Two statement-making victories in the span of two days have Boston Celtics fans thinking revival. However, it is Monday’s showdown with the New York Knicks that will decide whether the Celtics will be postseason bound or lottery doomed.
It is a much-improved state of affairs for a team that looked to be hooked up on life support for the past couple of weeks.
Following its Jan. 2 defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies, Boston had lost four straight games and eight of their last 10. It was a slump that only looked to worsen over the weekend with an upcoming three-game gauntlet, all against top-five Eastern Conference foes.
Much to the surprise of everyone, the Celtics tossed aside their first two opponents, rather easily at that.
Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo each finished with 18 points, leading Boston to the type of win the team had been searching for all season long. They shot well (44.9 percent), held the Pacers to a season-low in shooting (31.8 percent) and won the rebounding battle (49-47).
After trailing by as many as 19 points in the first half, Boston relied on a 33-9 third quarter advantage to pull off the comeback. Rondo recorded his 25th career triple-double—14 points, 10 assists and 11 rebounds—and Paul Pierce led the team in scoring with 26 points—17 in the third quarter alone.
The Celtics once again shot well (45.9 percent), kept the Hawks offense in check (25.1 percent shooting in second half) and out-rebounded the opposition (44-36).
It would seem the team has finally put together a successful blueprint on winning games.
It’s about time.
Things Are Looking Up
Where to start?
It’s hard to pinpoint just a few areas of improvement, as Boston has significantly gotten better on all fronts.
For starters, the team’s defense has received a tremendous boost from the return of Avery Bradley.
As you can see, the Celtics show improvement all across the board. The most notable changes are the drops to 39.7 percent shooting and 83.0 points per game allowed.
Just take a look at how the top scorers on the opposing team have fared over the last two games.
On Friday, the Pacers’ David West (16.8 PPG) and Paul George (16.4 PPG) could not find any easy buckets.
West finished with just 10 points on 4-of-18 shooting. George did not perform any better, scoring nine points on 4-of-18 shooting.
The Hawks’ Josh Smith (16.8 PPG) and Al Horford (15.8) ran into similar difficulties on Saturday.
Smith finished with 12 points on 4-of-18 shooting. Horford, who was almost nonexistent, had just six points on 2-of-8 shooting.
That’s a combined shooting of 14-of-62 (22.5 percent) from the opposing team’s top-two scorers.
If Boston can maintain that level of intensity on the defensive end, there’s no doubt that the team will win a good majority of their games the rest of the way.
The next area of improvement comes with the removal of Jason Collins from the starting lineup in favor of Brandon Bass.
With per-game averages of 1.1 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.4 blocks, Collins was just not getting it done.
Sure, Bass’ stat line of 8.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game is not much better. However, his shooting range provides the Celtics with an added threat on offense.
Take the game against Atlanta, for instance.
With 3:31 remaining, Bass connected on an 18-footer to put Boston up 83-74. On the ensuing possession on the other end, he came away with a steal and dished to Rondo for an easy layup. Bass capped things off by drilling a 16-foot jumper to seal the game with 45 seconds remaining.
Unlike with Collins, Bass provides the Celtics with an extra shooter when he’s on the floor.
Time after time, when Boston drives the ball to the hoop, Bass is usually left wide open on the wing. With Bass’ shooting proficiency from the area (54.1 percent), opponents will always risk getting burned if they decide to help out down low.
If Bass can return to his form from last season, it might be just enough to hold off the recently surging Jared Sullinger from taking his place in the lineup.
It All Leads to This
A trip to Madison Square Garden to take on the Atlantic Division leading New York Knicks (23-10) is up next Monday night for the Celtics.
The Knicks currently hold a seven-game advantage over their divisional foe. However, with two matchups in January alone, Boston has an opportunity to make up some ground.
It will also provide the ultimate test for a seemingly rejuvenated Celtics defense.
On the heels of a two-game winning streak, New York has scored 100 or more points in each of their previous four games. On the season, they are the second-highest scoring team (102.5 PPG) in the Eastern Conference.
Carmelo Anthony has led the charge, averaging 29.3 points per game. In 18 career games against Boston, Anthony has averaged 25.4 points per game.
Furthermore, the Knicks’ 38.8 percent from three-point range ranks No. 3 in the league. An incredible 33.2 percent of their points come via the long ball.
Not surprisingly, the team has three players who rank top-10 in the league from downtown—Steve Novak (43.6 percent), Jason Kidd (43.5 percent) and Anthony (43.5 percent).
That’s not good news for the Celtics, who rank No. 24 in the league in defending the three-pointer (37.1 percent).
Boston will have to hope their recent defending from beyond the arc (30.4 percent) will continue. If not, they can say goodbye to their winning streak and any possibility of winning a division title.
Luckily, the Celtics just so happen to be 26-5 against New York since 2004-05.
Then again, these are not your typical lovable-loser Knicks.
Big game Monday.
Summing It All Up
We’re looking at a potential turning point for Boston’s season right here.
Come out of New York with a victory, and the Celtics will be riding a high into a five-game home stand. One that features three games against opponents with losing records.
In fact, 13 of Boston’s 18 remaining games before the All-Star break are at home.
Who wins on Monday?
The Celtics could not pick a better time to get hot.
On the flip side, losing on Monday could leave the team with a sour taste in their mouths. It might even cause Boston to slump their way into the break.
It’s a loss that could essentially serve as the final knockout punch for a Celtics squad that has struggled to string together positive results all season long.
Will Monday night prove to be their breakthrough or their breaking point?
Only one way to find out.
All stats used in this article are accurate as of January 6, 2012
Also check out: Should the Celtics Consider Trading Rajon Rondo?
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