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What to make of the Celtics after 24 games

In order to resist the tidal wave of reactions in the midst of either winning streaks or stretches of tough losses players often offer hackneyed reminders that the season is a marathon not a sprint. However, what is so compelling about the shortened NBA season is that it is both a marathon and a sprint.

Incessant back-to-back games mean less time to recover from nicks and bruises, and virtually no time to practice. Teams can ill-afford to exaggerate the consequences of a hot or cold streak, mainly because as soon as players have digested one game, they find themselves in the lay-up line, 20 minutes away from their next contest.

Take the Celtics [1]. They started their season losing three games in four days, all without Paul Pierce [2], who was sidelined by a right heel injury. Pierce returned to the lineup and the Celtics reeled off four straight wins. The ship seemed to be righted, but then the veteran squad dropped five consecutive games for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

Only 22 days into the season, with a woeful record of 4-8, rumors of blowing up the team percolated. The situation was further soured when Rajon Rondo [3] suffered a wrist injury against the Raptors that would keep him out for two weeks. Little did anyone know, after the next 22 days, the Celtics would be one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 10 out of their last 12 games since the five-game losing streak.

The ascent didn’t seem probable.  After all, through 24 games, Doc Rivers [4] has had to deal with four of his starters missing a combined 19 games. Additionally, Brandon Bass [5], Mickael Pietrus [6] and Keyon Dooling [7] were all newcomers expected to contribute off the bench, but there was a brewing sense that the shortened training camp did not provide enough time for the team to gain chemistry. Moreover, the aforementioned injuries thwarted any opportunity to set consistent rotations.

But, through the roster chaos, the Celtics did not make excuses. Kevin Garnett [8] and Pierce acknowledged positive periods of play, but were ultimately accountable, saying that results were the only thing that mattered.

Now results are coming, injuries are subsiding and the Celtics appear to be clicking. Even though the team’s momentum may have changed, the same even keel attitude is evident and consistency is the goal.

“It’s that point in the season when we have to start playing some basketball,” Pierce said last Friday night after Boston’s 91-89 victory against the Knicks. “Being more consistent in everything we do. We are starting to feel like we’re getting better game-in and game out, week by week. We’re starting to get healthy.”

Taking a step back to assess the season thus far, it’s easy to praise or discredit Boston’s accomplishments. On one hand, the optimist would point to the team going 6-2 while Rondo was out of the lineup. Garnett turned back the clock, averaging 20 points and eight rebounds in the last three games, Ray Allen [9] shot a career-high (and out-of-this-world) 52 percent from 3-point territory and Pierce is back to being a superior facilitator on offense.

Yet perhaps even more encouraging for the Celtics has been the effective play of reserves like Chris Wilcox [10], Avery Bradley [11], E’Twaun Moore [12] and JaJuan Johnson [13] during the period.

“We have to keep it up all season,” stressed Wilcox after Sunday’s 98-80 victory over Memphis. “We have to be the grind group. We have to go out there play hard, grind, get all the loose balls and all the little things.”

As impressive as the team has looked of late, however, it is also necessary to acknowledge the combined record of 79-119 of their opponents during the stretch. Out of the teams the Celtics defeated, only the Magic, Pacers and Grizzlies [14] look like potential playoff teams. While it is hard to have a skeptical view of the win over Indiana, the Grizzlies [15] were missing two starters (Tony Allen [16] and Zach Randolph [17]) when they played Boston and the Magic have stumbled to a record of 5-7 since starting the season 10-3.

The natural model to look at is the 1998-99 shortened season. In the compacted 50 game season, the Knicks limped to a 27-23 record and made the playoffs as an eighth seed. New York gelled when it mattered most, however, and made an improbable run to the NBA Finals [18], proving all you need is a ticket to the dance to become prom king.

If the Celtics have shown anything so far in the season, it is that the veteran squad is capable of playing through and past a difficult stretch.

“Sometimes a little adversity is great,” said Pierce after the final game Boston’s five-game losing streak. “You get to see how a group responds.’€