Pierce put on a show for the Madison Square Garden audience.
Friday’s win was all about domination, and a smothering defense. Saturday’s win displayed heart, rallying from a large deficit. Monday’s win featured overcoming a loss, only to persevere through it.
One can only imagine what comes next on the Boston Celtics’ “50 Ways to Win a Game” tour.
After impressive back-to-back victories over the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks, the Celtics were faced with a much tougher challenge Monday night—going up against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
It was a task that only grew in difficulty when the NBA announced that it would suspend Rajon Rondo for the game for bumping into an official on Saturday.
With their backs now up against the wall, nobody would have blamed the team if they chose to fold.
Instead, Boston put together arguably its best performance of the season, beating the Knicks 102-96.
The team shot 52.7 percent from the field, collected 26 assists and only committed 10 turnovers. Paul Pierce led the team with 23 points and six assists, while Kevin Garnett chipped in with 19 points, 10 rebounds and three steals.
I think it is safe to say that the Celtics have finally regained their swagger.
And they could not have picked a better stretch to do so.
No One Man Should Have All That Power
Avery Bradley has had a monumental impact on Boston’s defense.
After allowing opponents to score 100 points or more in eight of 10 games, the Celtics have held the opposition under the century mark in all four games since Bradley’s return.
The results have been even more resounding during their winning streak.
During the last three games, Boston has held opponents to 84.1 points per game on 37.5 percent shooting from the field. Furthermore, the team has forced an average of 16.3 turnovers per game.
But the most significant impact has been the Celtics’ ability to shut down the opposing team’s top scorer.
After holding the top threats from both the Pacers and the Hawks to a combined shooting of 14-of-62 (22.5 percent) over the last two games, Boston continued that dominance against New York’s Carmelo Anthony.
Although he finished with 20 points—well below his 29.3 points per game average—Anthony shot 6-of-26 (23.1 percent) from the field to get there.
In fact, the closer he got to the rim, the worse off he fared.
Anthony shot 1-of-9 from within 15 feet on Monday. Coming into the game, he had averaged 16.1 points per game, while shooting 51.0 percent from that range. He also failed to make a bucket from inside five feet for the first time this season.
The Celtics will take that any night.
While the recent defensive resurgence has been an all-around team effort, you can’t help but think that Bradley’s aggressive play has certainly proven to be the catalyst.
A Deadly Alliance
While it’s easy to highlight Bradley’s return as the turning point to the season, many seem to forget that Boston’s winning streak was preceded by yet another significant lineup change.
It was the change that saw head coach Doc Rivers replace the struggling Jason Collins with Brandon Bass in the starting lineup.
Bass’ numbers may never be enough to quiet the critics—8.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG and 0.7 BPG—but his impact goes well beyond that.
Just look at his contributions last season when he was on the floor:
Bass ranked fourth on the squad in team net points per 48 minutes of playing time, while leading the Celtics in win percentage in games he played in.
However, this season has not been as productive for the 27-year-old.
Bass currently ranks last on the team in net points per 48 minutes, while placing near the bottom in win percentage.
Interestingly enough, Bass’ early season struggles could be connected with the absence of Avery Bradley.
The MetroWest Daily News’ Scott Souza had this fact to share:
Over past two regular seasons, the #Celtics are 18-5 w/ both Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass starting - 37-39 in games w/o both starting.
— Scott Souza (@scott_souza) January 6, 2013
The numbers don’t lie.
Boston’s lineup with both players on the floor was easily their best five-man unit last season.
As you can see, the unit of Rondo-Bradley-Pierce-Bass-Garnett was 11-3 with a whopping plus-minus of 82—more than 40 points higher than that of the second-best unit.
It seems Rivers has taken note of this.
During the last three games, this same five-man unit has closed out the game every time.
Can you argue with the results?
Sharing is Caring
I touched on the possibility of Rivers moving to a system where Pierce and Jeff Green played similar amount of minutes.
On Monday, Rivers resorted to such a game plan. Albeit having his hand forced by Pierce’s early foul troubles.
Regardless, it showed that a change in strategy could actually prove effective.
Pierce had 23 points on 10-of-18 shooting, while leading the team with six assists in just 28 minutes. On the other hand, Green finished with 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting, while adding six rebounds in 27 minutes.
Both players actually exceeded their per-game averages in each category during the game.
Green showed the most noticeable improvement.
After struggling to find a rhythm during his inconsistent usage this year, Green finally seemed to display the confidence and determination he was known for in prior seasons. Time and time again, Green attacked the rim without hesitation. It resulted in three trips to the line for him.
It seems the added minutes are the solution to his ailments.
Green has clocked 27 minutes or more in 10 games this season. In those games, Green has averaged 14.1 points per game on 44.1 percent shooting. That’s a solid increase on his season per-game average of 9.6 points on 41.6 percent shooting.
While it’s easy to see limiting Pierce’s minutes as somewhat of an insult, it might actually be beneficial to both him and the Celtics.
Pierce looked fresh in the closing minutes against the Knicks on Monday. It played a large role in helping him put the finishing touches on the game with ease.
So why not make the change?
Boston does not lose any production with Green on the floor instead of Pierce and they get to rest their captain a little more in preparation for another deep postseason run.
It is a win-win.
Summing It All Up
The Celtics open up a five-game home stand on Wednesday against the Phoenix Suns.
Out of that stretch, three of those games are against opponents with a combined record of 30-62.
It’s a thought that would have been dismissed as laughable just a week ago, when the Celtics dropped to 14-17.
Sometimes, it’s about getting hot at the opportune moment. That’s exactly what Boston is doing right now.
If they can keep it up, it won’t be long before they complete their evolution from fighting for a playoff spot to fighting for home-court advantage.
Wouldn't that be something?
All stats used in this article are accurate as of January 8, 2013
For complete coverage and everything Celtics, follow Sebastian on Twitter at @SP7988