BOSTON — The Celtics  haven’t had two days off between home games for more than a month — and won’t again until April — so the process of building a cohesive team capable of contending in the Eastern Conference continues for head coach Doc Rivers  in Waltham on Monday and Tuesday.
“If you want quality product, you have to give time for quality product to be quality. And you have to have time for that,” said Kevin Garnett , who totaled 13 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and three assists in Sunday’s win over the Bulls . “It’s not just something just because you have four guys who have been together — you’ve got a whole group of guys that’s in here, and chemistry is everything. And I’m not going to back off that. So, we have some days where we do have some practice time, and you’ll see a better, more quality product, so I’m happy for that.”
Of course, the same was said on Jan. 7  when the Celtics had a stretch of four days off between home games, and then promptly lost four straight to cap the longest losing streak of this Big Three era (5 games). Since then, though, the Celtics have won 11 of their last 15 games — including a string of nine out of 10 — capped by the 95-91 victory against the Bulls, albeit without reigning MVP Derrick Rose  in the lineup.
“That team is very experienced, and I think that they’re playing at a very high level,” said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau , who served as an assistant under Rivers during the 2007-10 glory years. “As I said before the game, even in the Lakers game I thought they played very well and could’ve won that, of course they won the nine out of 10 and I throw out the Toronto game because to me that was a scheduling game. They had back-to-back — a late start here and then the travel to Toronto — so that was a tough game for them.
“Throw that one out, they’re playing at a very high level,” added Thibs. “When you have [Paul] Pierce, Ray Allen  and Kevin and [Rajon] Rondo running the team, their bench has been playing very well, they’ve been getting a number of contributions from different people, so they’re going to be a dangerous team.”
That’s coming from a guy who has led the Bulls to an NBA-best 85-27 regular-season record since the start of last season. The Celtics are now 15-12 after a horrid 5-9 start to this season, climbing to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and only 3.5 games behind the 76ers in the Atlantic Division.
But things don’t get any easier. The C’s play once more at home, against the Pistons (8-21), before a five-game road trip that includes stops in Chicago, Dallas and Oklahoma City sandwiched around the NBA All-Star Game in late February.
And March is worse. The Celtics have already played 18 of their 33 home games, so 11 of their 17 games next month are on the road, including an eight-game road trip that will put almost 8,000 miles towards their frequent flyer program. In essence, these next two days are invaluable to Rivers, who won’t have two off days at home again until April 2-3 between a pair of tough games against the Heat and Spurs.
These next 48 hours could also benefit a group Keyon Dooling  dubbed “the walking wounded.” Celtics starters have already missed 21 games this season (Rondo 8, Jermaine O’Neal  6, Allen 4 and Pierce 3). Off the bench, key contributors Brandon Bass  (knee; out up to two weeks ), Avery Bradley  (shoulder), Chris Wilcox  (shoulder, calf), Sasha Pavlovic  (wrist), Marquis Daniels  (ankle) and Dooling (knee, hip) have all missed time.
Only Garnett has played all 27 games. Still, Sunday’s victory was another sign that, as Garnett said, “we played like the old Celtics that I know we are.” Somehow, even without all of them healthy at the same time, Rivers has developed a nine-man rotation — the starters plus Mickael Pietrus , Bass, Wilcox and Bradley off the bench — that could compete in the Eastern Conference playoffs if healthy. Not to mention the occasional contributions from rookies JaJuan Johnson  (10 points in 33 minutes agains the Bulls), E’Twaun Moore  and Greg Stiemsma .
“I think Paul’s healthy, so that’s the big thing,” said Thibodeau. “Rondo’s healthy. Kevin’s been at a high level all year. And Ray’s had a spectacular year. But I think the big thing is their bench has had time now to get acclimated to their system, get comfortable playing with each other, so I think when you have a shortened camp like everybody did and if you have new players it’s going to take time, but I think the big thing is Paul’s health.”
Pierce is averaging 18.8 points, 6.1 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals in his last 10 games, obviously a huge reason the Celtics have turned their season around. On top of that, the C’s bench is averaging 27.3 points and holding opposing reserves to 24.0 points per game. Compare that to the other four seasons during the Garnett era.
- 2007-08: Celtics bench 27.8, Opponents bench 26.1
- 2008-09: Celtics bench 26.2, Opponents bench 27.9
- 2009-10: Celtics bench 26.8, Opponents bench 26.1
- 2010-11: Celtics bench 26.1, Opponents bench 28.3
- 2011-12: Celtics bench 27.3, Opponents bench 24.0
This year’s reserves have the largest point differential in the past five years, have held opponents to fewer points than any other C’s bench in this Big Three era and have averaged more points than any other group since the 2008 NBA title team. Not only that, but Garnett believes practice time like these next two days can only improve the team’s continuity, considering he cited “miscommunication between the bench and the players who were on the floor” as one factor for the Celtics nearly coughing up a 14-point lead late in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
“They know the system,” added Garnett. “They understand what we’re trying to do here. It’s been told countless times what we do here. The opportunity is a whole ‘nother thing.”
These next two days off might make those opportunities a whole lot more effective. And who knows? If Rivers ever has his full rotation available, maybe, just maybe these Celtics could give a team like the Bulls a run for its money in the Eastern Conference playoffs, when days off between games won’t be so rare.
(Have a question, concern or conception for tomorrow’s Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach  on Twitter.)