The Boston Celtics have been on a miracle run since losing Rajon Rondo to a torn ACL, winning six straight games. Such recent success has provoked fan and pundit banter about the team being "better off" without the All-Star point guard.
Clearly, such statements are ludicrous, as any team would profit from a player averaging 13.7 PPG, 11.1 APG, and 5.6 RPG.
So why are the C's striking gold? One could certainly downplay their victory over the perennially-unimpressive Toronto Raptors, who sit in the basement of the Atlantic division with a 17-32 record. And the listless Sacramento Kings (17-33) and Orlando Magic (14-35) never posed much of a threat either.
That said, Boston's hot streak started against the defending champion Miami Heat, before the squad even realized Rondo would be out for the season.
And, reeling or not, beating a Lakers squad by 20 without Rajon Rondo is an impressive feat. Their teamwork, camaraderie and collective momentum have all picked up, making them the talk of the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics may not be a better team without Rondo, but they are certainly playing better as a team since he went down. The following are the main reasons for their current six-game winning streak.
Still relatively unknown across most NBA circles, Jeff Green has started to emerge as a star, something President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge thought would happen years ago.
After an aortic aneurysm kept him out of the lockout-shortened 2012 season, Green returned in 2012-13 and had a disappointing start. But lately he has come on strong, embracing his role as a slashing small forward with inside-outside skills.
Coach Doc Rivers has utilized Green well, opening him up in the pick-and-roll game and trusting his 6'9” and 235-pound frame in isolation.
His size and quick first step make him a difficult man to guard, as noted by the many defenders recently victimized by his finger-rolls and dunks.
Kevin Garnett recently told him to start playing with some fire, and his play of late (including 19 points versus the Lakers, matching his season-high) shows that he listened.
With Green's field goal percentage on the rise as well as his confidence, look for the Celtics to make him an increasingly potent part of their half-court offense. By May, if he's regularly taking double-digit shots per game, he could become a household name after all.
No analyst or fan in their right mind would argue with the fact that Rajon Rondo is one of the best point guards in the game. His ball-handling skills, high basketball IQ, and keen instinct to find the open man make for a deadly skill set. But while Rondo is great, the Celtics of late have played even better as a team without him.
With a seemingly-renewed sense of focus, they have made good decisions with the ball, turning it over at a minimal pace. They've moved the ball around seamlessly, finding open shots and taking them without hesitation.
Their decisive offensive play of late has largely hinged on veteran floor general Jason Terry, who has come out of his shell of sorts the past couple weeks. But the starting tandem of Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley has proved to be the real spark plug.
Lee and Bradley each display explosive, up-tempo offensive abilities rivaled only by their intense on-ball defense. They swarm opponents, force turnovers, and then make good decisions in the fast break and half-court offenses.
“Defense wins games,” Bradley said recently. “Me and Courtney are going to bring it on the defensive end every single game. It's going to be hard on our opponents.”
If he and Lee continue their gritty defensive play, and gradually improve their jump shots, the Celtics could certainly continue their winning ways.
Many may roll their eyes at the thought of lauding Chris Wilcox for the Celts' recent hot streak, but he deserves at least a little praise.
Wilcox may not be a formidable low-post threat offensively and his rebounding game leaves a lot to be desired, but he's plugged holes down low nicely as of late, especially after the loss of rookie big man Jared Sullinger to season-ending back surgery.
Wilcox, a 10-year veteran, always seems to be in the right place at the right time when he gets on the floor. He spaces himself to open passing lanes when Kevin Garnett gets double-teamed. He tips the occasional offensive rebound back up and in. He throws elbows when necessary. He finishes aggressively.
Even more promising, Wilcox's defense against Dwight Howard Thursday was arguably more impressive than Garnett's.
And in his 10 minutes of first-half play, Wilcox helped Boston to a plus-9 in plus/minus points. If he tries harder to stay out of foul trouble (five fouls in 18 minutes Thursday), he could be a great role player down the line.
Lesser-known guys like Wilcox often contribute to a team's resurgence-- think Leon Powe in the Celtics' 2008 championship season and Glen Davis in 2010.
Despite some tired legs, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce remain the face of the Celtics franchise. Their resilience since Rondo's injury has proven that they will never give up the push to June.
KG has played extra minutes in crucial moments, including all but one minute of the 2nd quarter versus the Lakers, in which they held their opponents to 37 percent shooting. The 36-year-old Garnett, who will start at center for the East All-Stars, recently scored 27 points versus the Raptors, then recorded his 25,000th point against L.A.
Asked by Craig Sager if he was surprised about his team's recent heat wave, Garnett spat back, “Surprised? No surprise. Nothing's surprising when you put the work in."
Averaging 14.8 points and 7.3 rebounds a night, Garnett has done just that. He leads by example on both sides of the floor, shows flashes of his 90s game with shimmy-shake turn-around jumpers, and tussles with the best of opponents under the basket.
As for Pierce, he continues to be one of the most clutch performers in the game. He's clearly lost a step, and has little to no leg in his shot at the end of 40-minute nights, but no one can deny the captain's impact while he's on the floor.
He remains one of the best ball-handling forwards in the game, and always seems to hit the big momentum-swinging three or game-winning fall-away.
In the tight game against the Clippers Sunday, Pierce ran the clock down to 2.5 seconds and then drained a three-pointer for the win, finishing with a team-leading 22 points.
And he posted 25 points on 10 of 17 shooting versus the Lakers. Like Garnett, Pierce gets up for big games. And like Garnett, he continues to make his teammates better with leadership and smart play.
Perhaps most importantly, the Truth and KG inject energy and belief into their team. In tight games as well as gimmes, one can observe players standing on the sidelines, cheering their teammates on as they excel.
This is the kind of team mentality that helped spark the Green to an 8-0 run in 49 seconds in the third against the Lakers, making a staggering 13 out of 14 shots to finish the quarter with 37 points.
No team values the mantra “defense wins championships” more than the Celtics. Led by KG and the aforementioned backcourt duo of Lee and Bradley, this team has really pestered opponents during their 6-0 run.
In fact, the Celtics are first in the league in opposing field goal percentage and fourth in the league in opponents' points scored since Bradley's return from injury.
They badger each ball-handler, disrupting offensive sets and forcing bad shots. Bradley's ball-hawking instincts and quick feet and hands are reminiscent of former Celtic super-defender Tony Allen.
As for Lee, he showed his ability to stay in front of Kobe Bryant Thursday. He kept a hand in Black Mamba's face seemingly every time he squared up, forcing him to make some otherworldly shots (not a new sight for Celtics fans). Despite Bryant's game-high 27 points, it's refreshing to see someone in Celtic green so fearless of a superstar.
Just like their offense of late, the Celts' defensive rotation seems flawless. They communicate, slide their feet, keep their hands up, and go after every loose ball.
They still have issues around the glass, which should be a top priority for Ainge before the trade deadline if he expects Boston to continue this dominant stretch and make yet another playoff run.