can navigate an 82-game campaign without encountering the peaks and valleys that dot any NBA season.
"You tend to think it is supposed to start off damn-near perfect," Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said last week. "I think we won [six in a row] at the beginning of the season, and that set the tone for what the season could be, and I think you read those potentials not knowing that we are not a flawless team and we do make mistakes and teams that are out there are good and do have good players on their team. Some nights we are going to look bad and some nights we are not going to win. I just think that this team has been a work in progress."
Right now, that "work in progress" is enjoying the view from one of the peaks in their season; the Celtics boast the best record in the league at 19-4. Winners of 10 straight and seven in a row on the road, Boston can't possibly maintain this level of play for the remainder of the season, but it should be taking notes for when its play does slip again.
This winning streak has provided clues as to what the Celtics must do to be successful. Here are 10 reasons why the Celtics have won 10 in a row (in no particular order):
1. Rajon Rondo is playing like an All-Star
The fact that Rondo was eighth among guards in the Eastern Conference in the first glance at All-Star voting (ninth if you include Allen Iverson's total moving from the Western Conference) is laughable. As important to this team as the Big 3 are, it's been Rondo in recent games who has taken over in the fourth quarter, running the entire offense through him and dictating Boston's success.
At no time was that more evident than against Washington on Thursday, when he drove for an emphatic baseline jam that helped Boston emerge with a 104-102 triumph.
Rondo is averaging 11.7 points, 9.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.6 steals per game. He barely missed a triple-double against Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks, then turned a matchup with Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls into another personal showcase. Behind those efforts, Rondo has confirmed that he's the best young point guard in the NBA.
2. Kevin Garnett got his groove back
It's easy to forget now, but it was Garnett's top-of-the-key, game-winning jumper in New York that ignited this entire streak with a 107-105 overtime triumph over the Knicks on Nov. 22.
Garnett labored through 4-of-15 shooting that day, and the aftermath featured him snapping at reporters when asked about the condition of his surgically repaired knee. Fortunately, there's no reason to ask those questions anymore, as Garnett has been absolutely on fire since that day.
Over the past eight games, Garnett is shooting a blistering 73.6 percent from the floor (64-of-87) and averaging 18.6 points per game.
"Really I'm not even paying attention to my shot," Garnett said. "I just know it feels good. I feel great; I feel a lot more explosive. Everything I'm doing in the course of the offense is nothing sparkly, it's nothing shiny, it's nothing glossy. I'm just going out trying to get chances to score, opportunities to be effective. I'm trying to take advantage of them."
3. Kendrick Perkins is even more of a beast
The leap that Perkins has made this season is astounding. In his seventh season in the league, he's showing signs of morphing from good to great, particularly on offense, where his game has elevated to match his previously tremendous defense.
Consider this: Perkins, who entered the season as a career 55 percent shooter, is now chasing the record for highest field goal percentage in Celtics history. (Stop and think for a moment about all the elite players who have worn the Celtics jersey, particularly the big men, and let it sink in that Perkins is on pace to annihilate the franchise record for field goal percentage.)
Perkins, who is currently tops in the NBA at 65.2 percent, is set to challenge Cedric Maxwell's two-decade record of 60.9 percent set during the 1979-80 season.
Perkins is shooting a ridiculous 78.1 percent (57-of-73) over this 10-game winning streak. Part of his success can be traced to great entry passes from Rondo, but Perkins is absolutely thriving in setting screens at the top of the key, then rolling to the basket for easy layups.
As we noted in the Celtics Blog recently, Perkins has morphed from a gatherer to a hunter.
4. Rasheed Wallace's 3-point shooting
The Celtics are 12-0 when Wallace makes two 3-pointers or more in a game, including 5-0 during this 10-game streak. A statistical anomaly? Hardly. Wallace fuels the Celtics' bench and when he struggles, the team as a whole struggles.
Wallace hit rock-bottom at the start of this winning trek, putting up a massive oh-fer against the Knicks (0-for-6 overall, 0-for-3 on 3-pointers, 0 points). Since then he's thrived, averaging 10.1 points per game.
What's more, he went from shooting 26.3 percent (20-of-76) from beyond the arc in November to 45 percent (9-of-20) in December. Not only is he picking better times to launch 3's, but he's also getting down on the blocks more and using his post game, which is reflected in the fact that he's been to the line much more this month (15 of 17 free throws) than in November (7-of-11).
5. Avoiding the injury bug
Don't underestimate the importance of having the same starting five each night, a luxury the Celtics have enjoyed more than a quarter of the way through the 2009-10 campaign.
The Celtics used 26 different starting lineups during the 2006-07 season (you might remember that 18-game losing streak and a 24-win season), while using just 10 different staring lineups in 2007-08 (a championship year).
Sure, Boston hasn't completely avoided the injury bug. Glen "Big Baby" Davis fractured his right thumb in a non-basketball-related incident before the start of the season, and Marquis Daniels underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb last week.
But the Celtics' depth will allow them to weather injuries to their reserves. The team was able to bring back Tony Allen slowly, and he's showing flashes of being a productive member in Daniels' absence. Brian Scalabrine has been able to take a few maintenance days for ankle and back injuries.
