Commentary

Can Celtics replicate early success?

The last time the Jazz and Celtics played, Boston was one of the NBA's hottest teams

Updated: March 22, 2010, 3:47 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

It was a simpler time.

When the Celtics met the Jazz back in November, Boston emerged with a breezy 105-86 triumph, improving to 8-1 on the young season. Rasheed Wallace openly speculated about challenging the NBA record of 72 wins, Kendrick Perkins discussed Doc Rivers' challenge of being the best defense in sports since the 1985 Bears and Kevin Garnett was talking about running through cornfields because he felt so healthy again.

Sigh. Those were the days.

Between then and now, the Celtics got a bit lost in the cornfields KG was gleefully running through. Before this recent four-game winning streak, Boston was a pedestrian 33-23 since that early-season win over the Jazz. And considering Boston won 15 of its next 19 games after topping Utah, it shows just how much this team struggled in recent months.

OK, so the regular season hasn't gone exactly to plan. But for the first time since that first Jazz meeting, there's a sort of optimism and buzz around this team that we haven't seen in the new calendar year.

A win Monday night would punch Boston's playoff pass. While that's not the sort of champagne-popping accomplishment of a sport like baseball, there's something to be said for crossing an accomplishment off the season to-do list.

What's more, a win Monday would cap a sweep of this three-game road trip that featured two of the top four teams in the Western Conference and a Rockets team that would be challenging for the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference (Houston, in the wild West, is instead on playoff life support).

A victory also would push Boston's road record to a glossy 25-12 with four road games to go. While a return trip to Milwaukee, where the Green fell earlier this month, isn't a slam dunk, there's a real possibility the Celtics could close out the season at 29-12 on the road -- almost as sterling a mark as the 31-10 record they boasted in their championship season of 2007-08.

As we noted after the Rockets win, the team with the best road record in the NBA has won the title the past two seasons.

The Celtics sit slightly behind the Cavaliers (25-11) in the race for the league's best road mark, but Cleveland visits Boston on Easter Sunday and closes the season on the road in Atlanta. There's a chance Boston could match or pull ahead of the Cavs for that best road mark in the league.

And while that accentuates the team's travails at the TD Garden this season, it's slightly tempered by the fact that Boston also has played exceptionally well there recently (strength of schedule notwithstanding). The Celtics have won five of their past six overall, including three home blowouts over the Knicks, Pistons and Pacers.

So what exactly has been going right when the Jazz and Celtics have met this season that Boston could benefit from moving forward?

Defense doesn't rest: All that '85 Bears talk stemmed from the fact that the Celtics were allowing opponents an average of 84.6 points per game over their first nine contests (and that's with the Phoenix Suns scoring 110 of the 761 total points given up, handing Boston its lone loss of the stretch).

Over this four-game winning streak, the Celtics are allowing 92.5 points per game. No small task considering Houston (11), Dallas (12) and New York (13) all rank in the top half of scoring offenses in the NBA.

But the stats tell the story. Boston is 22-2 when an opponent scores 89 points or fewer this season.

Fast starts: Going hand in hand with that last note, Boston is 11-1 when holding opponents to 19 points or fewer in the first quarter. The Celtics have done that twice in this four-game streak (allowing 24 points the other two games). Low-scoring first frames were a staple of Boston's success at the beginning of the season, and that's on the starters to open the game with good energy.

Stay healthy: Rivers is fond of noting that the Celtics were 23-5 before the wheels came off. Garnett and Paul Pierce battled the injury bug, while Ray Allen went into a pre-trade deadline funk. The next two months featured countless obituaries on the Big Three and Boston's season.

So one of the more encouraging aspects of Boston's recent play is the rebirth of their aging superstars.

While a hyperextended right knee in late December derailed his jaunt through the cornfields, Garnett sure looks like a player coming out of the woods again. Pierce has his swagger and aggressiveness back, leading the team in scoring five of the past six games, while Allen has been phenomenal since the deadline passed without his having to buy moving boxes.

What's more, Boston has been completely healthy for the past few weeks, the first time this season that's happened. Rivers has noted that individual players are falling back into the roles defined for them at season's start -- roles they thrived in during that 23-5 stretch -- and he's hopeful to see similar success with order restored.

Consistency: While strong play the past week-plus has brought plenty of green-clad supporters back to the Celtics' bandwagon, any letup in play could send them rushing back to the ledge of the Tobin Bridge. No matter how strong Boston closes out the season, some can't get past the fact that the Green are 2-9 against the brass of the Eastern Conference -- Orlando, Cleveland and Atlanta.

Back when the Celtics last beat the Jazz, they were openly regarded as championship material because they showed little that would make you think otherwise. That hasn't been the case over the first two and a half months of 2010.

But hope springs eternal. And a win in Utah on Monday night would go a long way toward making it feel like Christmas again in Boston.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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