How will the Celtics respond to losing a starter for a prolonged period of time this season? They hope they never find out.
6. Road is where the heart is
No team more desperately needed a road trip than the Celtics. After falling to the Magic in late November, Doc Rivers described the team's play as "awful," and Boston might have been slightly distracted as panic buttons were being slammed all over the Commonwealth.
The Celtics embarked on their first prolonged road trip at the end of November, sweeping a quartet of games in Miami, Charlotte, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
For a team that prides itself on "ubuntu," the road has always brought them closer together. Home is always filled with familiar distractions, but the road is a business trip for the Green. And outside of a loss on the second night of a back-to-back in Indiana, they're perfect away from the Garden this season.
The Celtics, winners of seven straight on the road and owners of an 11-1 mark overall, are on pace to challenge the 1972-73 Los Angeles Lakers for the best road winning percentage in NBA history (81.6 percent, 31-7 overall).
7. Road is also where the easy is
After the win over the Knicks, we took a glance at the Celtics' 13 opponents leading to a Christmas rematch with Orlando and opined that a lengthy winning streak wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
The record of the 13 opponents at that time was 69-99, including a 50-63 (44.2 winning percentage) mark for the last nine opponents the Celtics have beaten during this streak. Below is an updated glance at those 13 games, with standings through Sunday.
Note that the Celtics' last nine opponents are now 85-115 (42.5 winning percentage), and only four of the teams would be playoff-bound if the season ended today -- and the Heat would be the highest seed at fifth in the East. Not exactly a daunting slate for a team that has lost to Orlando (second seed, East), Atlanta (third seed, East), and Phoenix (fourth seed, West) this season.
Nov. 25 vs. Philadelphia (5-18)
Nov. 27 vs. Toronto (11-15)
Nov. 29 at Miami (11-11)
Dec. 1 at Charlotte (9-13)
Dec. 3 at San Antonio (12-9)
Dec. 4 at Oklahoma City (12-10)
Dec. 8 Milwaukee (11-11)
Dec. 10 at Washington (7-14)
Dec. 12 at Chicago (8-14)
Dec. 14 at Memphis (10-13)
Dec. 18 vs. Philadelphia (5-18)
Dec. 20 vs. Minnesota (3-21)
Dec. 22 vs. Indiana (8-13)
Dec. 25 at Orlando (17-6)
8. Doc didn't panic
Celtics coach Doc Rivers knew his team was playing mediocre basketball when they lost three of four in November and he didn't hesitate to tell them as much.
"I just think our team's playing awful overall," Rivers said after the Magic loss. "We're making up stuff on the floor on offense and defense. We're not executing. We're not trusting each other. And we're going to win games still, but we're not going to win against good teams. It's just not going to happen. And we'll get it, but right now we don't have it."
Even when 3-pointers didn't fall, Rivers encouraged his charges to keep shooting when they had open looks. When free throws rattled out, he noted they were falling in practice.
Another coach might have made a drastic move. Rivers simply stayed the course and used the time well whenever the Celtics got a rare practice session to work on their faults.
And even with 10 straight wins, he'll kindly remind you there's plenty of work to be done. The Celtics still don't consider themselves a 48-minute team.
"Teams that beat us played well against us so we didn't panic," Ray Allen said. "I expect you guys to ask the questions, we know we've got to come out here and do our jobs and when we don't win, we can point out the small little things we need to do to get better. Even in wins we still think that way, that's where we want to get home-court advantage and continue to play well."
9. Winning in spite of themselves
Quite possibly the most impressive aspect of the 10-game winning streak has been the Celtics' ability to win even when they don't play their best basketball. Try to find a game in which they put a complete and dominating 48-minute effort together. Save for maybe Charlotte or Chicago, it was rarely there.
Taken to overtime against a lowly Knicks squad, they needed Garnett's long-range jumper to escape with a win. Philadelphia generated much of its offense on the fast break, and Boston's aging legs struggled to keep pace. The Celtics played virtually no defense against Toronto until the second half. Milwaukee dominated the offensive glass and hung around thanks solely to second-chance opportunities.
And yet the Celtics found a different way to win each night.
"The whole goal for us is to continue to play and get better," Pierce said. "We learn from wins, and we learn from losses. Throughout the course of the season, we're just trying to get better."
10. Defense and the ability to finish
So maybe we saved the biggest reason for last. And while we're not comparing them to the 1985 Bears again, the Celtics have -- at least in spurts during this 10-game winning streak -- raised their defensive intensity to a championship level.
Just look at the season stats: The Celtics are 11-1 when an opponent scores 89 points or fewer and 15-2 when the opponent doesn't reach triple figures. What's more, Boston is 12-1 when the opponent shoots less than 45 percent, and 16-2 when the opponent is under 50 percent.
Maybe the most impressive stat is this: The Celtics are 16-0 when tied or leading after the third quarter (and 15-2 when tied or leading at halftime).
It's clear the Celtics are capable of flipping a switch, and when they want to play defense, they're nearly impossible to beat.
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.